It was just over a year ago on March 11, 2011, when a tectonic shift, a tiny shrug of earth’s shoulders, released devastation on Japan. Tsunami waves more than 100 feet high traveled inland for miles, killing thousands and sweeping clean the evidence of their existence. Even beyond the reach of the water, earthquakes made the ground itself behave like water and further propagated the destructive waves. Meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant unleashed waves of yet another type of killing radiation.
In the wake of such a disaster, Noriko Ambe initially felt helpless and questioned the validity of creating art. Speaking at a round-table discussion held on March 1 in the Warehouse, 350 W. Fayette St., the 45-year-old artist described making a decision that her art “must evolve alongside nature and follow its deeper currents.” Inner Water, Ambe’s first solo show, now on exhibit at the Warehouse Gallery, is the result.
“Even in Japanese it is hard to say,” Ambe apologized. She stated that while working on the pieces she “focused on listening to the ocean inside the body.” The artist acknowledges she is both a witness of nature and one with it, both an individual and a tiny part of an inconceivably larger whole.
This artist’s mode of working has always echoed natural processes. In one strong vein of past work, she methodically cuts irregular, concentric shapes through the pages of art books. Instead of appearing willfully defaced, the books end up looking as though dripping acid or burrowing insects have eroded them gradually.
Within this installation, the references to media culture disappear and the cutting process acts instead upon clean sheets of paper as big as coffee tables. The works are placed at irregular intervals across the main gallery and act as cross sections or snapshots of an ever-changing ocean. Each piece is set at about waist level, and the walls of the gallery are painted the same dull gray as the floor up to that height to suggest submersion.
The process to create these waveforms was painstaking: a knife traces a quavering line across one empty page, then the next, and then the next. Each line moves in sympathy with its neighbor, like the rings of a tree or the elevation markings on a topographical map. Dozens and then hundreds of layers accumulate. Some have a glassy aspect and others appear frothy. Some lay flat as though rushing to spread across a continent; others swell or arch up to crest. In the end, each stack of plain paper is transformed into a meditation on the implacable power, infinite complexity and terrible beauty that can be found within the forces of nature.
A huge white sculpture suspended before the front wall of the gallery acts as a projection screen. It consists of three thick panels of polypropylene with holes roughly carved out of the center of each. Contemplative images of an anonymous shoreline flick slowly and silently across it, the gouged holes distorting the scene and scarring it with garish shadows. Occasionally a Japanese woman dressed in black wanders through the frame, often staring out to sea. She is affected in the same way.
The projection of still images on a sculptural screen is a departure from Ambe’s usual mode of production, just the sort of experiment that curator Anja Chavez encourages in the proposal process. “She was trying to find a vocabulary that would suit the subject best,” Chavez says. “On one hand going back to what she knows how to do, but then also going beyond.”
The small vault off the main gallery houses two humble objects, and each manages to sum up the experience in its own way. One is a thick spool of paper—unwound, carved and rewound—sitting on the ground. In the context of the rest of the installation it becomes a maelstrom where all the waters of the world rush to circle the drain. The other is an odd artifact sitting on a high shelf: a tiny eroded book trapped in a resin cube. Will such unreadable ciphers be all that are left of us after the next cataclysm?
Inner Water is on display at the Warehouse Gallery, 350 W. Fayette St. until May 12. The gallery is free and open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m., and noon to 8 p.m. on Third Thursdays, Th3, April 19. Visit thewarehousegallery.syr.edu or call 443-6410 for more information.