Hiraki Sawa, Lenticular, 2013, mixed-media assemblage with color video and sound (by Bun), 8 minutes 30 seconds.

Hiraki Sawa, Lenticular, 2013, mixed-media assemblage with color video and sound (by Bun), 8 minutes 30 seconds.

Hiraki Sawa

Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery

Hiraki Sawa, Lenticular, 2013, mixed-media assemblage with color video and sound (by Bun), 8 minutes 30 seconds.

Hiraki Sawa’s semiretrospective “Under the Box, Beyond the Bounds” featured twenty video works, ranging from his signature piece Dwelling, 2002, in which toy-size passenger planes take off and land elegantly inside a gray East London flat, to new installations that expand into spatial dimensions. Also, along the corridor leading into the darkened exhibition area, miniature plaster sculptures from 2013–14—casts of an ammonite, a metronome, and a broken teacup, for instance—and drawings for the design of the exhibition itself, also 2013–14, offered clues as to what to expect.

Lineament, 2012, is a two-channel video based on an episode from the life of a friend who lost his memory after waking up from a short nap. Sawa’s recurrent themes of time, memory, and nostalgia culminate in this piece as it unfolds as a meditation on amnesia, expressed poetically with, among other devices, black string unthreading from the edge of a rotating LP record and dispersing into architectural spaces—the recorded memory dissolving into thin air. Here and in other recent works—Within, 2010, Sleeping Machine I, 2011, and Did I?, 2011—Sawa works mostly in black and white, with a consciously antiquated mise-en-scène and slow-paced movements that give his works a unique fairy-tale quality. In stark contrast to the wall-size screens of Lineament, a small wooden wall nearby housed more intimate works (Within, Eight Minutes, 2005, and Ages, 2006); the playful shift in scale was effective, almost dizzying, as if one had walked into a tiny hut deserted by dwarfs.

The large-scale installation Lenticular, 2013, was inspired by Sawa’s meeting with a self-taught astronomer at Mills Observatory in Dundee, Scotland. On a flat-screen on the floor, we see the astronomer in the observatory’s planetarium, while the second channel projected onto a large domed screen echoes and abstracts to simple lines and visual effects the rotating motions of the planetarium covers and winding of mechanical devices on the telescopes seen on the flat-screen. Although the shape of the screen obviously refers to the planetarium, Sawa uses the curved surface as an arena in which to evoke such devices as the zoetrope, clock, or kaleidoscope.

The mysterious video installation Envelope, 2014, shows a woman in a white dress undertaking a sequence of ritualistic acts: She bows, swings back and forth, lights and then snuffs out a candle, picks flowers, breaks a teacup. More than Sawa’s previous works, this one relies heavily on the theatrical, abstract, and unmistakably metaphoric performance of its protagonist. Fragmented actions with abundant symbolism, however, do not add up to a comprehensible narrative, and the piece not only is cryptic but sometimes feels contrived. Nonetheless, the setup of the installation is masterful: Three large mirrors facing the vertical projection stand behind the viewing benches, reflecting in darkness both the video and the viewers; viewers are sandwiched between dynamic crisscrossing reflections that seem to merge the real world with the image world. The title and credits appear reversed in the beginning and at the end, as if to emphasize the dominance of the mirror images over direct experience. The hyperclarity of the images and the high and agitating notes of a piano on the sound track further the icy tension of this work. Viewing the show was like sliding into the dark tunnel of a dream, experiencing dramatic changes in moods and contrasts of scale—taking a tumble down the video rabbit hole.

Shinyoung Chung