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Yutaka Sone’s Hot Tropics and Marble Cityscapes

Inside the exuberant, poetic landscapes of Yutaka Sone

Sone’s Baby Banana Tree, 2007–9, stands 25 feet tall in Boone Sculpture Garden at Pasadena City College. GRANT DELIN/COURTESY DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

Sone’s Baby Banana Tree, 2007–9, stands 25 feet tall in Boone Sculpture Garden at Pasadena City College.

GRANT DELIN/COURTESY DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

When Japanese artist Yutaka Sone was teaching a beginners’ sculpture class at the University of California, Los Angeles, shortly after moving to the city in 2000, he assigned his students the task of designing skis, snowboards, surfboards, or skateboards and then set up a day during which they could put their makeshift vehicles in action. At 4:30 a.m. that day, they drove to the beach and went surfing; at 8 a.m. they headed for the slopes; and by 5:00 p.m. they were back at Venice Beach to skateboard. The team shot footage at each location and relayed it instantaneously to an editor who was stationed in a student’s house, where the group convened for a party at 7:00 p.m. “I want to see the whole story before my dream!” Sone told the students. At 11:00 p.m. he projected the edited footage. Titled A Beautiful Day, the video, along with all the equipment, was shown at the Istanbul Biennial in 2001.

The spirit of the project reflects Sone’s penchant for collaboration and performance, and his love of extremes in nature. Trained as an architect, the 49-year-old artist re-creates landscapes and cityscapes in diverse mediums—sculpture, painting, and video—transforming gallery spaces into tropical jungles and snow forests. In 2006, for instance, at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, he installed 100 live pine trees and giant snowflakes sculpted from marble, crystal, and papier-mâché. Sone is as adept at cobbling together the motorized ski lift, made of wood, cardboard, bicycle wheels, ropes, and chains, that moved through the Santa Monica Museum of Art earlier this year, as he is at carving panoramic models of entire cities out of marble.

“One of the strengths of Yutaka’s work is that it vacillates between these moments of extreme exuberance and of profound meditative silence,” says Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director of the Aspen Art Museum, where the artist staged a performance and exhibition in 2006. He created a pair of eight-foot-cubed dice covered in P-Tex—the plastic material on the bottom of skis and snowboards. Sone planned first to install the dice in the museum as if they were Pop sculptures and then toss them down the half-pipe on Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen. Then, on the museum walls, he showed paintings that imagined what the dice might look like on the mountain, flying through the air, or bouncing on the ground.

When the dice were finally trucked to the mountaintop and tossed, art did not predict life. The dice stopped only a third of the way down the halfpipe. Then a group of kids emerged from the crowds to skid down the slope. They peeled off bits of the P-Tex, which had ripped from the impact, to use as sleds. Other children and adults began pushing the dice down the mountain. Sone himself skied down the halfpipe holding a strip of P-Tex behind him like a superhero’s cape. Following the event he returned the dice to the gallery for the duration of the show. The following day, Jacobson skied with Sone and the artist Peter Doig, who commented, “Yutaka skis like his art; he gets down the mountain faster than anyone else, and he looks different than anyone else doing it, too.”

Sone also sounds different from other people. His speech is sometimes contorted, sometimes pure poetry. He may burst into song, humming Ravel’s Bolero—the type of music that often accompanies his video pieces—or he’ll pantomime how quickly he can carve stone. “Blade, brave going, narrow,” he chants, adding chiseling sound effects. He’s known to come to his openings wearing a Chanel jacket and handbag with his wife and two teenage sons. Even today, in generic jeans and a T-shirt, he says his clothes are from the women’s department. “Men’s are too angular,” he says, noting the custom has its roots in Japanese society. “I like very masculine and super pretty. I cannot take sides.” He trained himself to work double-sided as well after becoming concerned that the vibrations from carving with his right hand would wear down his shoulder. “Second hand ready!” he says. He can now paint and carve as skillfully with the left hand but has more difficulty writing. “Thinking left-right has affected my art—we can get more space in here,” he says, tapping his head.

Sone put both hands into action to make his sculptures of Hong Kong, Manhattan, and Venice, carving them street by street from deep blocks of white marble. He created all three cities over a period of 16 years, with Venice completed in 2013, and showed them together in London at David Zwirner, which has represented him since 1999. His work sells there for up to $350,000. The island cities—places of constant flux—are memorialized in this pristine material associated with commemorative sculptures. While Sone renders the streetscapes as faithfully as he can on the upper plane, he takes liberties with the bases—making Manhattan, for instance, rise out of vertiginous cliffs.

“I like sculpture where you can feel time,” says Sone, referring to the geological time it took for marble to form as well as to the speed with which time moves in cities, with traffic and construction, and the time it takes him to make the sculptures. When those three ideas of time are compressed, he says, “I just forget my ego.”

Sone hand-carved Little Manhattan (detail), 2007–9, out of marble. “I like sculpture where you can feel time,” he says.

Sone hand-carved Little Manhattan (detail), 2007–9, out of marble. “I like sculpture where you can feel time,” he says.

COURTESY DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

Sone starts by making a plaster 3-D model by hand, based on photos, Google Maps, helicopter rides, and his experience walking through the cities. The process can take several years to complete. In 1998 he made his first marble sculpture, the Hong Kong model. To produce it, he found a group of traditional stone carvers in a small Chinese village outside Xiamen in Fujian Province where he lived and worked alongside them for months. “They adopted me,” says Sone, who continues to collaborate on stonework with 15 artisans there committed now only to his projects.

For the Zwirner exhibition, he juxtaposed these snowy white islands of culture with vibrant green representations of tropical islands—large-scale sculptures of palm trees made from rattan and steel along with paintings of the trees set against brilliant blue skies. Often setting marble sculptures of highway junctions, roller coasters, or ski lifts amid leafy installations of live and fabricated plants, Sone alludes both to the metamorphosis of marble from once-living organisms, and to ideas of real and man-made landscapes. “The jungle is very beautiful—no left, no right, no front, no back,” says Sone, who has re-created many immersive natural environments, including Jungle Island (2003), installed at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and It Seems Like Snow Leopard Island (2002–2006), first shown at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland in 2006. Magic Stick, a 1998 video shot by Sone’s wife when they were camping on Borneo Island, documents the artist clutching a glistening staff and moving with trepidation through the immense landscape that he equates with creation. “Jungle is crazy chaos with new species coming, unknown, unnamed, wild,” he says.

Sone’s obsessions with nature and construction started early. Born in 1965 in Shizuoka, Japan, a fisherman’s village near Mount Fuji, the artist learned to ski as soon as he could walk. His father, who moved to Tokyo, was an architect and would bring Sone along to construction sites where the boy would sit and draw as his father worked. Later, Sone enrolled at Tokyo Geijutsu University, where he received what he describes as a very Western education in architecture. However, in his third year, feeling overwhelmed, he left school to travel for two years throughout Asia and the Middle East—including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt.

While hiking on Mount Everest, Sone glimpsed the elusive snow leopard, an animal he admires for its mystery and independence. The search for the snow leopard, which he considers emblematic of the beauty and life force in nature, has become a recurring theme in his art, whether in his re-creations of the animal’s natural habitat or in his renaming of his Hong Kong sculpture Snow Leopard.

A rattan and steel tree, Tropical Composition/Traveler’s Palm #1, 2011, celebrates the jungle.  COURTESY DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

A rattan and steel tree, Tropical Composition/Traveler’s Palm #1, 2011, celebrates the jungle.

COURTESY DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

Sone returned to Tokyo to finish his undergraduate studies and went on to get his master’s degree there in architecture in 1992. While he never practiced, he feels his training continues to inform his attitude toward installation and space, and his comfort level with projects of long duration. He made a six-month visit to New York in 1989, during which he visited galleries and became interested in making art.

In 1993 he staged his first performance and exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center in Mito, Japan, titled Her 19th Foot. For the project, he connected 19 unicycles, with handles attached behind each seat, and solicited volunteer riders for a month-long workshop to try to master riding the contraption in tandem. “I wanted to visualize communication between people,” says Sone, recalling that he and his assistant could ride forever like “two crazy professors,” but that it became increasingly difficult as the number of riders increased. After comical and painful mishaps and pile-ups, the 19 riders were able to move only about ten feet in unison. He installed the bikes in various venues over the next decade, displaying them seamlessly in a circle alongside video documentation of the collaborative efforts, which took place in Sweden, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

Nine years ago Sone and Benjamin Weissman, a Los Angeles–based writer, artist, and fellow extreme skier, met and began another experiment in communication and collaboration. They were told of each other by the artist Paul McCarthy, who wanted to introduce them because of their shared love of the sport and their use of the same skis, but he never got around to setting it up. Serendipitously, Sone and Weissman spotted each other on the chairlift wearing their identical skis at Mammoth Mountain in California. They ended up skiing together for the rest of the day. Soon they were planning ski trips together and extended their travel through the mountains onto the canvas.

“We were watching the same landscape and started painting together what we saw,” says Sone, who works side by side with Weissman on the same canvas as they try to crystallize their experience at the end of a day of skiing. Sone refers to Weissman as his “California teacher for human beings and nature.” Weissman feels the same trust in painting with Sone that he does in skiing with him. “We’re veering around in very close proximity,” he says. “We even will cross the other person’s arm like we cross each other’s path in skiing.”

Last winter, the whole series of paintings encapsulating their adventures and friendship was hung salon-style at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Titled “What Every Snowflake Knows in Its Heart,” the show included Sone’s handmade animatronic chairlift, which squeaked as it moved and rose 15 feet to the ceiling and extended the length of the gallery. Weissman hand-wrote poetic descriptions on the walls about the snow and the two artists’ feelings on the mountain. “We wanted to show that skiing is a transportative system,” says Sone. “If you have two, you can go more deeply into the mountain.”

Elsa Longhauser, executive director of the museum, was won over by the pair’s true collaborative spirit when they presented the idea to her. “I felt the experimental nature of it, the oddness and sweetness of the whole enterprise, to be a really interesting project for us,” she says. “Yutaka has this lightness of being that is quite unusual. He’s a transcendent character.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “An Artist Who Thinks Like a Skier — and a Snowflake.”

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