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Q&A with Michio Ihara

Jul 17 2018

In 1978, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned artist Michio Ihara to create a sculpture for the lobby of the International Building on Fifth Avenue. Within the frames of 10 recessed columns in the north and south walls, Ihara designed an abstract composition of nearly 1,600 rectangular, gold-plated leaves suspended on vertical cables, a work that eschews representation while suggesting natural phenomena such as the wind through the trees.

"It was executed with precision and a flawless sense of space," writes Christine Roussel in her book, The Art of Rockefeller Center. "Depending on where the sculpture is viewed from, the designs and light patterns appear to change." The warmly illuminated piece came to be known as "Light and Movement," though Ihara says he generally doesn't name his sculptures. "I prefer to have viewers encounter my work without any preconceptions," he says. "The 'Light and Movement' title was somehow attached to the work without my knowledge, but I don’t have a problem with it."

Born in Paris in 1928 and raised in Tokyo, Ihara began as a painter (like his father) before moving to the U.S. on a Fulbright grant in 1960 to study with professor and mentor Georgy Kepes at MIT's Department of Architecture. There Ihara began to develop three-dimensional work in metals, and continued his exploration of the medium throughout his career, beginning with several large-scale installations in Tokyo.

Having designed architectural sculptures around the world, Ihara is an artist of international renown who has lived in Massachusetts since the 1970s, first in Concord and now in Canton, in a wooded area where, he says, "deer and wild turkeys are frequent visitors." Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of "Light and Movement," we corresponded with Ihara to learn more about his approach to making art for Rockefeller Center and other urban spaces. See the slideshow above for more examples of his work.

How did you conceive of your sculpture for the International Building and envision it in relation to the structure of the lobby? Did the 10 recesses in the walls already exist prior to the commission?

Yes, the recesses were there and they were filled with advertisements for travel agents, dealers in old coins, etc. I worked with the original 1930s blueprint for the design of the recesses.

As in all my work, the conception evolves from the space and the way the space is used. I spend time in and observe the space before I begin to design the work. The lobby is a space in which people are moving—to and from the entrance, up and down the escalators. Although the sculpture itself is not kinetic, the movement of people in that space creates a sense of movement in the work.

The setting feels like a reprieve from the busy surroundings of the city. What aspects of the building played into your ideas?

I took into consideration the features of the lobby itself—the columns, the lighting, the vast ceiling, the green marble walls, and, as I mentioned, people’s movement in the space.

Having been a two-dimensional artist, I felt rather comfortable thinking of the north and south walls as two large canvases upon which I would create a pair of related but different images.

I also remember thinking of a scroll painting, which is slowly unrolled and viewed a portion at a time.

The placement of the leaves has a rhythm, reflecting the beauty of nature in an abstract form. To what degree does intuition lead you through the composition and to what degree are you planning, modeling and making calculations?

I think intuition, planning and calculating are a seamless whole in the design process.

Since the '50s, I have been interested in systems of modular units. I would complete my vision on a sheet of paper with a composition of simple units or modules. I took the same approach with my sculpture, composing modules in space. The square or the cube is a module I often still use in my sculpture. I’ve never grown tired of it.

I heard that the sculpture took a month to install at Rockefeller Center. Did you have the opportunity to direct or observe that process?

I produced all the components in my studio, then packed and shipped them to the installation site. My two assistants and I used a rented rolling scaffold tower, installing the sculpture in one recess at time, then moving to the next. I don’t remember how long it took, but I remember the work went smoothly and we completed it without any difficulties.

The space between the physical materials is a core element of your art. Can you describe your awareness of space, and how you conceive of the space inside and outside a work of art when you're crafting it?

George Staempfli, the owner of the Staempfli Gallery that represented me, wrote the following in the catalog to my exhibition: "Michio Ihara works with stainless steel, with brass and copper but mainly he works with space."

I like that. I think that is enough of an explanation.

Initially, the base of "Light and Movement" contained fans that fluttered the leaves, but apparently dust interfered and so the fans went out of use. Was that a difficult loss? What is your hope as to how a modern-day visitor will encounter the piece?

I don’t think the loss of the fans is significant since the slight kinetic nature of the work was not essential to the design. Most viewers are unable to see the upper side of the modules or the dust that collects there. They might also not notice the details of the surface of the modules. Each stainless steel module was plated first with copper, the copper masked in areas before then being plated in gold. So what might read at a distance as a simple patina is, in fact, hundreds of individual metallic abstract paintings.

The movement in your work can connote evanescence as well as timelessness. What is meaningful to you about the presence of movement and change in your art?

I do not introduce big, excessive movement in my indoor sculpture. In responding to a current of air, the surface of the moving parts may reflect light, alerting a viewer to the happening, perhaps making the invisible suddenly visible. My kinetic outdoor work is more active.

You've created a number of large-scale international sculptures following your work for Rockefeller Center. Is there a project that was particularly challenging or memorable for you?

Perhaps it is a little bit corny to say, but they are like my children. What is challenging is when they disappear. Sadly, I have experienced the pain of loss when a work is removed—when, in several cases, the building it is sited in also disappears. Recently, a work I completed in 1986 for Burden Hall at Harvard Business School was removed. The building is to be replaced with a new structure and the school did not choose to provide an alternative space for the work.

One triumph was the preservation of your "Wind Tree" sculpture in Auckland, New Zealand. After the piece was set to be taken down for construction, advocates successfully had it relocated in 2011. Please tell us about that experience.

In New Zealand and also in Boston, I have had works removed, but advocates worked to find alternative sites for the pieces. In each case, the relocation of the work also allowed for it to be rejuvenated as well. Unfortunately, this is not often the case and decisions lead to the destruction of the work.

Following the loss in Auckland, you described the rebuilding as a "rebirth for the sculpture." Is making art akin to transmitting a life force?

Making art is certainly my life force.

How do your surroundings in Massachusetts play a role in your life and work?

The Concord space was perfect for almost forty years, and Concord is a wonderful town. I had two exhibitions at local art centers there. One at the Concord Art Association and, more recently, at the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts.

Recently, I’ve moved to a smaller home and studio in Canton, which is south of Boston. My home is located beside the Blue Hills Reservation... Leaving the Concord studio after so many years was difficult for me, but many of my outdoor sculptures have found a beautiful setting in the grounds surrounding the Canton house.

What are you most interested in now? How do you spend your time and what are you creating?

Artists never retire, and I continue to work in my studio every day, continue to make sculpture. I am working on a smaller scale in a smaller space, which may be appropriate since, as I age, I find I have less physical energy. One has to adjust to inevitable change.

The MIT Museum has recently staged exhibits of Gyorgy Kepes’s photographic work and of the Center of Advanced Visual Studies, which he founded at the Institute and where I was a fellow with a grant from the JDR III Fund. As part of the exhibit, visitors could listen to Kepes respond to questions in an interview. With great pleasure, I listened to his voice, which I have not heard since his death in 2001. He was a very important person in my life, a mentor and a friend.

The most painful part of aging is seeing my work for public buildings disappear. I hope my work at Rockefeller Center will remain.

"Light and Movement" is permanently on view at the International Building at 630 Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets (marked by the statue of Atlas at the entrance). Read more about Michio Ihara on his website.

—Karen Hudes

Images (apart from those of "Light and Movement") courtesy of Michio Ihara

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