“It’s about x times y equals one,” says Aki Sakamoto as she readjusts her squat and smiles up at her audience. “And mother.” She is posed as a performance artist in the middle of her own installation work “Secrets of My Mother’s Child.” Brought to Cambridge by the Office for the Arts at Harvard last Thursday, Sakamoto—a Japanese artist based in New York City recently featured in the Whitney Biennial—fused performance and visual art into a novel medium of storytelling.
Harvard’s newest art space, Arts @ 29 Garden St., is white-walled and sparse. Hanging from the walls are three intersecting orange strings, each weighted by black wooden beads and joined at the center by a short-legged black stool. Beneath the stool are grapefruit peels. Pieces of brown butcher paper are taped to the wall. “There are four categories of people in the world.” She draws a circle in black charcoal. “Ninety-nine percent are the Normal people. You know, ‘I like going to yoga on Sundays’ people. The kind of people who go to the bathroom together.” The audience laughs. She draws another circle. She’s energetic in her black jumpsuit—her toes are always curled upwards, and she moves with an assurance that contrasts phenomenally with the spontaneity of her monologue. Her discussion leaps around—from explaining graphs displayed on the gallery walls to noting why she represents her mother with grapefruit to discussing the orange mesh tangerine bags that she hung from the ceiling of her apartment to talking about the plight of what she calls “Art.” Her conversation is accentuated by the physicality of her installation work—and by the grapefruit that she passes around for the audience to eat. Charcoal and brown paper litter the space in an oddly purposeful choreography.
The three strings Sakamoto has strung across the room represent, as it turns out, axes of a graph. The stool connecting the axes at the origin, she says, was given to her by a homeless man in New York City. Explaining the axes, she says, “I was trying to experience being a graph.” Sakamoto uses her art “as a way of thinking things out”—things like mathematics, people, her relationship with her mother—and the connections she makes are quite unusual. “I always think about the graph of [a] tangent [function] when people talk about manic depression,” she says to her audience. “I wanted to experience asymptotes somehow.” Her way of experiencing asymptotes—and the way she allows her audience to experience them—is highly tangible. To move around the room, one has to duck beneath, or step over, the cords. The pieces of grapefruit peel on the floor are arranged in threes beneath the axes.
Much of what Sakamoto uses in her artwork are ‘found objects’—an old cabinet she ran across in New York, for instance, or the stool the homeless man gave her. She co-opts these pieces of the world into her artwork, and in doing so amplifies her artistic vision. Hers is an artwork based not so much on what she creates as what she arranges, and the ideas that spark out of her choreographed collisions.
Some of the objects she uses in her art seem commonplace, like an overturned table or a jam jar with a red-checked lid. And some of the ideas she discusses seem, at the outset, clichéd—breaking people into four categories, for instance. However, in the light of Sakamoto’s performance, everything seems reborn. They may be the sort of tangerine bags you can buy at the grocery store, but hung from the ceiling with soap and lanterns inside of them, they do indeed seem more like a bizarre graph, or alien life-forms with streamers attached. It may be that other people have discussed the artistic temperament before, but none have characterized it as buried underground, growing like a potato—she draws a brief sketch of how potatoes grow—or as riding an “A-train” up around the “Normal people” and the “Tinkerbells”—another of her categories—until it careens back to earth.
It is not Sakamoto’s visual work that makes her art, nor is it the discussion-performance she enacts with her awed spectators. There’s rather something in Sakamoto herself, in the fusion of the elements and the momentum of the mind behind them, that makes the experience she shares perpetually surprising and sometimes universally applicable. Her angle on the world is infused with every element of her life—her conversations, her drawings, and her way of seeing her ex-girlfriend as a pumpkin and her mother as a grapefruit. The pleasure of experiencing her art is watching her use it not so much to represent the world, but to re-present the elements of her life.