Yoichi Ochiai is increasingly in the news, both as a media artist and as a scientist. To present a compilation of his work from the last few years, he is holding an exhibition at EYE OF GYRE from April 20 to June 28, 2018. The exhibition presents a total of 15 works produced by Ochiai’s Pixie Dust Technologies, including Morpho Scenery in GYRE, which is exhibited in the Atrium, and several other new works. Today, things that blend into the natural ambience and are redolent of Japan’s traditional taste and charm may actually be driven by state-of-the-art technology, producing a pleasant disconnect. When the Digital Nature envisioned by Ochiai is realized, all sorts of new potential may emerge in our world. In this interview, he gives some clues to how fascinating that may be. To learn more, don’t miss the exhibition.
In addition to the Digital Nature concept that underlies much of his work, Yoichi Ochiai was given two further themes to incorporate into his exhibition: Beauty of Natural Resolution, and End to End Transformation of Material Things. Based on this combination, Ochiai described the exhibition as “an attempt to update our ideas on the extent to which we sense something as being natural in our industrialized times.” Through this interview, he gives a detailed overview of the exhibition in his own words.
The relationship between images and materials begins at the Entrance
At the entrance to the venue is Marumado, a round window divided in a grid pattern, with each of the individual panes displaying rapidly-changing images, much like classical video art works using stacks of TV tubes. Transformed by the lenses that make up these panes, the scene beyond the window looks just like constructed images.
“I decided right from the start that Marumado was going to be one of the exhibits. Simply using a round steel-framed window would not have the Pixie Dust magic, so I decided to split up refracting Fresnel lenses like the one used in Morpho Scenery and combine the pieces into a window. It’s heavily channeling Nam Jun Paik, of course. But it makes you re-think the relationship between images and materials. It looks as though TV tubes have been set into the frame, and that changes the tea house scene into something of an entirely different nature.”
Also at the entrance is a wisteria plant that communicates a powerful life force, the work of ikebana artist Yuki Tsuji. This is a collaborative work, cleverly combined with works by Ochiai that at first glance appear totally inorganic. The idea for the collaboration came about as a result of Tsuji contacting Ochiai. Tsuji’s career is unique. , He is a trained architect in addition to being a creative practitioner of ikebana.
“For the collaboration with Tsuji, we worked on the theme of Media Art Overcoming Modernity. I made the offer because I thought that with that theme, our ideas would be a great fit.”
Colloidal Display, which uses bubble liquid films as its screen, is one of Ochiai’s best known works. Incidentally, the works in this exhibition are fundamentally all availvable for purchase, much like art or photographs displayed in a commercial gallery. According to Ochiai, he “made a point of selecting works that individuals might like to display in their own homes, just as a vase or scroll would be displayed in the tokonoma alcove of a Japanese room.”
As you can see, the various exhibits are packed closely together, beginning even before you enter the venue. One of the, however, gives the impression of being different from the others: Old Frog as Wavefront, which has a frog as the object in pride of place. The frog is placed as if to meet incoming visitors. Underneath it, powerful magnetic fields are constantly rotating, acting on a jet-black magnetic fluid to produce waves with sharp peaks that envelop the frog.
“Most of the exhibits here move mechanically, but I wanted the frog to be an exception, pushed around by a fluid. If you’ve been to a traditional Japanese soba restaurant, you may have seen a ceramic tanuki standing at the entrance. This work is designed so that it can be put on permanent display like that in an everyday location.
Transfixed by the beauty of mackerel
When you actually enter the venue, you discover many new works waiting inside. But the one that grabs your attention first is Sketch of Wave Forms, Reflections, Sea and Sky, which has patterns from a mackerel’s body printed on silver foil. The subtle grace and beauty is mysterious in a way that you would not expect from a fish that you see in an everyday context.
“After Morpho Scenery, I was wondering what other scenery I could create, and had the idea of the mackerel. The patterns on a mackerel are the scenery of the sky and the sea, imprinted on the fish through a genetic process over millions and millions of years. Patterns that mimic the waves, and flashes of light that mimic the sunlight served to protect the mackerel from being preyed upon, and over time, the patterns came to depict the surrounding scenery. This naturally-developed patina that emerged from the mackerel’s genetic processes operating over and over again may not be as perfect a copy of the scenery as that produced by a chameleon, but it has a simple beauty. That patina and simple beauty are great examples of the sabi and wabi concepts of Japanese aesthetics. Stripes forming during the process of generation of a living being leave sufficient leeway for those patterns to develop, in much the same way as a beautiful pattern may spontaneously form on pottery, to be discovered when it comes out of the kiln. To produce this work, I had a craftsperson stick the silver foil in place, and then I did a very high resolution print of a very high resolution photo of a mackerel on the silver surface. The printing process turns the digital data into something physical, and because the resolution is so high, I expect it to continue to gain in attractiveness as it slowly deteriorates over the years.”
If you look at Sketch of Wave Forms, Reflections, Sea and Sky from a low angle, the greens and blues mix together, revealing the colors of the sea and the sky. Changing your point of view like that brings the mackerel’s natural sophistication into sight.
New works to catch
The first room inside the entrance is packed with new works that need to be seen now! Sound Forms, Transmission, Visual Reconstruction converts the ultrasonic calls of dolphins into visible ripples so that viewers can see them. The dolphin calls are played through vibration speakers in sync with the ripples, which are displayed on water that functions as a screen. Lasers are used to make the ripples visible to human viewers. The experience of seeing and hearing a dolphin’s call at the same time is fascinating.
“Both the sounds that dolphins use for echo-locating and the sounds that they use for communication are converted to ripples that you can see. Visualizing the phenomenon of sound transmission as the relationship between a container and the water illuminated inside it, and giving that visualization a place in your daily life, is an experience I’d like to share. The sounds are great, too.”
Alongside those comes Digital Nature, Live and Dead, Dynamic and Static, which is really the highlight of the exhibition. This is another collaboration with ikebana artist Yuki Tsuji. It contrasts ikebana produced from specimens of morpho butterflies, said to be the most beautiful butterflies in the world, with ikebana produced by digital reproduction.
“I asked Tsuji to create a living-dead morpho butterfly, and what he produced was this ikebana created from dead materials. The sunflower and aloe are both dead. I added a dead morpho butterfly as a finishing touch. The result is a combination of things that are dead.”
In turn, Ochiai used technology to produce a model of a morpho butterfly, with an electric mechanism to flap the wings. In contrast with Tsuji’s version that used all natural materials, Ochiai used industrial components products to create a moving ikebana.
“When something dies, its proteins no longer bend, so a dead butterfly can’t be made to move. Instead, I used printing to reproduce the special structure of the scales on the morpho butterfly wings. But however finely you reproduce the film of the wings, if they don’t move, they still look like crude fakes. But when they begin to move, they are surprisingly beautiful. The disparity between resolutions can be seen at any time. This moving morpho butterfly is the only one in the world that comes this close to reality.”
What is fascinating about this exhibit is that technology has enabled the creation of something that transcends life and death. Another exhibit in the same room, Abyss Mix, Inside and Outside, Person Shifting Process, is a work giving the opportunity to experience how different animals see: crocodiles, frogs, mackerel, owls, humans, etc. Peep in through the holes in the boxes, and you can see an urban community, the scenery of natural processes resulting from industrialization, through different eyes, such as the crocodile’s thermograph-like reptilian viewpoint. The relationship between seeing and being seen is expressed here by being projected into the viewer’s own eyes through the experience of looking through the eyes of a variety of animals.
Room blurring the distinction between materials and images
While still overwhelmed by all these new works, viewers are drawn into the second room. In the darkness, material objects and images are mixed together in a presentation of two of the works that symbolize Yoichi Ochiai’s reputation as a “modern-day wizard.” The first is Levitrope, a very popular work first presented in 2016. Each exhibit has six mirrored spheres levitated above a base and slowly circling.
“I’ve always said that this Levitrope is a camera. That is particularly clear in this exhibition. The spheres capture the whole scenery around them, removing the significance from the scenery. In other words, they cut out the scenery materially. It’s very rare to have the opportunity to see that at such close quarters.”
The other work is Silver Floats, which has a number of objects, each modeled on waveforms of different frequencies, levitated and rotating. Their mirrored surfaces capture the scenery, but it is more abstract, with a lot of noise. The design is an attempt to have each of the individual objects capture the background and convert it for use as shakei, or borrowed scenery. With that approach, binocular parallax is lost from the captured view of the exhibition, which then appears as if it were in the distance, seemingly converted to two dimensions instead of three. The work is consequently one where the objects assimilate with the images of the background, so that materiality is lost from the objects.
These two works share the characteristic that you never tire of gazing at them. They are each cloaked in beauty that is the product of technology.
Omotesando as borrowed scenery
Another important theme for this exhibition is the industrial society vernacular. To people living in advanced technological societies, “nature” is no longer the same as it was when humans first emerged back in prehistory. The room at the back gives a sense of this concept. Unlike the other rooms, it is flooded with natural light. Morpho Scenery, a work that uses a special lens to split off part of the scenery, is installed here. The street scene outside undulates, as if it were an image. Moreover, scenery that we generally view as if it were 2-dimensional can actually only be seen because there are light waves that reach us.
“Many pure and simple, beautiful works have been created using lenses. Even so, I believe that none has been such a simple work as this one, while at the same time dynamically conveying the point that the scenery we see is composed of waves. All that is added to the lens is a frame, waves, and borrowed scenery. And the scenery that can be seen from here is very clearly borrowed.”
Ochiai’s recommended spot for viewing this work is the end of the bench on the wall side. Viewing the fresh green leaves of Omotesando through the work seems to be a very healing experience.
One distinctive feature of this whole exhibition is that there are very few black-box mechanisms, mechanisms that are kept out of sight, which are often used in media art. Asked about the reason, Ochiai replied simply, “I don’t want to hide anything.”
“I prefer everything to be uncovered. In my works, I even dismantle circuit boards and projectors.”
This approach of bringing industrial products out into the open extends to small details. Even the venue benches and floors were made to special order for this exhibition. The flooring re-cycles old wood to give a soft surface with a slightly odd feel underfoot.
“In an industrialized society, this recycled floor is like a tatami mat, a brushwood fence, or a lawn. I hope visitors notice the difference from the totally-industrialized contemporary vernacular.”
When you leave the venue, you will see insects depicted in high resolution filling the Atrium. They constitute one more work, Morpho Scenery in GYRE. You should notice that the exhibition has left you seeing the world at higher resolution. That is one of the characteristics of this exhibition; it raises viewers to a higher dimension.
Born in 1987. Media artist. PhD (Applied Computer Science, University of Tokyo, Interdisciplinary Information Studies). Since 2017, holds positions as Associate Professor, University of Tsukuba; Advisor to President, University of Tsukuba; and Director of the Strategic Platform for Digital Nature, where he is conducting in-depth research into the potential for realization of his Digital Nature concept, utilizing technologies such as wave engineering and digital fabrication. CEO of Pixie Dust Technologies Inc. Publications include "The century of Enchantment" (Planets), “Kore kara no sekai o tsukuru nakamatachi e” (Messages for my friends. Shogakukan) and “Nippon Saiko Senryaku” (Japan Revitalization Strategy. NewsPicks)