Yoshihiro Suda

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through August 24

A few weeks ago Glenn Wexler, a freelance graphics technician for the Art Institute, noticed something puzzling in the fasciae atop the limestone molding that runs around the atrium of the Roger McCormick indoor court. “I thought, ‘Why are there plants growing there?'” he says. “Had someone dropped seeds–was moisture somehow getting into the stone and combining with the sunlight? I wondered if this was something that I should bring up with physical plant.” As Wexler soon learned, he was looking at one of four installations, two called Weeds, that constitute Tokyo artist Yoshihiro Suda’s first solo U.S. museum exhibit.

Installed in a strip of wood painted to resemble limestone and running along all four sides of the atrium between the first and second floors, the tiny plants stand out against the building’s cold, resolutely rectilinear mock classical architecture. Once you see them, that is: It’s likely Wexler noticed Weeds only because he had time to kill–and even he, an artist himself, was fooled by the realism of these painted wood carvings. During my visits, no one ever actually noticed this installation on his or her own, though I did meet a woman in another of Suda’s installations who’d tried to find this one and failed.

When Chicagoan Adam Scott was given a one-person show at the Museum of Contemporary Art recently, he installed only one painting–an image of the museum burning, referencing Ed Ruscha’s 1968 depiction of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ablaze. Though Scott is actually a pretty interesting painter, this seemed a punkish gesture with the quality of a one-liner, especially compared to Suda’s far more subversive installation. And Suda’s work really is site-specific in an era when much sculpture is mislabeled as such. While he brought some carvings with him for this exhibit, once he saw the spaces he’d been given he completed more–in his room.

Suda’s ironic suggestion that a major museum allow plants to grow out of its walls offers a gentle challenge to the purity of the gallery. His irregular clusters–some plants grow alone and some in bunches, just as real ones in the urban environment–also defy traditional Western landscaping, often geometrically arranged to complement the architecture.

Born in rural Japan in 1969, Suda did landscape sketches while growing up, then moved to Tokyo to study graphic design in college. In one class, students were asked to bring in a piece of dried fish and carve it as realistically as possible out of wood; Suda had to borrow an item from another student, which turned out to be a piece of dried squid. His first attempt at wood carving pleased him, and everyone in the class was impressed by his skill; while earning his degree, he made wood carvings at home. Later, on his way to work at a graphic design firm, a job he hated, he noticed weeds growing on the street; the highly structured city made him hyperaware of such unexpected intrusions of nature. Soon after, he quit his job to make art.

More than one critic, noting the realistic look of Suda’s tiny carvings, has compared his work to trompe l’oeil still lifes and even the life-size figure sculptures of Duane Hanson. Artforum critic Frances Richard wrote of Suda that “the real point of preternatural illusion is simply the wonder of the achievement, the totality of a deception that we know at all times to be false.”

This observation misses the unique power of Suda’s installations almost entirely. If he cared about wowing viewers with his superb technique, he wouldn’t have installed his weeds at the McCormick court in a way that makes it impossible to get close to them–you can view them from ten feet below or six feet above, but never close-up. Their impact derives from a mix of self-proclamation and self-abnegation, iconic power and a shrinking modesty so extreme that some can’t even find the work. Yet their presence is strong: they dynamize the space with their irregular shapes and placement; referring to growing things, they interject time in a space whose classical architecture aspires to the eternal.

Another of Suda’s Weeds can be found in gallery 109, housing an exhibit of traditional Japanese flower paintings; here he’s installed three actual-size carved weeds sprouting from the floor. Even though his sparse installation makes use of empty space in a way reminiscent of the paintings, they’re more pleasant, even eye tickling. Suda says he admires the paintings but doesn’t believe in a hierarchy of plants that values flowers more than “weeds,” which in any case is not a real botanical category but a term for plants unwanted by humans. Seen from across the room, Suda’s carvings contrast strongly with the paintings: small, vertical, and three-dimensional rather than large, rectangular, and flat, like the other Weeds installation they suggest growth and hence time.

The only installation in its own space (gallery 141) is Rose, which consists of two carvings in a white room: a rose petal mounted on the wall facing the entrance and a whole rose with a stem and leaves with bug holes just above the doorway. Again, this cannot be seen close-up, so the point is not so much verisimilitude as the presence it has in the space.

Suda has spoken intriguingly about the differences between flowers and weeds. Last year he told an interviewer that, while he used to be interested in “weeds that keep growing even if they are trampled upon,” believing plants cultivated by humans to be “weak,” he now realizes that flowers “have survived because human beings think that they are beautiful.” This is “perhaps…a result of a strategy on the side of the plants….I wonder if people are actually being used by the flowers.” Whereas cut flowers are often seen as pretty, tamed, and consumable, in Rose one feels “invited” into the gallery by the petal, then turns around and suddenly sees the full rose, made more dramatic by its high placement and the surrounding smooth white walls. It’s almost as if the flower were catching the viewer unaware, which gives one the feeling of being “selected.”

The fourth installation is no longer extant: in early June Suda placed two tiny carved weeds among similar-looking real plants at two different locations in the Stanley McCormick Memorial Garden, knowing that they might vanish. Because they would have been virtually impossible to find on my own, I enlisted the help of an Art Institute employee, artist Amy Honchell, who also gave a gallery talk on Suda. We couldn’t find them, and she speculated that one had been swept away in heavy rain and the other removed along with the real weeds near it by a gardener.

Suda is modest about his highly refined craft. He told an interviewer, “When I look at ‘Weeds’ that I carved previously they seem badly carved….Occasionally, while carving my work, I have the feeling that they are making themselves. Even though I am moving my hand as I desire, I suddenly think, ‘What am I doing? I am being moved by the plants.'” His installations implicitly critique an idea central to our gallery and museum system: that an artwork should stand on its own, without reference to its surroundings. An admirer of traditional Japanese art, Suda has said that he prefers a Buddha in the site it was made for to a Buddha in a museum. Indeed, one effect of his indoor installations is to suggest that nature has entered the gallery space, just as his outdoor piece hid his carvings amid real plants, invoking a natural order likely to outlast us humans. At the same time, Suda’s elegant carvings have a peculiar power; obviously labor-intensive, they align the artist with nature.

Back at the McCormick indoor court on my last visit, frustrated by the fact that viewers were missing Suda’s Weeds, I started trying to point it out to people. One woman asked, “Which way to the Renoirs?” Another said with a sarcastic laugh, “I’m really impressed,” then asked, “What are they supposed to be?” A couple seemed more interested, and the man remarked on how weeds “pop up all over”–including in his driveway. But only one person seemed to really get it, a boy of seven or eight who’d been looking with some care at the neoclassical sculptures while his father remained seated. When I showed him Suda’s weeds, he gasped, “Oh, wow!” and his face shone with wonder as his father led him away.