Isamu Wakabayashi

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo / MOMAT

Although it is true that the work of Isamu Wakabayashi is hermetic, there are means of access into the apparently closed world of his art. There is, for example, the palpable affection for his materials: he does not so much handle lead as caress (wrap, burnish, bend) it. There is also the peek-a-boo quality to many of the pieces that turns them into a sort of metaphysical amusement park. Fold, flap, wrap, and the viewer cranes, peers, crouches. Many of the pieces resemble boy’s model kits gone astray (or munitions factories gone awry).

Despite the work’s human scale, it possesses a monolithic presence in full command of its own impenetrable space. In the final analysis, it is baffling: one looks, walks, connects, and then loses it all in a delirium of exasperation, knowing that one will always only see, yet never really know. One wonders, for example, if there are 42 pieces, as listed in the catalogue, or are there in fact just four (the four carefully arranged rooms)? Or is it all a single piece? (And then one glances into the catalogue and looks at the photos: the same pieces, yet arranged completely differently!) There are, after all, a small number of materials and forms repeated and varied: copper coils, pyramids, punctured sheets, “mystical beds,” iron-bound “pages,” etc. There are three major series: one, “Oscillating Scales,” consists of drawings, models, and finished works; the other two are called “Three-Dimensional Note—Gas, Solid, Liquid, and Present” and “On the Invasions of Grass and Personal Belongings.”

These are playgrounds as much as they are nuclear landscapes. There are great “landing pads,” plates with human figures and trees etched in, a dwelling (a screen?) that has been “unfolded” and will never resemble itself again, never return to any originary state. A plant grows in one piece. There is a funny fan emerging from one of the “beds”—funny because it is made of iron and will never blow in any breeze known to most of us. There are also several boxes: small but extremely heavy ones; big but light-looking ones. This kind of play is common with Wakabayashi. Upon inspection, the “sheets” of lead are, in fact, envelopes. “Rust” has been painted upon a huge copper box in a corner.

These works elaborate a private syntax that evokes loss as much as plenitude, a syntax that is not unlike a Maurice Blanchot récit: integrity and enigma, mastery and doubt at the border of articulation.

Arturo Silva