“International Iron Sculpture Symposium”

Higashida Blast Furnace Memorial Park

The premise of this open-air sculpture exhibition and symposium, held on the site of a defunct foundry in southern Japan, was to take “a new look at iron as a material for artistic expression.” The site—the old Yahata Ironworks of Shin-Nippon Steel—was a particularly appropriate one for an event celebrating and promoting the renewal of iron, for the city of Kitakyushu has been hard hit by the severe decline in iron and steel production here over the last decade. (A popular media cliché for the current economic depression is “iron cold.”) Today, the abandoned iron foundry and steel mill and its surrounding terrain is a park, with wild birds and well-tended lawns and shrubbery.

The exhibition consisted of new works by artists from the local area, other regions of Japan, and Great Britain who are known especially for their use of iron. Saburo Muraoka created an environmental piece called Iron Grave, 1987, a “burial mound” containing a steel-walled gallery in which he installed several of his own sculptures (all made primarily of iron): Standing Bed, 1979; Oxygen, 1983; The Tip of Salt, 1985; and, suspended from the middle of the ceiling, The Bearings of Iron, 1987. These objects convey iron’s practical functions (structural elements, work tools) and its physical attributes (hardness, weight, tendency to oxidize or rust). Despite the work’s title and its tomblike aspects—the mound, the subterranean vault with its brick-and-iron entrance, as if to an inner chamber of a pyramid—the experience of being inside it was more like being inside a womb than a grave. This was not an elegy but a eulogy in celebration of iron, transcending its industrial significance and emphasizing the high regard in which it has been held since antiquity. Muraoka created something organic using this inorganic material.

Noboru Takayama’s Headless Scenery—Iron—Sunrise Sunset, 1987, combined large rectangular steel plates and scrap iron with wooden railroad ties (his signature material). It was oriented along an east-west axis, with railroad ties mostly buried underground and the metal plates arranged in various configurations on the ground above. Almost all of the plates were laid flat and piled on top of one another in neat stacks, except for two very large plates—each of which had a narrow rectangular opening cut through it—that stood upright, one positioned horizontally and the other vertically. Takayama, who is of Korean ancestry, uses railroad ties in his work to represent human corpses—here, poor Koreans and other immigrants who were exploited in the industrial buildup over the last century, and their economically disenfranchised descendents today.

Among the other eight works, three used iron to evoke images of emptiness: Hisayoshi Nakanishi’s Negative Space, a monumental flat spire; Kiyonori Bori’s Work ’87 Yahata, an empty iron stage; and Masanori Sukenari’s Asian Hollow, the iron frames of three square columns suggesting “nothingness and infinity.” Three other works used the iron itself symbolically: Mamoru Abe’s Some Artistic Vision, with five upright iron plates, each one linked in some way to one of the five senses; Phillip King’s Moon in Taurus, a massive sculpture evoking the heavens; and Atsuo Fukuda’s Iron PhaseOn the Reverse Penetration of Chloride, a symbolic laboratory setting constructed of iron plates, coal, wires, and hay. Masaaki Nishi’s Casting Iron Yahata ’87 was more literally abstract, using an iron hoop to join together pieces of iron that had been dug from the earth right there at the old ironworks. David Mach’s The Reluctant Bride treated iron in a way that was quite different from the other works in the exhibition, for Mach took strips of iron and knit them into a bridal veil over a body made of scrap iron. All ten of the works were commissioned especially for the exhibition and were made in 1987. In addition, there were four flower-and-plant-arrangement pieces that ikebana masters from the Sogetsu school had created at various locations on the site.

Though long unused and abandoned, the foundry’s physical plant still stands in the center of the park—a workshop, a tall blast furnace, and a large, round water tank visible from anywhere in the park. Their unspoken history and overwhelming presence dominated the site, almost erasing whatever messages the artworks were intended to convey. Consider the remark made by one man in a group of former mill workers who had been hired to clean the park, digging masses of iron out of the ground: “Iron used to be something boiling, the color was crimson. It was something awesome, very dangerous.” This feeling of the power evoked by the site was also expressed by the dancer Min Tanaka, who performed there on the last day of the exhibition: “The scale of every work was almost identical. Every work was politely contained within the scale of the human body, despite the enormous size of the site, with its gigantic industrial ghost and the delicate and minute reverberations of human labor. Contrary to my expectations, no work diverged from the typical relationship of the scale of the work to the scale of the body; no work of art there was excessively large nor small. So I decided to dance inside the furnace area, not in the vicinity of any work.”

Kazue Kobata