New York

Yukinori Yanagi

Although officially abandoned in 1963, Alcatraz is still arguably the most famous prison in the United States. The island stronghold has become a cultural trope, a sign of hard-rock isolation and miraculous escape. For the Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi, the site provided an at-times-unlikely platform for his personal investigations of nationality and migration—investigations conducted for the most part using the lowly ant as a medium.

This exhibition presented three works originally installed on Alcatraz as part of Yanagi’s 1996 residency there, sponsored by Capp Street Project in San Francisco. Untitled (Ant Farm Project), 1997, is the newest of Yanagi’s large-scale ant farm/flag pieces presented in wall-mounted Plexiglas boxes. The boxes connect by plastic tubes, and are filled with colored sand patterned after national flags. As the ants travel from box to box, carrying on their instinctual business, they disturb the sand and rearrange the sociopolitical emblems. Deft metaphors for immigration, miscegenation, multiculturalism, and exchange, the ant farms are at once amusingly literal and appropriately arcane. In this version, fourteen boxes of various sizes held fragments of the Red, White, and Blue. Growing increasingly complex over the course of the exhibition, the ants’ tunneling blurred stars and hollowed out stripes, eviscerating the flag’s integrity.

The other ant piece, Wandering Position, 1997, was a set of four weblike drawings in blood-red crayon, one displayed on the gallery’s back wall, two on adjacent side walls, and the last drawn directly onto the concrete floor, suggesting the confines of a small room. Each piece measured five by nine feet: the dimensions of an Alcatraz cell. Their size—big for a drawing, exceedingly small for human inhabitation—was provocative. But given the overall size of the gallery, the individual sheets had to be hung too far apart to convey claustrophobia. The markmaking itself, however, was beautiful: nets of nervous red lines growing dense near the edges, sparser and more tenuous toward the middle. Yanagi made them by releasing a single ant onto the drawing surface and meticulously tracking its movements with his crayon. This obsessively intense performance is the kind of thing a prisoner, with time on his hands, might engage in, and the wanderings of the ant—which, being so tiny, would have had great freedom of movement in the five-by-nine area—became a poignant stand-in for the confinement of the implied human inmate.

Broken Glass on Map, 1996, was just that. A cutout of the continental United States lay on the floor, the familiar grade-school shape covered by a transparent mosaic of glass shards. An aureole of more broken glass surrounded it. Some pieces were bright blue and others were yellowed, as if stained by cigarette smoke; they varied in thickness, and some were reinforced with wire. Beneath them, the bland colors of the map looked watery and fragile. Yanagi gathered the glass bits in the buildings at Alcatraz, and fitted them together without alteration to conform to the country’s outline. Visually appealing, the piece read on a number of levels, most of them, however, fairly obvious. Here was America as a jagged puzzle, both assembled out of and weighted down by the shattered contents of its penal system; here was an America encircled, like Alcatraz, by an unbridgeable moat of hostile space.

According to the press release, Yanagi “recalls the late-sixties episode when a group of Native Americans claimed and occupied the abandoned prison.” But specific historical references did not emerge from the works themselves. Whereas the ant pieces maintain a bizarre and poetic dialogue with the idea of incarceration, the introduction of “authentic” glass from Alcatraz added a documentary quality that overburdened the formal delicacy of the work.

Frances Richard