the environmental sculptor

4. Kuetani’s environmental works

Kuetani arrived in Rome in 1969 and has now been living for thirty years partly in Carrara, where he works, and partly in Japan, where he installs his environmental sculptures. He began exhibiting his work in the second half of the 1960s in Hiroshima, his hometown, and held an exhibition in Rome at the Galleria Schneider in 1975. The impersonal works of wood or marble produced at the time displayed an orientation towards the articulation and movement of organic forms. The sculptures of 1972 and 1973 show the influence of Arp’s organic plastic modulation and Moore’s insertion of significant voids into the context of plastic volume. These works are repeatedly entitled Family and often consist of the dialectical conjunction of two markedly organic formal elements around a central void (symbolically indicating the family as the origin of life and the creation of new beings). They are thus already characterized by dialog between elements, which are still, however, distinct and juxtaposed only in their unified configuration. The most recent works exhibited on that occasion (those produced in 1975) are instead more compact and include two sufficiently distinct components: a markedly organic element in a setting whose exclusively structural character is more openly stated.

The organic element of Kuetani’s sculptural imagination unquestionably stems from those experiences in the early 1970s. At that time, however, it encompassed the whole of the plastic image rising and weaving in space on the basis of a presupposed reference to the human image, transcended though this was in the process of formal analogical elaboration. Two features can be discerned within this organic approach. The first regards a dialectical sense of the spatial relationship both between solid and void and in the impinging of light on surfaces, in their fleshiness. The second regards very close attention to the quality of the relationship with the material used for the sculpture, whether wood or marble, perceived in terms of a sensuous capacity for contact and the evocation of an almost tender tactility. Kuetani has in any case always insisted on the highest standards of quality in manual work, understood not in the virtuosic sense (which is the limitation of many sculptors whose working of marble is characterized by preciousness) but in the expressive sense.

The sculptures of 1975 show a more complex approach marking a break with previous models. With the abandonment of organic unity, Kuetani’s works in marble, wood and occasionally bronze begin to display the juxtaposition of an organic element that is more condensed in its exuberance, and a more structural setting within which that element is elucidated and defined as an episode. Halfway through the 1970s we thus arrive at sculptures that are already sufficiently personal in the original density of their plastic strength and herald the bipolarity of imaginative components that was to become so evident in Kuetani’s work as a sculptor on a monumental scale in the 1980s.

Kuetani began work as an environmental sculptor in 1978 with an isolated bronze sculpture, again entitled Family, for the primary school at Fuchu. In 1981 he used local peperino stone to create a complex monumental structure, once again entitled Family, for the Villa Desideri at Marino. This powerful and complex interplay of solids and voids develops the juxtaposition of structural elements and organically allusive elements heralded by the 1975 works. It was, however, only with the complex sculptural ensemble of Carrara marble and granite installed by Kuetani in front of the Fuchu Cultural Institute in 1982 that his important creative adventure as an environmental sculptor really began. Three meters in height and seventeen in length, this work constitutes a wholly accessible spatial dissemination of plastic elements that are highly differentiated in terms of the quality and treatment of the material employed, including a range of extremely diversified organic forms alongside rough-hewn elements. It constitutes a marked advance in imaginative quality and a new proposal in the perspective of environmental sculpture.

It is in fact already a masterpiece, an ensemble where a condition of dialog is created both between the various (and highly diversified) plastic elements involved and with respect to a wholly open form of use. It constitutes an accessible space situated in a busy urban area where every plastic element is conceived in terms of both tangibility and practicability as a place of meeting, relaxation and rest. The sculpture thus becomes an affable, domestic, neighborly presence both in its susceptibility of formal appreciation and in its material tangibility. The plastic spatial invention of a disseminated whole (rather than a structurally articulated but single unit, as in the two previous works) gives wholly pertinent formal shape to a work once again addressing the theme of the family, which provides its title. In Kuetani’s own words: “In the middle of the complex there are two load-bearing elements that support a third (but are at the same time united by it): parents and offspring, the past and the future joined in a relationship that is absolutely necessary both within the meaning of the whole and in its architectonic construction. Around this the four seasons follow the passage of time and the participation of the ‘family’ in life and society.”(7)

The work is an ensemble of monumental plastic objects distributed over an organized space, marble and granite objects of powerful plastic and material exuberance densely packed with symbolic references. The sculptor’s plastic maturity in terms of environmental relations is fully expressed in these objects, his innate power both to dominate and to listen to the material as well his choice of insertion and spatial structure. The result is a plastic situation that is traversable and usable in a close everyday relationship, and even enjoyable in plastic terms as tactile material contact.

Since then the highest goal of Kuetani’s plastic imagination has definitely been to operate in the field of environmental sculpture. His works on this scale became frequent back in the early 1980s. In 1982 he installed a powerful, vertically oriented work in granite significantly entitled Dialogue in front of the senior high school at Fuchu. Unlike Family this is not disseminated but composed of two plastic structural elements – one tall (5 meters in height) and the other more compact and massive – that are linked and engaged in dialog through their morphological diversity, as though corresponding again to two primary vital principles, in a state of propulsive dynamic conjunction. The plastic morphology of the two elements proves highly complex in the constant organic alternation of the form between predominantly organic and structural configurations. The material is also subjected to highly varied treatment – abrasion, hammering, polishing and raw surfaces – in accordance with an energetic juxtaposition of plastic characterization.

Another vertically oriented work is Communication, installed at the Mihara Cultural Center in 1984. While the white Carrara marble used here is mainly bushhammered in line with a primarily material-oriented approach, the major binary structure (over 7 meters in height) stands in the middle of a polygonal space delimited by a variety of minor sculptural items including rough-hewn block-shaped structures and formal modulations of an organic character. The two elements of the central structure are geometric but their internal links are clearly organic. Experience, a vertical structure (5 meters in height) erected by Kuetani in 1983 at the ANA Hotel in Hiroshima, displays a morphologically analogous binary juxtaposition of constituent elements. In On the way, a granite stele (4 meters in height) installed at the Kozan Social Center in 1985, the two elements appear to be almost joined together through organic fusion.

Kuetani’s environmental work in this period appears to follow a twofold path. On the one hand we have a scattering of highly differentiated plastic elements used to create a plastic ensemble that is complex in its rich and predominantly horizontal spatial arrangement and a story-like multiple plastic event characterized by a taut, significant and extremely varied density of symbolic evocations partaking equally of memory and sensitivity. (Examples include the works installed in front of the Fuchu Cultural Institute in 1982, in front of the Kozan Town Hall in 1984, and in the Fukuyama Public Gardens two years later). On the other, we have the strong, vertical, spatial insertion of a primary structure forming a single whole but internally structured through the dialectic of binary components (as in the works installed in front of Fuchu Higashi Senior High School in 1982, in Hiroshima in 1983, at Mihara in 1984 and at Kozan in 1985).

Water Duet provides the major example of an ensemble created by means of a highly structured dissemination of morphologically differentiated plastic elements. This work in red and gray granite has a depth of 6 meters, a maximum height of 4 meters and an extension of 30 meters, and was installed in 1984 in front of the Kozan Town Hall. The ensemble is thus substantially horizontal, but also includes two columns, whose cleanly cut shafts and polished surfaces are as though contaminated by an invasion of organic plasticity and materiality, and a rough-hewn pillar. Less inventively compact and poorer in plastic terms than the Family ensemble installed at Fuchu two years earlier, the work is nevertheless highly indicative of Kuetani’s environmental sculpture in this period and exemplifies his aim to create plastic ensembles every element of which is practicable and usable in everyday life.

Drop of Sunlight, another unquestionable masterpiece of environmental sculpture created by Kuetani for the Fukuyama Public Gardens in 1986 using Carrara marble and granite, is markedly more compact and highly successful in terms of spatial synthesis. This extensive ensemble spreads out over an area of 35 x 27 meters but achieves synthetic resolution in two soaring plastic elements (8 meters in height), one conical and the other shaped like a stele, which emerge from a field of huge, rough-hewn marble slabs heaped together in no particular order. The environmental situation is one of disconnected marble slabs constituting a shapeless, chaotic floor disrupted by the telluric upheaval of the two elements. These rise in increasingly accentuated upward progression, almost as though symbolically defined in their composite organicity as male archetype and female archetype, joined at the base by a sort of corridor of organic presences teeming up from the ground.

The thematic intention of this fascinating plastic ensemble has been clearly expressed by Kuetani himself: “A drop of sunlight and man’s hand bring forth from the magma forms that had slumbered for centuries in the mass of marble and now come to light to participate in life together with the people who enter into physical contact with this sculpture by walking through it and sitting or climbing on it.”(8) The predominantly organic structure of the two major elements and the relationship with the tactile and light-refractive qualities of their bushhammered surfaces endow the ensemble as a whole with both telluric and sensatory evocativeness and characterize it most effectively as an alluring invention of plastic synthesis. They induce a psychological condition of utilization in terms of reference to remote vital principles of nature, reflected as though in boundless time, at the very moment when the structure also offers itself up to natural confrontation through sunlight and the white glare of the marble.

With its two juxtaposed elements (one 12 meters in height, the other 7.5) of pitch-black African granite soaring from a lawn next to the Fukuyama Museum of Contemporary Art and surrounded by other smaller elements lying on the grass, the plastic impact of Respect is almost violent by comparison. Kuetani gives the following description: “Two powerful structures face one another in hieratic poses expressing a clearly eastern form of respect in which importance attaches even to the distance between them. It can neither be less, as this would create disturbance, nor more, as the relationship would no longer exist. Exchange between the two elements (a characteristic feature of my sculptures) takes place through the mirror-polished surfaces, which make it possible for each to appropriate the other as well as the world surrounding them.”(9) The almost threatening reference to the tectonic power of nature is evident in the two huge pointed splinters of black African granite standing in sharp chromatic contrast to the white marble of the museum building almost like two minatory fragments of nature surrounded by other smaller pieces lying on the ground. The surfaces of the two monumental erect elements also offer a contrasting interplay of absolute mirror-polished areas reflecting the sky, the nearby vegetation and the town itself, and others that are instead left in their rough-hewn, rocky natural state. This power in terms of plasticity and primal materiality evidently corresponds, however, to a subtle calibration of relations that performs a wholly psychological role in creating a condition of dialogical equilibrium as though between two vital principles of nature, understood in its universal totality, in time.

Installed next to the Shin-Onomichi railway station in 1989, Spring also rises from a marble platform where scattered fragments suggest a sort of telluric upheaval in similar fashion to the work erected at Fukuyama three years earlier. In this case, however, the structure of white Carrara marble is unified in an overall pyramid-like profile by the organic junction of two structural elements. Remote iconic origins also appear in the theme of the 1987 work Family (exhibited at Ferrara the following year), but the elements, though joined, are still rather distinct. Here instead they are bound together, and it is precisely from their union that the organic spring gushes forth. On the outside, in accordance with a largely structural profiling, the broad outstretched surfaces are bushhammered, whereas the organic tangle on the inside is smooth and shows the veins of the marble.

As stated by Kuetani, the thematic intention is again very explicit: “Converging waves which, without breaking, combine their thrust to create a single upward movement. This work rises from the ground (or rather from the sea of Onomichi) to symbolize the power of cooperation between men, and has particular significance for the town that hosts it, which succeeded after many years of effort in creating an important structure (the railway station for the skinkansen high-speed train). This achievement is underscored by the presence of the sculpture, which was inaugurated by the town with unprecedented celebrations.”(10) As is always the case with Kuetani’s sculpture, and more explicitly still in his environmental work, the plastic invention and the formal and material significance of the sculpture correspond to a precise intention in terms of symbolic communication, which is therefore not applied a posteriori but proves wholly intrinsic to the plastic invention itself and indeed motivates it.

The emergence of the plastic structure from the ground is a recurrent theme in Kuetani’s environmental work. It reappears in the Spring ensemble installed in Plaza Cataran, Barcelona, in 1989 after the Symposium at Prat de Llobregat, where fragments of marble emerge from a shattered pavement together with a monolithic stele, partly eroded and partly smooth, 11 meters in height. Kuetani: “It is born out of the earth and rises taut, traversed by a deep and serene vibration, almost like a tree that draws its energy from the earth and heads straight for the sun. Other elements emerge around it, driven by the same tension.”(11) Above all, it also reappears in another glowing masterpiece of environmental sculpture by Kuetani entitled Spring and installed in front of the Ophthalmic Hospital Fujiwara in Hiroshima in 1990. A vast platform of disconnected slabs of Carrara marble measuring 23 meters by 18 (unquestionably a forerunner of the marble pavements that form the environmental context of the Hill of Hope) is broken by two juxtaposed elements (6 meters in height) suggesting a sort of monumental arch. In the plastic starkness of their organic and almost bony structure, they rise like two enormous symmetrical fragments of some prehistoric animal endowed with streamlined power by precise spatial molding. Here too the highly original plastic invention corresponds to a precise symbolic reference as clearly stated again by Kuetani: “Inspired by its function as a gateway to the Ophthalmic Hospital, this work is composed of two symmetrical elements, just as the human body is symmetrical, whose meeting point forms the image of an eye. Though tied to its specific location, this work again addresses the themes of communication, dialog and cooperation, which help men to see better, to look towards the future.”(12)

This is perhaps the most essential of the environmental sculptures created by Kuetani. In the relationship between a vast environmental spatiality defined by the platform of disconnected marble slabs and the greater essentiality of the plastic elements that rise from it, it constitutes an innovation with respect to the greater plasticity of the devices adopted in the ensembles created in the 1980s. In this sense it certainly anticipates the very open spatiality of the Hill of Hope, the great enterprise that has taken shape in all its complexity and constituted Kuetani’s greatest concern, absorbing most of his energies, throughout the 1990s. The work in Hiroshima also shows, however, that he is bringing new plastic ideas into focus. The essential character of the arrangement of organic forms opens up the path in fact to works with a greater emphasis on structural concerns. In overall terms, the monumental sculptures produced by Kuetani during 1990s are less structured and more architectonic in nature. This leads to an ever-greater degree of plastic connection between the major structural elements and the plastic field in which they rise until the point is reached where the two components are more closely linked in a new plastic-architectonic unit. This comes about in the 1990 work Spring, conceived by Kuetani as a huge organic gateway. This is another aspect of this development that introduces plastic-architectonic devices adopted in the Hill of Hope.

Water Castle, built of granite in 1992 in the Fukuyama Public Gardens, is another plastic-architectonic work directly incorporating the natural element of water to form a waterfall, a brilliantly imaginative device measuring 12 meters in height and 7 in width that develops a dynamic relationship between water and stone. In the work entitled Spring, installed in the Chiba Public Gardens in 1993, a bushhammered vertical structure of Carrara marble (8 meters in height) forming a sort of stele opened by a door and complete with a massive handle dominates a vast plastic base (23 meters by 18) with some rough-hewn blocks lying on the shattered paving. Here too the relationship between large-scale sculpture and the context of the plastic field anticipates the atmosphere of the Hill of Hope. Greater emphasis on the architectonic aspect of the plastic structure is clearly evident in Together, a work consisting of two steles pierced at the top by an aperture, which Kuetani erected on either side of the entrance to the Iki Iki Palace in the Chiyodaku district of Tokyo in 1995. Like two threatening, monumental guards, they evoke a primal sense of nature in contrast to the sophisticated postmodern architecture. These massive steles (8 meters in height) of bushhammered Carrara marble endowed with dynamic profiles and a marked degree of materiality are separated from one another but ideally linked by their role as guards or sentries. The atmosphere of the Hill of Hope is also evident in the ensemble entitled Castel dell’Ovo, built of Carrara marble in the Public Gardens of Kagoshima in 1997. Linked to the surrounding landscape and once again with a hint of organic morphology, an open stele (8 meters in height) rises from a highly structured plastic base (17 meters by 12) consisting of different levels of paving and a mixture of rough-hewn and molded elements offering access and resting places. A Flower Between Earth and Sky, the large sculpture (6 meters in height) of white Carrara marble produced by Kuetani in 1998 for Carrara’s 9th International Biennial of Sculpture (IX Biennale internazionale di scultura Citta` di Carrara. Scultura Architettura Citta`) again features the organic development of an open structure rising from an animated plastic base.

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