In his 2002 video Dwelling, Hiraki Sawa creates a dreamlike universe inside a nondescript apartment. Dwelling follows the dramatic slow and solemn flight patterns of roaring miniaturized Boeings, Airbuses, Concordes, jet planes, and commuter aircrafts as if documenting chaotic airport traffic. Using grainy black and white footage, Sawa’s video is as mysterious and evocative as it is comical. Set entirely in Sawa’s apartment, the work addresses notions of displacement and melancholy, and was completed while he was a graduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.
Hiraki Sawa was born in Ishikawa, Japan in 1977 and currently lives in London. He received his master’s degree in sculpture in 2003 from the Slade School of Fine Art, University College in London. Recent solo exhibitions include shows at James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Ota Fine Arts Gallery, Tokyo. His work was included in recent group exhibitions at LIFT Contemporary, Cherokee, NC; Lille2004, Lille, France; Placentia Arte, Piacenza, Italy; Borusan Art Gallery, Istanbul, Turkey; and Evo Gallery, New Mexico, and in 2004 Dwelling could be seen on a large monitor in Times Square, New York, presented by Creative Time.
Domestic Flight: On Hiraki Sawa’s Dwelling
By Gregory Volk
Among the many unusual aspects of Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa’s striking video Dwelling is the fact that he accomplished it while still a graduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. The video takes place entirely in Sawa’s London apartment. He took still shots of different areas of his apartment and superimposed upon them animated images of various toy airplanes taking off; cruising about the rooms; and landing on a table, floor, countertop, bathtub, refrigerator, and bed. As one watches this slow and stately, yet frequently chaotic, pageant of Boeings, Airbuses, Concordes, jet planes trailing smoke plumes, and commuter craft, the incessant migratory force of airplane travel in an increasingly globalized era is not something occurring out there, in the great skies, but right here, in a cramped London flat, which suddenly seems not constricted at all, but instead full of distances, mysteries, vastness, danger, and allure.
The black-and-white video begins with a single shot of the top-floor windows in a nondescript London apartment building, which could be just about anywhere in the world. Next one sees the stairs, then the door, just for a second or so, but long enough to generate suspense; Sawa’s work is filled with such willfully mundane, yet riveting and evocative, images, which oftentimes seem closer to masterful cinema than to experimental video. Behind this very door is the scene of the action, or the scene of the crime, and the viewer becomes part curious voyeur and part noirish detective. The apartment is so sparsely furnished that it resembles a cheap hotel room or some other unspectacular dwelling that has perhaps recently been vacated, although it also has vague intimations of a monk’s cell. It is more of a way station than a cozy home filled with belongings, and it implicitly corresponds to airport terminals, which are likewise generic, in-between sites. From views of the hallway and bathroom, the camera settles on six realistic toy airplanes lined up on the floor, then three airplanes atop a table. They are a cross between a child’s playthings and aircraft dispersed along the tarmac at Heathrow, LAX, Narita, or some other well-trafficked airport.
The more one spends time with the work—and Dwelling is one of those hypnotic works that you want to see over and over—the more psychologically eventful these airplanes are, as they proceed on their inscrutable routes, seemingly at their own volition. They conjure a solitary apartment dweller’s drifting, multiple thoughts—a transportation in and of the mind, including random memories, hopes, nagging reminders of pressing tasks, and strange bursts of enthusiasm that come from nowhere in particular. The way that the airplanes repeatedly land on and take off from the table and bed, travel from the living room to the kitchen, or from the bathroom to the bedroom, evokes our own habits, rhythms, and routines when we’re at home but turns these familiar activities into startling voyages of discovery. Juxtaposing two kinds of logic—flight patterns and the layout of an apartment—Sawa devised a logic-bending scenario that seems dreamlike and fantastical. Moreover, while there is something implacably lonely about the video, with its airplanes that always seem to be restlessly searching for something or somewhere, there is also something soothing, even spiritually wise.
Dwelling is one of several impressive videos, all made in the same London apartment, that Hiraki Sawa has completed over the past several years, and while he generally eschews autobiographical references, it is likely that his own deep personal experience is crucial for these works. Sawa grew up in Japan, and for the past eight years he has lived in London. Living between cultures has probably resulted in a great deal of airplane travel, as well as a serious questioning of what home is and means. His videos suggest that the apartment he inhabits in London, however familiar, is also foreign, even though he has lived in it for years. It belongs to an elsewhere where the language and customs are different, where people think differently, where the gaps between the self that he was and the self that he is are constantly reinforced. In a time marked by both the aspirations and the conflicts resulting from unprecedented intercultural traffic, Sawa’s work, while completely idiosyncratic, also seems entirely apt.
In Migration (2003), which involves reanimations of Eadweard Muybridge’s famed nineteenth-century stop-motion photographic studies of human and animal locomotion, one sees more interior views of the same apartment. Suddenly, tiny naked human figures emerge from the corners and seem to pensively walk about on windowsills, countertops, radiator pipes, and the bathtub. A camel appears, as well as an elephant, a horse, and other animals, and always more people, both women and men. One thinks of pilgrimages and caravans, of the movement of tribes and cultures over eons, as well as of one’s own mental trove of family members, friends, lovers, and strangers—the world one carries within. With Elsewhere (2003), which also accesses Muybridge’s photographs, routine objects in the apartment rise up, sprout small human legs, and walk to a nearby location; everything is constantly in motion, and nothing really knows where it belongs. In each case, Sawa’s own apartment becomes an enormously elastic thing. Indoor domestic space and the world outside are conflated, realism shades into pure fantasy, and informational systems shade into evocative poetics. At this early stage in his career, Hiraki Sawa has developed an innovative body of work that is at once comical, haunting, and quietly profound.
Gregory Volk is a New York–based art critic and curator. He is also an associate professor at the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Hammer Projects are organized by James Elaine, and are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle.