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The challenge of representing visually intangible aspects of human experience has long preoccupied painters, sculptors and photographers. In seeking to give form to sensation or emotion, many European artists have relied on an expressive, abstract language of colour and form. However, in his large scale solo exhibition, Phantom Limb, at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the contemporary Japanese artist Odani Motohiko uses sculpture and installation to rise spectacularly to this challenge.
Phantom Limb is named after the peculiar occurrence, much studied by phenomenologists, in which amputees continue to feel pain, itching or tingling in their missing limb, as though it is still there. The diverse, superbly executed sculptural, installation and video works in this exhibition examine how experiences may similarly differ from observed ‘reality’. To Odani, modern Japanese figurative sculpture is too often limited to surface appearances and fails to explore what lies beneath: it is ‘a zombie-like field that continues to exist despite the fact that it is dead’. Not only does his work represent the invisible aspects of life, it generates a range of indefinable and often overwhelming experiences for viewers.
A particularly compelling, mesmerizing work is Odani’s video installation, Inferno (2008–2010). Standing in an octagonal room on a highly polished reflective floor and beneath a mirrored ceiling, viewers are enveloped by an eight screen multi-channel synchronised projection of tumbling water. The rumbling sound and the infinite reflections of the surging water above and below create an utterly immersive space. When the pace of the waterfall is in turn quickened and slowed, a disorienting out of body experience is generated, as though we are being forced up weightlessly through the raging water.
Several works occupy an unsettling, almost fetishistic realm between beauty and pain. The metal braces that have been fitted to the legs of a stuffed speckled fawn in Odani’s well-known work, Electro (Bambi) (2003), appear at once as an instrument of torture and support for the shaky young deer. Likewise, Odani’s Finger Spanner (1998) is a device for both constriction and bodily extension. Made in response to a contraption used in the nineteenth century to improve a pianist’s flexibility by bending her fingers backwards, the wooden fingertips and strings of Finger Spanner transform the human hand into a Stradivarius violin, simultaneously bound and augmented by its strings. More striking for its beauty and poetic connotations than its ambiguities is Odani’s Ruffle (Dress 04) (2009-10)—an enormous swirling wooden skirt designed to enable its wearer to be cast adrift in the ocean. Although Ruffle (Dress 04) is described in the catalogue as a ‘beautiful yet cruel torture device’, the seductive qualities of the wood’s fluid forms and the notion of floating freely at sea seem more liberating than torturous.
Biomorphic forms also populate the exhibition and animal skins, teeth and bones are refashioned into strange objects of desire. A full length dress made of plaited human hair, and another dress formed from the skins and heads of two wolves, their gaping mouths forming the dress’s arm holes, play along the line dividing the human and the animal. Another large room in the exhibition, dedicated to Odani’s SP2: New Born (2007) and New Born (2009–10) series, appears like a darkened natural history museum dotted with vitrines filled with the bones of alien forms and writhing, mythical sea serpents.
After a space dedicated to two of Odani’s video works, the exhibition nears its end with a breathtaking, pure white room filled with sculptures of suspended human figures, a sea of pianists’ hands, an oversized lily and a unicorn and rider that all seem to be dissolving into flowing white ribbons. The works are all from Odani’s Hollow series (2009–), which was inspired initially by the viscous, delicate skin that forms on the surface of hot milk. However, in Hollow, Odani takes this uncanny relation between fluid and solid to another, more ethereal realm. The exhibition space is like an hallucination, clinical in its white austerity and dreamlike in its subject matter, in which flesh is peeled from figures in long strips and intermingles with their tresses. The floating unravelling ribbons give form to invisible forces such as gravity, buoyancy and the pressure on bodies, but like a contemporary vanitas or memento mori, they remind us ultimately that we too will become undone.