Phase of Nothingness—Water, 1969/2012
Stainless steel, lacquer, and water
“Even in the simplest structures, many different landscapes or thoughts can be expressed.” Nobuo Sekine, 2016
Nobuo Sekine (Saitama, Japan, 1942) is one of the key artists of the Mono-ha (‘The school of things’ in Japanese) group, founded in Japan and active from 1968 to 1975. Rather than making traditional figurative artworks, its members explored natural and industrial materials like stone, earth, wood, paper, cotton, sheet steel, glass, wire, oil and water. One of their objectives was to create artworks related to the harmful effects they saw in the uncontrolled industrial development of Japan. For these artists, it was important to transgress traditional ideas of artistic representation in order to show the world as they conceptualized it, relating materials to their properties and reducing objects to their essential primary form.
In 1968, Sekine started to create the Phase series, made up of a group of works regarded as among his most important. With the collaboration of two artist friends, he made Phase: Mother Earth (1968) for the first open-air sculpture exhibition in the city of Kobe. The project consisted of digging a hole in the ground with a depth of 2.7 meters and a diameter of 2.2 meters, and then forming a cylinder of exactly the same dimensions from the compacted earth that had been extracted. The presentation of Phase: Mother Earth marked a critical moment in the development of the Mono-ha movement, and began a period of intense activity for Nobuo Sekine and the artists involved in it.
A year after the Kobe exhibition, Sekine made Phase of Nothingness—Water (1969). The artist constructed two steel containers, one cylindrical and the other rectangular, and filled them with water. The containers, with a height of 110 cm in one case and 30 cm in the other, are painted in black lacquer so that the water is invisible. However, viewers are allowed to touch the sculpture, and the waves they make when they do so reveal the presence of the liquid.
With Phase of Nothingness—Water, as with Phase: Mother Earth, the artist started to explore the mathematical field of topology. Topology is a branch of spatial geometry in which space and materials are considered malleable, and can undergo countless transformations from one state (or phase) to another without any addition or loss to the original materials. This is why the titles of these works contain the word ‘phase’. In conceiving of his work in this way, Sekine regards form, material and space as infinitely malleable.
In Phase of Nothingness—Water, Sekine explores topology by juxtaposing the two containers, which possess different forms on the exterior but are equivalent on the interior, since the rectangular and the cylindrical tank, despite appearances, contain exactly the same volume of water. The work, like Phase: Mother Earth, demonstrates a sense of symmetry and balance expressed in a continuity of form and material. The two objects which make it up are not intended to be seen as opposite forms but as equivalents.
Look closely at this sculpture. What do you see? How would you describe it? What geometric forms can you see in it? Describe step by step how you think the artist made the work. What would it be like to touch it? Why? If the work were to be located somewhere other than inside a museum, where would you put it? Why?
Phase of Nothingness—Water is made of stainless steel, black varnish and water. What do you think are the characteristics of each of these materials? What qualities do they suggest to you? What do you associate with steel? And with water and lacquer? Why would Sekine have decided to paint the interior of the sculpture with black varnish? What effect do you think this produces? Would it be the same if it were painted another color?
Sekine investigates the relations between stillness and change, the industrial and the natural. How do you see these relations reflected in the work? In what way do you think the artist manages to project this in his piece? What kind of relationship do you find between the materials used in the work and the artist’s ideas?
Do you think the two containers hold the same amount of water? Give reasons for your answer. How does the form of the pieces affect our perception of them?
In Phase of Nothingness—Water, Sekine explores the field of topology. Find out what topology is and what it consists of. How do you think the work is related to this branch of mathematics?
The same amount of water, a different construction
First, think how and where you might store the contents of a glass of water. Look for various containers with different shapes that have the same capacity. Try showing the containers to different people and asking them which they think hold the most and the least water (remember they should all hold the same amount). Note down the answers and think about the reasons why this occurs. Prepare a report on the investigation you have carried out.
Investigation and creation of your own artwork
Go to the website of the artist Nobuo Sekine and find the different works entitled Phase. Choose the one you most like and make a drawing of it. What made you choose this work in particular? Afterwards, make a sketch of your own Phase work. Read the definition of Mono-ha, and remember that the artists used natural and industrial materials without much alteration, such as stone, earth, wood, paper, cotton, steel, glass, wire, oil, water, and others. After looking carefully at Sekine’s works, start sketching your piece with these materials in mind. Don’t forget to draw it from various angles and note down the materials you would use to make it. What problems would you face? How do you think you might resolve them? Do you think Sekine faced similar problems at any moment? Present your sketches in class and share your concerns over your work with your companions. Listen to their suggestions and debate them.
Mono-ha: a group of artists founded in the city of Tokyo (Japan) in the late sixties, and active until the early seventies. Its members shared an interest in creating artworks out of the natural state of things. Using mainly natural materials, like stone, wood, earth and water, the artists tried to erase any trace of the artist’s hand and present their works or interventions with scarcely any alteration to the material they were made from.
Topology: branch of mathematics devoted to the study of those properties of geometric bodies that remain unaltered by continuous transformations.