By Alberto Mugnaini
The alternation of empty and full, of light and shadow, of inside and outside, this unstable balance of contrasts that endlessly reproduces the dialectic between yin and yang and that distinguishes all the manifestations of the Oriental thought, is the fundamental characteristic that animates Niisato Akio‘s ceramic works.
These artefacts, if born under the sign of a damp malleability, shaped by the caressing gesture typical of the potter, then develop through a crescendo of burns and a hail of holes: fired several times in the kiln and blasted with implacable bursts from drill bites, they show themselves as minimal containers – sometimes cylindrical, sometimes truncated cone shaped, sometimes circular, sometimes elliptical or even polygonal – whose surface bears a particular form of writing, a proliferation of signs reminiscent of the most authentic Japanese tradition, however, practiced according to a mode of ancestry entirely western. It is not the titillating tip of the brush used by the calligrapher to trace it, but a sharp and rotating object, a sort of stylus, the tip that engraved the waxed tablet that was the typical writing support of our classicism. This difference in procedure could be taken as an example of the multicultural perspective that informs Niisato’s work, sunk in the solid tradition of his land but always careful to grasp the suggestions and the apostille that come to him from his non-superficial acquaintance with the culture of the West.
The result of this game of antinomies is a tireless rhythmic movement that runs through the works of the Japanese artist like a single interminable thrill. The references, comparisons and even competitions with the musical research of his country, openly declared, make this true. And there is no need to stop at his contemporary interlocutors, such as Ryoji Ikeda or Merzbow, but one could go back very far in the history of Japanese music to find the roots of this dynamic. And it is always the so-called but, that is, the interval between sounds, that creates the rhythm. But rhythm is not only needed in music. In kadō, the art of arranging flowers, it is fundamental to take into account the gaps that form between the leaves and between the corollas, as well as the pauses in the gestures of the master of the tea ceremony. In Niisato we could say that matter is but with respect to the flow of light, while the hole drilled by the drill is but with respect to the structural continuity of matter, which is thus diffracted, eclipsed, interspersed with luminous dust, which, in turn, exalts and enlivens it.
In white porcelain works the holes are clogged by a glassy diaphragm that forms like a soap bubble within the perimeter of a straw, like a burr that hinders and further transfigures the path of light, a translucent eyelid that veils the small oculars that open through the opacity of the epidermis. It is as if the holes were transformed into tiny eardrums through which the music of light can resound. The succession of luminous globules thus assumes, in the peel of the ceramic, an aspect similar to that of a watermark practiced in the compact surface of a sheet of paper, and more than a real opening one could speak of a rarefaction in the fabric of matter.
An object of Japanese tradition that is echoed by the processing procedure we are examining here and that has always had strong symbolic links with the idea of interior lighting is the ceramic lantern. In our case we could well talk about inverted lanterns, traps rather than light sources, lamps in negative, without centre and without fire, light magnetized and shredded, softened and shredded. A microcosm, we might add, which literally reflects Confucius’ famous definition of the stars, which, in the cosmos, would be nothing more than the holes through which the light of infinity filters: the container, circular or elliptical, thus becomes, in Niisato, an agglomeration of orbits, an embrace of star trajectories that now run parallel, now intersect and intersect; trails of nebulae interspersed with small quadrants of darkness, milky paths lined up and geometrically spatialized, tails of comets combed and scanned with mathematical rigor. And the demiurge of this order, coming out of metaphor, is none other than the eye of the creator, who calibrates at sight the distances of the single holes, who aligns them along the curved paths through which the inside and the outside of the “vase” interface. We are not far from Lucio Fontana’s “spatial concepts”, and in particular from his punctures made with an awl, from which, not by chance – as he was heard to say – “the infinite passes”.
We made reference to Lucio Fontana, but other Italian artists could be involved. One can think of Francesco Lo Savio’s “filters”, translucent papers or thin metal nets superimposed on the drawing that create elusive luminous palpitations; or Enrico Castellani’s “surfaces”, monochrome canvases that – punched from the reverse and nailed from the viewer’s side – are structured in a game of spikes and hollows according to an arithmetic progression that weaves discontinuity and repetition. But they are still surfaces, a virtual plane that still preserves intact the all-Western dimension of the “painting”, a metaphysical window on a reality completely separated from everyday life. One does not leave the confines of that object with a special statute that is the work of art, to hang, to contemplate separated from the rest of the world within its own halo of exceptionality.
Maintaining as an essential requirement of his works the hollow conformation of the container, Niisato approaches, more than the idea of the hypostatized work of Western culture, in which everything is full and significant, the Eastern tradition of the artefact inserted in the rhythm of life, open to happen, permeated with transience. And this relationship with the morphology of the vase allows him, if anything, to appropriate Heidegger’s considerations about the shape of the jug, whose essence is more characterized by emptiness than full. In Niisato’s case one could speak of jugs which, instead of water, not only contain light, but which transform it, shake it, make it palpable and return it to the environment, taking it away from the sacred penetralia of heavenly spaces, guardians and holders of a light that in Christian theology, during the Middle Ages, had stiffened in a peculiar form of metaphysics.
The metaphysics of light can also be spoken of with regard to the East, suffice it to mention the basic work of Keizan, The Transmission of Light, which in the fourteenth century outlines the path through which the individual can reach enlightenment himself. But it is a metaphysics, as Roland Barthes tells us in his book dedicated to the different aspects of Japanese culture, “which has neither subject nor God”; and illumination, the satori, “is absolutely not identified with the illuminating descent of God, but rather as ‘awakening in front of the event’, choice of the thing as happening and not as substance”. Transcendence becomes immanence, the fixed splendour of eternity is transformed into a transitory glimmer, into a fleeting beard that crosses a permeable universe pervaded by breath, in which even the “sky of fixed stars” of Dante’s memory, as the aforementioned Confucian maxim attests, becomes itself a filter and a passage.
On the basis of all these considerations, we can finally understand the deep meaning of Niisato’s research and the reason for his fierce dematerialization. His aspiration is certainly not to stress materials to the extreme limit of their resistance, as we did in the mannerist and then baroque era, in reckless exercises of virtuosity. With his coups de style, as Derrida would have said, “strokes of style” and at the same time “strokes of the stylus”, with his obsessive drill bits, with these exercises of transience he pursues the mirage, also, of an always renewed transitivity of the material; so that through it we can catch a sort of perlage that gives us the light in its most radiant and faceted splendour, and at the same time, more ephemeral.