Introducing Yutaka Sone before a talk at the art star’s Renaissance Society opening, curator Hamza Walker pleaded eloquently for the cultural rehabilitation of “bankrupt” and “exhausted” natural icons. But Sone’s installation, “Forecast: Snow,” comes closer to performing last rites for its subject than redeeming it. This Japanese native now living in LA interprets snow through cliched, nondescript paintings and drawings of snowflakes, skiing-related dioramas, a snowman on skis, fake snowballs, a pine forest “planted” in snowbanks, and several snowflake sculptures that evoke nothing so much as giant designer paperweights realized in crystal, marble, and, to keep it real, papier-mache. The show is like a combination craft store, gift boutique, and sporting goods store. It puts us at the mall, the place where snow has diplomatically replaced faith-based imagery as a symbol of “the holidays.”
In fairness Sone said during his talk that his aim is only to entertain and perhaps enchant the viewer. At that he’s fairly successful: in an essay Walker calls Sone’s work “straight-up fun…no strings attached.” And after all, as we’re told, Japanese art isn’t policed for distinctions between fine and commercial art the way Western art is. But much Japanese art, from ukiyo-e woodcuts to manga to film, has used snow and other natural phenomena in stunning and moving ways regardless of its intended audience. If Sone’s installation isn’t beautiful or ugly, tragic or funny, what is it?
It’s about knickknacks–and the best knickknack is a fancy knickknack. The most striking objects in “Forecast: Snow” are two delicate marble carvings, one of a ski lift and one of the San Moritz ski resort. Like the carved marble and crystal snowflakes, these were fabricated by workers in China. But unlike traditional master artists in the West or Japan, who closely supervise or supervised their fabricators, Sone visited the factory “four times a year,” he said during his talk. And judging from his own ham-handed drawings and maquettes, the carved pieces had to have been entirely outsourced even though he also said he participated in the final detail work. Like Sone’s artisan-made marble carvings of Los Angeles freeway interchanges, shown at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003, his ski dioramas evoke nothing so much as the intricately carved elephant tusks prized by 19th-century European and American collectors of chinoiserie. There’s a lot to look at, but not much to see.
The diorama format does present challenges for the artist. A model suggests lowbrow handicraft and/or an alienating institutional or corporate purpose. Still, many artists have used these aspects of the form to great and often amusing effect. Mike Kelley in his (also all-white) architectural model Educational Complex incorporated structures from every learning institution he attended plus his childhood home–a tongue-in-cheek expression of his psychology in which blank spaces represent repressed memories. But Sone’s clean, simplified, styleless models don’t approach Kelley’s for elegance, insight, or even cynicism. Instead they’re generic winter-themed marketing awaiting a product to shill. Nor
is Sone’s approach to subcontracting of any real interest. Paul Pfeiffer created Poltergeist, an off-white diorama of stacked furniture inspired by a scene in the Spielberg movie, by having it fabricated mechanically from digital code. In a thoughtful comment on sweatshops, he later had the piece re-created in wax by Thai craftsmen, in grass by a New York artist, and in toilet paper by a New Mexico prison inmate.
Sone may not view his mission the way Kelley and Pfeiffer do theirs. If skiing recurs in the Renaissance Society exhibit, it’s central to his next one, “X-Art Show,” which opens February 16 at the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado. There families will be invited to build “snow cactuses” with Sone on the museum’s grounds, and on Sunday, after Sone’s Aspen Powder Cactus Band performs, two giant dice will be transported to Buttermilk Mountain by helicopter and rolled down a snowboarding half-pipe. To top it all off, Sone’s just plain bad painting Ski Madonna is being used this season on Aspen lift tickets.
It’s obnoxious for Sone to come off as Jeff Koons without the irony. But you can’t be too hard on an international celebrity who makes snow cactuses with kids. He’s obviously just a party dude–or at least that’s the persona he presents. He once videotaped himself and his friends throwing a series of birthday parties–and perhaps because of the work’s “exuberance” or Fluxus-like “economy of gesture,” this self-indulgent, banal claptrap was acclaimed worldwide. Like many other inbred worlds, the art world is often more likely to reward charisma (especially in nonthreatening males) than ability, subtlety, intelligence, or even hipness. Sone likes snow, he likes skiing, he likes art, what the hell. At least the Chicago show lacks an inflatable motorized snow globe.
When: Through Sun 4/9: Tue-Fri 10 AM-5 PM, Sat-Sun noon-5 PM
Where: Renaissance Society, Univ. of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis, 4th flr.
More: U. of C. physics professor Heinrich Jaeger gives a free lecture on the symmetry of crystals Sun 2/26, 2 PM.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of the Renaissance Society.