Yukihisa Isobe

“Landscape—Yukihisa Isobe, Artist-Ecological Planner,” a retrospective curated by Naoko Seki, provided an excellent overview of the career of a genuine avant-gardist whose work has remained largely unknown to the Japanese public. Born in Tokyo in 1935, Isobe began in the mid-’50s as a post-Informel abstract painter who invented a unique method of overlaying wooden board with emblemlike patterns made of cardboard and plaster. A trip to New York in 1965 changed the course of his career, as he was exposed to the holistic vision and innovative flexibility of Buckminster Fuller’s architecture and design. Isobe stayed on in the US and studied with the ecologically minded landscape architect Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania while creating his own architectural structures and many public performances. His Floating Theater events, 1968–69, featured a parachute-shaped nylon cloth buoyed by air, changing shape according to volume and stream, accompanied by video projections and music performances; Isobe also organized happenings that used a double-skinned vinyl air dome, including one at the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, in New York. Receiving his master’s degree in ecological planning in 1972, Isobe returned to Japan in 1973 and soon opened his own firm, Regional Planning Team Associates. His thinking and skills proved timely given the nascent Japanese interest in ecology, and he has performed a leading role in many important urban projects since then. In 2000, Isobe resumed his artistic activity, turning to the human transformation of the landscape as a subject for his public interventions and performances.

By juxtaposing documentation of performative public events in the late ’60s and early ’70s with carefully selected early paintings and recent plans for public projects, the curators revealed the basic attitudes that have sustained Isobe’s career. Both his architectural constructions and his paintings combine biomorphic patterns with geometric forms, sometimes accompanied by such interactive devices as movable lids over painted patterns. All his work involves a search for basic structures underlying the phenomenal world; an interest in the reiteration of simple, modular units; and a willingness to make the public the agent for realizing an artwork’s phenomenological and performative potential. Such tendencies attest to Isobe’s empathy with the spirit of Fluxus, which asserted the indeterminacy of art and the role of audience as performer, and Archigram, with its interest in the idea of a portable and changeable architecture to suit a nomadic lifestyle. They also illuminate his synthesis of a traditional Japanese sensibility that values the flexibility of a simple form—a piece of paper or cloth creating a three-dimensional vessel without solid supports, as in origami—with a solid philosophical framework and the pragmatic methods of ecological planning. Documenting Isobe’s major works through photographs and videos as well as a reconstruction of his air dome, and installing, in the museum’s sunken garden, Tokyo Zero Meter, 2007, his interventionist project warning that the land under Tokyo is sinking to nearly sea level and is susceptible to flooding, the curators traced the organic process of an artist’s development as individual producer and public planner, presenting the productive result of a career that has involved him in the dynamic reality of his time.

Midori Matsui