Yukinori Yanagi’s most comprehensive exhibition to date, “Wandering Position,” which comprised sixty-three artworks, project plans, and documentary photographs dating from 1986 to the present, occupied three spacious floors of the nonprofit BankART 1929. Taken from a 1986 work, the show’s title denotes Yanagi’s sense of artistic nomadism.
Born in Fukuoka in 1959 and having graduated from Yale University’s MFA program in 1990, Yanagi rose to international prominence in the early 1990s. His series “World Flag Ant Farm” (1989–), various early examples of which were featured on the September 1991 cover of Art in America and won the Aperto Award at the 1993 Venice Biennale, immediately put him on the global map. The works in this series consist of various boxed colored-sand “paintings,” each representing the flag of a particular country. Ants travel through plastic tubes that connect the flags, carrying grains of sand from one box to the other. Eurasia 2001 (2001), for instance, on view in the show, depicts ninety-one flags of countries in the title region hung in a grid; slowly, the ants alter the flags’ patterns and thus undermine their function as symbols of a divisive nationalism.
Yanagi grew up in a rapidly transforming postwar Japan, as reflected in his subsequent series “Project Hinomaru” (1990–). The neon Hinomaru Illumination—Miniature (1992) presents a Japanese flag that continually mutates from the prewar “rising sun” icon, with its multiple aggressive rays, to the current red-disc national emblem, called Hinomaru, to a somberly radiant black sun. The first two images are permeated by ideologies (imperialism vs. self-contained virtue), whereas the last image is influenced by the mournful postwar renditions of black suns by such artists as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and TarÅ Okamoto. This last image is the most philosophically nuanced. Unfortunately, Yanagi’s poetic turn has been largely overlooked by critics, who often consider the “Project Hinomaru” series to be overtly critical of Japanese society.
In 1995, Yanagi decided to distance himself from the excessively commercialized New York art world. He divided his time between several locations in the United States and Japan until 2003, when he settled into a studio in Fukuoka and a houseboat on the remote island of Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea. Inujima, site of a ruined hundred-year-old toxic copper refinery that still adversely affects vegetation, suffers from depopulation and an aging citizenry. Yanagi initially envisioned regenerating the entire island with his art. His plans eventually crystallized, in collaboration with architect Hiroshi Sambuichi, into his single biggest project so far—the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum (2008), which has in effect converted the entire refinery into his work.
From the museum, Yanagi brought to BankART a reconfigured version of his installation Icarus Cell. Based on King Minos’s labyrinth, where Icarus and his father, Daedalus, were imprisoned, this long corridor begins with a video projection of the blazing sun, evoking blast furnaces. A set of angled mirrors creates a chain of reflections: visitors can always look back at the sun and forward to see the sky as they progress through the work. Poetry is an important factor in the BankART version. On the surface of each mirror, Yanagi sandblasted the poem “Icarus” from Yukio Mishima’s book-length autobiographical essay Sun and Steel (1968), in which the novelist acknowledged the limitations of his body, his humanity, and his art.
The allusion to Mishima is telling, since the writer was famously concerned that modernization and industrialization would make Japan “an inorganic, empty, neutral, drab, rich, shrewd economic superpower.” Today, Japan is not alone in its need for the humanistic values that pervade Yanagi’s work.