Interview with Yutaka Sone by Jessica Hundley
Photography by Ye Rin Mok
In Yutaka Sone’s work, there is always a sense of flux, of metamorphosis, a continual engagement with thrilling mutation, as an object, place or environment transitions – slowly, but certainly – into its opposite.
In Sone’s world, macro becomes micro. The sprawl of a freeway cloverleaf, towering amusement park roller coasters and even entire cities (Hong Kong and Venice) are hewn into impossibly intricate marble dioramas; the vast becoming both miniaturized and epically memorialized, in pure white stone. Reversing course, he plays a certain sleight of hand. Casting a snowflake’s fragile details in materials such as marble, papier-mâché and shimmering crystal, he scales them larger by many orders of magnitude. Sone seems to insist that these state-changes are a kind of distillation, rendering the ephemeral permanent.
In other works, the outdoors transitions whimsically into indoors – a fecund jungle of palm fronds brushes against a gallery’s spotless walls. At other times, nature mutates gracefully into the artificial, as trees and other flora are mimicked, mirrored and morphed, into sculptures of fabric and rattan.
There is even a playful blur between genders. Sone himself is fond of the flattering cut of a women’s Chanel suit, his black hair worn luxuriously long, and his openings – at times – occasions for full and glamorous make-up. He embodies transformation in both work and person, embracing a constant play of light and dark, male and female, natural order and the frenetic chaos of civilization.
Born in Japan in 1965, Sone studied fine art and architecture. He has engaged both disciplines extensively in his work; they remain in constant conversation. Exploring an array of media – sculpture, photography, video, painting, drawing and more – Sone maintains an architect’s approach to form and function, where the material used is dictated by the idea conceived.
Performance piece props are built to be responsive to their environment and audience interaction. A pair of enormous 8-foot dice, constructed in a material usually reserved for skis, are tossed down both an Aspen mountaintop and the museum steps at the Sydney Biennial. Sketches and paintings showcase an experienced draftsman’s skill. His sculptural works are based on 3D modeling and aerial photography, and crafted meticulously by hand. At times, there are bells and whistles and Rube Goldberg-esque whimsies – a functioning mini ski lift made of ropes and chains or 19 unicycles – bolted front to end. And for many of his epic sculptural works, Sone labors alongside master craftsmen in a remote Chinese province, artists who are legendary for their workmanship in marble and stone.
Raised at the base of Mt. Fuji, Sone was born to an architect father and taught to ski at an early age. Throughout his childhood, the measured control of construction and the flowing thrill of the slopes offered an intuitive education in reconciling extremes. Following university, Sone traveled, wide and far. Asia, the Middle East, deep jungles, barren deserts, teeming cities, isolated solitary nature – careening between boundaries, testing how they could be alternatively harmonized or transcended.
Today, Sone lives in Los Angeles, the city of opposites and extremes – of heat and frigidity, wealth and poverty, creativity and lunacy. One of his first pieces in this new home was a communal collaboration with his students at UCLA.
Fascinated by the diverse climate of the county, he had his class design surfboards, skateboards, and skis. In the course of one day, Sone and his students surfed the Pacific, took to the slopes in the ragged peaks above the city and returned to the boardwalk of Venice for a sunset skate session. They filmed and edited their adventure to create what is now an iconic video, “A Beautiful Day.”
Disparate landscapes and climates – all unified within the boundaries of the county and connected by ribbons of asphalt – “A Beautiful Day” illustrates the same transformational and oppositional themes that resonate in nearly all of Sone’s work since.
His is a world where the jungle creeps along a sterile white wall, where a snowflake doesn’t drift, but rather sits, leaden and lovely – awaiting admiration. Sone’s world is a place of extremes, of opposites, an endless range of mountain peaks with black teeth, the artist racing gleefully through the valleys, down one slope and up another, down one slope… and up again.
Yutaka Sone / ANSWERS
Q: In looking at your work, it becomes quickly apparent that your training as an architect has informed your art, in that there is a certain freedom in how you choose and handle both materials and execution, as well as a commitment to work that may take longer to execute. Can you tell us about your early education in architecture and how you feel it plays into your art?
A: This answer might sound paradoxical, but, I became an artist to become an architect. When I graduated from my school of architecture, my thesis was entitled, “16 Terms to Become an Architect.” This conceptual, even philosophical, thesis described 16 areas that an architect needs to study. That included a raw idea in my debut work, Her 19th Foot (1992), and ideas for how to visualize “seeing and being seen,” and more. According to this thesis, it can be said that I am still on my way to becoming an architect. A significant benefit by studying and working within the architecture field is that I acquire the ability to work with long-term projects. My adaptability to different sites, working conditions, and cultures is one of my strengths as an artist that was cultivated through my study of architecture.
Q: The theme of this issue is transformation, which seems to be a subtext in much of your work. You are continually transforming gallery environments, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor, transforming vast landscapes into sculptural objects. Can you tell us a bit about what “transformation” means to you?
A. Certainly. The transformation process that happens while creating a sculpture from natural materials is of major interest to me. The transformation of a crude stone to an object. Or transformation can also mean finding and bringing out “a work” that is already exists in natural stone. I have a strong interest in marble and crystal, which are materials frequently used in my sculptures because they are produced through a metamorphic process over an astonishingly long period. Transformation always accompanies time. Thus, transformation can be the time that the subject of an artwork necessitates, I think.
Q: Your work encompasses a variety of mediums – everything from natural materials like rattan and marble, to synthetic fabrics. What determines the materials you will utilize in your initial approach to an idea?
A: I often find the best materials through traveling. Both the material and the concept of a work evoke images, and I always try to keep a balance between them. For example, when I chose marble for my first stone sculpture, Hong Kong Island (1997), I followed the image of light and sought a natural material that seemed artificially white, like an industrial product. I ended up choosing white marble from China. In the same way, I was fortunate to come across rattan in Mexico. Not only materials, but also encounters with local artisans and traditions of craftsmanship, open up a wide range of possibilities.
Q: Speaking of your travels, you seem to take inspiration from your experiences in both the cities you visit around the globe as well as the natural environments in those areas. As a result, your work explores both the natural world and man-made landscapes. What draws you to a particular object or environment?
A: I feel strongly drawn to the landscape of the natural world before humans step in. This landscape can never be experienced; it is a fantasy altogether. However, I pursue the critical point between nature and the man-made landscape, to explore landscapes that human beings have never known. Probably, man-made landscapes, including my artworks, and nature are incompatible. But my artist ego keeps attempting to sense what landscape might be beyond that critical point.
Q: In the same way that your travel plays into your work, there also seems to be a correlation between your art and your personal life, your adventures and your hobbies, particularly skiing. How do you integrate those experiences/feelings – of exploring the jungle, zooming down a slope – into your art?
A: I can say I never separate my work from my personal life. One way of illustrating this is the correlation between a snowy mountain and sculpture. I’ve enjoyed mountaineering and skiing since childhood, and the fact that there is no flat place in mountains remains an absolute truth for me. The “snow mountain” is my landscape of origin. To me, skiing and exploring are ways of expressing three-dimensional space.
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