first appearance: “Greenland by Fujiko & Ukichiro Nakaya” Publication,
Produced and published by Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, 2018
→ Ginza Maison Hermès Le Forum – Fujiko & Ukichiro Nakaya
Photo credit: ©Nacása & Partners Inc. / Courtesy of Fondation d’entreprise Hermès
One consistent characteristic found throughout the body of works created by Fujiko Nakaya is the devotion to medium. Let me rephrase that more plainly: the potential of medium always overflows lavishly from her works, transcending the frame of the artist as well as that of the work, and even the regulations pertaining to the genre of expression. This ability to overflow is the intrinsic force of a medium.
Contrary to the concept of medium serving as the premise for the well-known but misleading definition of Modern Art,[*1]a medium is actually characterized by the material status or behavior that escapes regulation of any form. The notion of “freedom” is conditioned by such behavior of medium. Therefore, the devotion to medium found in Fujiko Nakaya’s works fundamentally contradicts with artworks posited as forms of expression (these are bound to be regulated as deterministic tautology, stuck in the repetition of the same). What her works instead reveal is the force that transcends and overflows all forms of regulation: the behavior of medium, which is the absolute condition for “freedom” in this world (along with our “free will”).[*2]
For example, when the statement “a scientist discovered X” is uttered, what exactly has been discovered? Does that “discovery” or “discovered X” belong to the scientist who discovered it? In other words, was X nonexistent until it was discovered? Common sense tells us differently.
But if the term “discovery” is switched to “production,” and the statement to “an artist produced X,” we would immediately think that X was actually created by the artist, and did not exist prior to that.[*3]
For instance, when Archimedes exclaimed “Eureka!” what did he discover? What he experienced as he entered the bathtub was an ordinary and familiar phenomenon: water overflowing the tub. This is something that always happens when an object is thrown into a vessel filled with water. The only thing Archimedes perceived was the overflowing water. How can this be a discovery? More precisely, what Archimedes had done was to re-discover the event of water “overflowing.” This is why it is incorrect to say, “Archimedes discovered buoyant force.” If water hadn’t spilled over, he may have never thought up the concept of buoyancy. He may have never become aware of the concept of water, or even that of Archimedes. The essence of buoyancy is a force that occupies space. Whether it is water, the body of Archimedes, or the bathtub, all things possess the right to exclusively occupy space and repulse one another accordingly. Water is fluid so it tends to be pushed immediately away by the force of repulsion; but by the same token it immediately infiltrates any opening. What overflows is this force.
Archimedes directly perceived the phenomenon of “water overflowing.” From this “overflow” he indirectly re-discovered water, his own body, the bathtub—their size and quantity. As this example shows, human perception does not grasp external objects in a direct manner. On the contrary, human sensory organs only function through distance from what is sensed, thus relating to them only indirectly. For example, without an appropriate distance from the object, vision cannot function. The color we perceive is a flicker (gap or latency of incidence angle) produced by light hitting the surface of an object and partially absorbed in the material, if not refracted or dispersed. In other words, vision is a phenomenon caused by the distance between the object and sight―our eyes capture the distortion and diffused reflection caused by what exists in between (the surface of objects, the humidity of air, floating substances). We do not see the object itself. The same mechanism also applies to the act of listening. If there is no distance between the ear and the sound source, there would be no sound wave to start with.
What living organisms, including humans, perceive is not the object itself, but the behavior or change of medium that fills up the space between the object and the senses (again, such medium is not perceivable in itself as an object).
The perceived change of medium shakes the stable relationship between the perceiver and the perceived, forcing a shift to the concept or figure of the object that has heretofore been regarded as an invariant. Or rather, it is only then that we discover and redefine what we perceive as a concept. It was this overflowing fluctuation surging against us that Cezanne called “sensation,” and prompted Archimedes to shout in awe—“Eureka!”
A medium is generally regarded as a material continuum. But such understanding is a mere presupposition. Our perception reacts only to individual phenomenon that subverts such presupposition, the discontinuous fluctuation caused by the medium. In other words, the medium as continuum never appears as such. Matter as continuity is only sustained in an inert[*4] (inactive) state in relation to perception. When something is perceived, or when relationships between various objects emerge, it is the medium that connects such events. The medium itself does not appear directly but encompasses what it connects and fills up the space in between them.
We can observe the same traits in things we generally call medium of expression. For instance, the expressive nature of paint is determined more by the vehicles (such as turpentine oil, acrylic emulsion, or gum Arabic) than the raw materials such as pigment or dye compound. It is these vehicles as medium that determine color and texture. Perception reacts to the difference created by the medium because this difference is connected to the polarization of the permeating and reflecting light. What we are able to see is light refracted and dispersed by the medium that encompasses and distances the object. Again, the medium itself is not perceived as an object. It exists in between the object and sensory organs (distancing them); a latent cause for activating oscillations and deflections that perception reacts to.
What is important is that this character of medium is what makes possible the concepts of time and space. The origin of time is latency and that of space is distance. These are generated by the fluctuation of medium, the inert and imperceivable existence that nonetheless assures continuity and expandability. To repeat, a medium conditions form but it is also a movement that destroys and transcends form (form is merely a rough frame to extract inert medium as a continuum). All forms, including mathematics, inscribe incidental breakdowns and fissures onto the medium through their deductive application―cleavages that bounce back and consequently inflict irreversible wounds (the basis of time) to the form in question, thereby revealing its imperfect nature.
This short essay reconsiders the characteristics of Fujiko Nakaya’s work across the years: the early paintings, the “Fog Sculptures” widely regarded as representative of her endeavors, video art, and the variety of activities related to independent experimental video developing from “Video-Hiroba” to “SCAN” (actually, in order to examine the entirety of Fujiko’s work, it is not enough to list up only the activities that seem to belong in the domain of Art)[*5].
Among these diverse activities, we could say that (with the important exception of cooking) it was video art that Nakaya engaged in the most consistent and wide-spreading manner. But even video art could not be reduced to individual art works or artistic expression attributed to Fujiko Nakaya as an individual artist.
The collective activities of “Video-Hiroba” in which Nakaya was involved as a principal member began in 1972, and subsequently developed into the video gallery “SCAN” which she established in 1980. SCAN was an important hub for the video art movement in Japan, supporting the production and distribution of video works by providing technical equipment, organizing screening events and archiving works regardless of whether they were collectively or individually (at times anonymously) produced. But SCAN was also more than just about video art—located at the center of an alternative network, SCAN established itself as one of the most significant driving forces of artistic activity in the 1980s. Nakaya’s work always involved such openness and collaboration that cannot be reduced to the frame of individual work or artist. The Fog Sculpture was initially created through collaboration with E.A.T., and its subsequent development also involved collaboration with various artists including David Tudor or Trisha Brown. So if there is still some unexplained enigma concerning Nakaya’s Fog Sculptures―which is also their potential―this may be revealed by reconsidering the allure of video as medium that Nakaya discovered, which on the surface may seem to lack any common trait with her fog works.
When economical portable VTR (video recorders), cheap enough for ordinary people to purchase, appeared in the market towards the end of the 1960s, its most attractive feature was that (contrary to film) one could record as long as one wanted with no additional cost. As a visual medium, however, the image of video was extremely low-resolution.
For instance, like Marshal Mcluhan pointed out, television cannot be considered as a visual media because it is too vacant, which is to say, too “cool.” The nature of television, which “cannot stand to be stared at,” was amplified (i.e., deteriorated) in the portable video system. The mechanism of television consists in sequential projection of horizontally sliced images via 480 parallel scanning lines. Hence, by nature, it does not contain any image that can be fixed as a single screen. Furthermore, the television screen is produced by electronic beams passing through and lighting up each pixel aligned in a mosaic pattern on the scanning line. Consequently, contrary to films projected uniformly from a single light source, the texture of TV screen is formed by innumerable material dispersion of light. Television, which is radically materialistic in this way, thus became installed as an object in ordinary homes, mixing in with other furniture.
The mechanism of video further extends this non-visual nature of television (which can be positioned and disseminated as an autonomous object). Television programs could only be delivered uniformly from TV stations via their broadcasting network. Therefore, in order to watch a program, all viewers had to turn on the TV at the same time, specified by the program listing. Television broadcast in this way demands all viewers to share and synchronize into the same flow of time. Needless to say, the sharing of time is not the only requisite―viewers are also asked to accept only the selected general contents that are broadcasted.
Against such centralized system of television broadcast, portable VTR regained the possibility for citizens to receive information at any time and place, opening up the possibility to document moving images that are not constrained by the pre-established time slot in the program schedule, which could then be individually broadcasted and distributed (by hand or via cables connected in private, without going through the television network). In short, it opened up the possibility to create multiple, localized time and space of communication that could not be encompassed and controlled by a singular time-space.
The form of expression in both film and television was based on how content is transmitted, staged, and viewed―the constraints of distribution format. The demand that a given content must end within 30 minutes or an hour and half, was merely derived from how it was distributed.[*6]
Therefore, the portable VTR made the artists who obtained it clearly (critically) aware of the social system that constrained representational forms such as films, television, or art works, and to actively develop the potentials of video as an alternative tool. This ultimately bestowed on the artists the power to dismantle the axiomatic nature of concepts such as “time” or “space,” “subject” or “object” that had similarly been fixed by the system, and focus instead on re-constructing them on their own.
Fujiko Nakaya was one of the artists in Japan who best understood the potentials of video as a medium. In 1974, Nakaya translated and published “Guerrilla Television” by Michael Shamberg and the Raindajnce Corporation, which was regarded as a bible for the alternative video movement. The development leading from “Video-Hiroba” to SCAN can be seen as a social practice to generate alternative networks in various ways through video. As Nakaya wrote in the translator’s afterword for “Guerrilla Television,” quoting Paul Ryan’s phrase “video is a morphological mirror of time,” video had the potential to internalize time and space―heretofore only externally enforced―as a self-reflexive structure within the medium itself, and autonomously generate a spatio-temporal network. It was understood as a medium that generated absolutely specific space and time, as well as social relationships (human relationships) by creating new differences/distances and weaving them in new ways.
Nakaya’s own video work, for instance Statics of an Egg (1973), presents in a clear manner how video generates and internalizes its own temporality.
What is captured in Statics of an Egg is the sequence of movement until two raw eggs stand vertically on a desk―the only visible objects are the desk, the arms and hands of the person engaged in the task, and the egg. It’s the so-called “Columbus’ Egg,” but around 1947, shortly after the Second World War, an ancient Chinese book was discovered containing the information that if one attempted to stand an egg on February 4, the First Day of Spring, this could be achieved without having to flatten the bottom like Columbus. Based on the news that multiple experiments were then carried out around the world to confirm this ancient wisdom, making an egg stand on the First Day of Spring became a worldwide boom. The physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, the father of Fujiko, became interested in this phenomenon and wrote the essay “The First Day of Spring.” Ukichiro explained that upon close observation, the surface of any egg is revealed to have tiny irregular bumps instead of being smooth. Hence if one found three such bumps forming a single plane at the bottom of the egg, and patiently tasked oneself to adjust the perpendicular line dropped from the center of the egg to land on this plane, anyone can stand an egg up on any day other than the First Day of Spring. This may appear as a lucid conclusion of a scientist but readers also may feel slightly disappointed. Even if the mechanism of standing an egg had been revealed, the question remains as to why an egg that did not stand until then stood simultaneously all across the world on the First Day of Spring of that particular year. Ukichiro never answers this question. Fujiko’s Statics of an Egg is clearly inspired by her father’s essay, but contrary to the latter, her inquiry points directly towards this issue of “time.”
Needless to say, the development of mass media such as newspaper or radio also played a part in the simultaneous standing of eggs around the world on the First Day of Spring. The news spread that if the experiment was conducted on the next First Day of Spring, the egg would stand. However, Fujiko’s video does not give in to such external explanation that takes recourse to social psychology. That explanation merely grounds the systematic synchronization of the world to the development of media technology; the media has forcefully synchronized experiments that were conducted separately until then.
The filming process of the video work makes explicit how Fujiko did not submit to such understanding. The footage is completely unedited, continuously documenting the attempt to stand an egg on a desk (actually standing two eggs next to each other) until it succeeds. If the attempt took two days, it would have documented two days (actually it only took 11 minutes). The length of video is determined by the time it takes for the egg to stand.
In other words, the preposition that this video work presents is as follows: Any day that the egg stands is the First Day of Spring.[*7]
This brings to mind one of example presented by Jacob von Uexkull to illuminate his theory of Umwelt: a tick in a forest would wait without eating for nearly 20 years until a mammal whose blood it can suck appears. The blood-sucking action of the tick is only activated when the triple conditions of adequate temperature, smell and touch are fulfilled (these three are the only senses it has; therefore “mammals” as an object of perception does not exist for the tick). Besides this internalized time, there is no exterior, universal time measuring it. In other words, it makes no difference for the tick whether the action is activated in 5 minutes or in 18 years.
What Fujiko Nakaya understood as the nature of video as medium is a similarly internalized time. Like the tick, video keeps waiting even if something takes 20 years (or 11 minutes).[*8]Because of this, video can internalize an event without being forced or constrained by external frame. In other words, just as homogeneous flow of time does not exist for a tick, there is no need for a viewer to continuously watch a video that may last 20 years. The video merely internalizes the event that takes place—there is not much need for such event to be situated visually as a homogeneous and continuous duration of time.
Video as an event or internalization of time. This structure is shared across different works by Fujiko Nakaya, such as Ride the Wind and Draw a Line (1973) which follows the process of a spider making a web―and since the spider waits for the moment his prey is captured by the web, the video continues to film even after the web is completed―or, Mona Lisa’s Queue (1974) which documents the line of visitors to the exhibition of Mona Lisa―the long line of people (as well as the video itself) is organized solely around the momentary event of “seeing” a glimpse of the famous painting (which the video does not capture). The long line/time that has been organized for the act of seeing is, perhaps ironically, not based on vision, but rather on the thickness and length generated by distance and obstruction. The video as a medium becomes a locus which encompasses such distance and obstruction.
Soji-ji (1979) is a video work documenting a chant recitation at a Zen temple. The chant recited by many monks does not proceed in unison like group singing. Each monk recites in sync with his breath, so that the intake of breath occurs at different moments. That is to say, each monk articulates the chant differently. Since there is no unified division, when the multiple chants overlap, an endless wave of chant (sutra) appears as a collective density or modality (at the same time, each monk’s steps form a totally different rhythm from the individual chants). The temporal articulation of the chants is internalized and determined as a medium within the body of each monk, but when these are assembled together, what appears is a singular continuum or volume. Each ascetic Zen monk is given the name Unsui (clouds and water), and Nakaya discovers the same modality as the allure of fog in the moving body created by the overlay of different temporalities pertaining to each “clouds and water.”
The way of the Water is not something that water is aware of, yet water is fully capable of functioning, and it is not something that the Water is not aware of, yet the Water is fully capable of functioning.(Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water, 150)
In other words, water functions correctly regardless of whether each water is aware of how it behaves. Citing the above passage written by Dōgen[*9]in Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water (1240), Nakaya describes the insight obtained through the production of her video work:
Clouds or fog (if the bottom touches the ground it is fog; if it is floating it is cloud; if it falls it is rain) appear according to the meteorological condition such as temperature, humidity, or wind, and disappear when the temperature goes up a couple of degrees. Nay, the water only transforms itself and still exists in air. This point is important for Buddhist concept, but let us focus on the random structure through which a cloud retains its state. This is realized through a delicate balance. It might be more adequate to say that it constantly dies and is constantly re-born.
When the cloud particles crush into one another they grow bigger and fall from its own weight. This aesthetic of the cloud phenomenon which appears as an ideal model of democracy, seems to be also usable as the ontological model for a Zen collective.（Fujiko Nakaya,From Means to Method: “Form of Zen” observed in video, 1980)
Let us consider what Fujiko discovered here by referring again to Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water:
Consider the statement, “It falls to earth and becomes rivers and streams.” When the Water descends to earth, It becomes rivers and streams. Some varieties of rivers and streams frequently turn into wise, perceptive persons. In the opinion of the everyday stream of the ordinary and the befuddled, water is unquestionably that which exists in rivers, streams, oceans, and seas. This is not so, for the rivers and seas have come into existence within the Water. Thus, there is the Water even in places where there are no rivers or seas. It is just that when the Water descends to earth, It creates the effect of ‘rivers and seas’.
Also, do not work it out that, when there is some place where the Water has formed rivers and seas, there are no social worlds or Buddhist lands. Even in a single drop, immeasurable Buddhist lands manifest before our very eyes. Hence, it is not a question of water existing within a Buddhist land or of a Buddhist land existing in the Water. The existence of the Water is in no way dependent on the there atemporal worlds or on the worlds of thoughts and things. Even so, the Water is the spiritual question that manifests before our very eyes.
The path of the Water circulates every which way―up above and down below, far and wide. So, within Buddhist Scriptures, it is said that fire and wind climb up above, earth and water go down below. This ‘up above and down below’ is something to investigate in particular. Consider carefully the ‘up above and down below’ of the Buddha’s Way. It means that the place where earth and water go is ‘down below’; it does not mean that down below is some ‘place’ where earth and water go.(Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water, 150-151)
We tend to regard the movement of water in relation to external scales of measurement, thinking that water runs “downwards,” but this is not true. Actually we discover that wherever the water runs is “down below.” “Down below” and “running downwards” are attributes that are intrinsic to water, and it is only by the water running that we know where the lowest point (“down below”) is. The same is true for the judgment of whether something is a fog or a cloud. It is not that beings called “fog” or “cloud” (or “river” or “sea”) exist beforehand, having water as their shared attribute. On the contrary, “fog” or “cloud”, “river” or “sea” exist within water―they are attributes of water. For this reason, water containing all of these as its attribute or part, is much more unlimited and larger as a collective (therefore water itself cannot be recognized as an object). Water appears in every place and every thing. In other words, not only “fog,” “cloud,” “river,” or “sea,” but even a single droplet of water contains and manifests “social worlds” or “Buddhist lands.” The functioning of water lies in such manifestation. But, to repeat, water itself cannot be seen. We can only grasp the behavior of water that is generated as an event; what we actually see is “fog” or “cloud,” “river” or “sea.” Furthermore, Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water teaches that the very event of us seeing water is itself generated as an intrinsic attribute of water.
As for the Water, It is neither strong nor weak, nor is It wet or dry, nor does It move or stay still, nor is It cold or hot, nor does It exist or not exist, nor is It deluded or awakened. When frozen solid, It is harder than a diamond, so who can smash It? When melted, It is more yielding than diluted milk, so who can tear It to bits? This being so, we cannot doubt the qualities of the various forms of existence that manifest before our very eyes.
For now, just concentrate on learning to recognize, through your training, the moments when you are able to open your eyes and see the Water in the whole universe as the Whole Universe. And ‘learning through training’ does not refer just to the times when ordinary people or those in loftier positions see the Water; there is your learning through training in which the Water sees the Water. Because the Water puts the Water into practice in order to realize what the Water is, there will be your thorough investigation of the Water’s expressing through words what the Water is. In this way, you will manifest the pathway upon which we ourselves meet our Self. Until then, you must go back and forth on that road of life upon which others are all involved with making as study of ‘other’, until you leap free.(Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water, 148)
What needs to be recognized (through the training/investigation of meditation) is that instead of me looking at something (water), the event of water seeing water (the gap, difference, and latency that is inherent within, and generated by, water) already contains the generation of innumerable events (including that of me seeing something). It is not that water does not exist. Water itself is not an object. It is not even “one” to begin with, but rather generates numbers from the innumerable and discontinuous gaps and shimmering it internalizes. Such is the function of water as a medium. Accept the differences and fluctuations to discover therein the path that overflows any concept (the self becomes the other, and is generated as other concepts, so to speak). Leap free from here—this place where water overflows water (the pre-existing frame that contained water as itself).
To conclude, let us list up the characteristics of medium that Fujiko Nakaya discovered in video (as is already clear, these characteristics underlie Nakaya’s Fog Sculptures and all her other activities):
A) A medium never appears as an object. For instance, the video as medium does not appear as a visual object. A medium only appears as an event. An event is the material state of difference inherent within a medium.
The event internalized in a medium is not a documentation but a material situation. Therefore, its reenactment (perception) also triggers the return of events reacting to it. As a material situation, the perceiving subject/observer does not need to be a human. Even an (unsophisticated) A.I. could perform the role.[*10])Therefore, when thought from the condition of the medium, seeing the event as a work of art is not necessary. In other words, even if humans ceased to exist, a medium would still reenact and re-generate the perceiving subject through its internalized structure.
The attempt to critically and reflexively incorporate such potentials of medium into the structure of a work is equivalent to conceiving a piece that could exist without taking as its premise the observer situated within the external format of presentation. This is because the medium always internalizes the subject who receives the piece along with the time-space situating the subject as a difference/attribute contained within itself—they are bound to be generated. If the medium is realized as a material situation, even if the location is spatially and temporary distant from the original, the event (the subject, the reaction generated by the subject, as well as the time-space which encompasses such reactions) would still take place therein.
Moreover, since the medium is a concrete material situation, its perception is not limited to a particular sense, such as sight. Fog Sculptures are not visual to begin with―they rather impede and block the visual desire to see the entirety of the fog. But the senses of skin (sense of temperature and humidity), smell, and touch, which have been regarded as localized perceptions, perceive the entirety of the moving “fog” more concretely and directly than vision. The same thing can be said about the medium of video. Video is not a visual media. It erases the very distance that vision requires in order to see, and works more concretely and directly upon the body and all the senses.[*11]
B) A medium does not have a representative form of its own, and therefore does not have a fixed form of expression that can be determined in a singular manner.
C) A medium does not have a (temporal and spatial) limit. By overflowing the given limits, it demands and generates concepts that had not been realized.
A medium is not regulated by forms of presentation and distribution pertaining to genres of expression; it is rather the force that overflows and crosses the borders of such forms. But the same overflowing or crossing of borders also demands and generates in reaction the very forms that try to fix them as concepts.
D) A medium is not a singular object. It is a countless emersion of difference―the collective interference, mutual reference, or the assembly of multiple differences in relation to itself. By nature, these differences are detached and discontinuous. However, the shimmering, oscillation, and movement that such mutual interferences generate, produce the characteristic of continuum as an effect. This gives birth to the permeability, overflowing-ness, and trans-boundary nature of the medium.
For instance, the self-reflexive structure―a structure which generates difference internally―embedded in Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculptures is vividly shown in the fact that many locations where her works have been installed were places where fog is naturally and normally generated, such as San Francisco, London, or Oslo. That is to say, the difference between natural fog and Fujiko’s artificial fog is almost impossible to distinguish. Why is it necessary then, to generate artificial fog in a place where fog already exists naturally? Isn’t this a waste of labor and money? But Nakaya’s intension was precisely in internalizing the self-reflexive gap of “the fog seeing the fog” and “the fog encountering the fog”[*12]: “there is your learning through training in which the Water sees the Water. Because the Water puts the Water into practice in order to realize what the Water is, there will be your thorough investigation of the Water’s expressing through words what the Water is. In this way, you will manifest the pathway upon which we ourselves meet our Self.” (Shobogenzo, On the Spiritual Discourse of the Mountains and the Water, 148)
In other words, the “fog” is discovered and generated by the fog. Time and space, distance and latency overflow therein; we are enwrapped and find ourselves astonished (generating oneself for the other, and as the other), discovering ultimately that the “fog” indeed had existed therein. In other words, the observing “subject” and the observed “fog,” along with “space” and “time” wherein they both exist, are all tentative concepts generated by this self-reflexive structure.
That is why the works of Nakaya Fujiko could be said to have embodied the radical potentials of conceptual art in the most brilliant manner. How are concepts generated? It may appear as if the “fog” is one thing, yet it is not. What exist are countless movements—“see the Water in the whole universe as the Whole Universe”—and it is precisely because numbers cannot be exhausted that “one” can keep counting. What overflows without being exhausted—that is the origin of free will, the significance that the world exists.[*13]
(Translated by You Nakai)