Yasue Maetake

Do you believe in magic? If you had visited Japanese-born Yasue Maetake’s first solo show in Miami, you might have begun to. For “Sculpture Without a Skin,” the New York–based artist used parts of dead animals to make spindly sculptures that are so dainty (and deadly), they seemed like tools fashioned for evil-intentioned fairies. Leaning against a wall was Manufactured Decay in the Spear (all works 2009), a long, medieval-looking lance made from ivory-hued bones and wickedly glinting steel. The disturbingly beautiful Warped Floor and Object seems to present tools for a ritual sacrifice—is that a skull on a table? The “table”—a metal armature—appears to contain exquisite marble inlay, except that the marble patterning is in fact made from seashells and the cross-sections of tiny bones. Ironically, this organic refuse couldn’t be prettier: Flecks of marrow on the femurs and ribs resemble glowing pink beads, and the fragments of shell harbor rainbows in their mother-of-pearl depths.

Maetake says that she, personally, isn’t “spiritual at all” but makes work that explores the “relationship of animism to artistic creation.” Japan’s ancient pantheistic beliefs consider artworks to be not separate from nature (or even a mirror of it) but, rather, an extension of natural phenomena. Accordingly, the artifacts here have a close bond (however bloody) to the bodies of birds and beasts. Some works are zoomorphic: for example, Model for the Blacksmith—fashioned from bones and crowned with a fanlike arrangement of shining steel shards—resembles from afar a hunched animal waiting to spring. And the animal fragments in all of Maetake’s sculptures, of course, are real. She acquired the chopped-up bones of pigs, cows, chickens, deer, and buffalo from a taxidermy company, the fish from a vendor at New York’s Fulton Fish Market.

Maetake talks about the “idea of manufacture” in her work, an element that operates as “a conceptual motif that depicts how industry . . . is metamorphosed into the heuristic process of art.” Hence the titles to some of her “bone-y” artworks suggest they have been concocted in laboratories—Manufactured Corrosion in the Pavilion, the aforementioned Warped Floor and Object, and Manufactured Decay in the Spear—linking industry and ritual by underscoring the adherence to “process” in both. Although Maetake studied glass craft in Japan and the Czech Republic and believes that the process of creation can induce semireligious trances, she does not make a stereotypical distinction between industrial production and mystical craft; she draws parallels between them.

The relationship between contemporary labor and sacred rites is particularly evident in the video Clinical Legend. In a dim room a boy and girl, in modern dress, hack the vermilion flesh off dead fish with long knives, then salt the skin to dry it. As these trendy teenagers slice the fish, they smile sweetly over a glittering, danger- ously sharp knife. The pair could be located anywhere: a kitchen, a factory, a space for dark magic.

Setting oneself in opposition to the “paradigm of Western art” is hardly original. And such a stance is not free from the problems of self-exoticization—however compelling the artworks produced might be. But a potted history of Japanese-style animism was not what Maetake intended (or accomplished). Her use of bones, shells, and fish skin in making strange, amorphous artifacts did not reference shamanistic beliefs—it fused them with our experience of modernity, reuniting industry and craft, nature and manufacture.

Zehra Jumabhoy