Something in the air
Mono-ha: School of Things At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 22 July and the Newlyn Art Gallery, Newlyn, from 9 September until 13 October 'It looks like a builder's yard, ' says Kettle's Yard director Michael Harrison of his gallery at present - and in a sense that is true. In view are chunks of stone, mounds of clay and sheets of steel and glass, while a bare light bulb shines at the end of a long length of cable, wrapped round a block of wood askew on the floor.
Being staged this summer, 'Mono-ha:
School of Things' can benefit from Japan 2001 funding, but that is fortuitous; it has really been timed to coincide with the big survey exhibition of Italian Arte Povera at London's Tate Modern. What, despite their differences, unites these two movements is a great economy of means and attention to materials. If you admire, say, the deliberation with which Caruso St John has used terracotta tiles, concrete and Douglas Fir at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, both these shows will strike a chord.
Much like the 1960s Minimalists, to whom they are indebted, the artists in Mono-ha never thought of themselves as a group; the name, from mono (thing) and ha (school), is just a handy art-historical label for some related works made in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The first of them, seen at Kettle's Yard in a photograph, was Sekine Nobuo's Phase - Mother Earth, a 2.6m deep, 2.2m diameter cylinder of compacted earth excavated for an open-air sculpture exhibition in Kobe in 1968 and placed close to the cavity it created. This work would look equally at home in a show or book on Land Art, which was rearranging bits of American desert at much the same time.
Theoretical underpinning for Mono-ha activity came in texts from another artist, Lee Ufan, who is well-represented at Kettle's Yard. 'The highest level of expression is not to create something from nothing, but rather to nudge something that already exists so that the world shows up more vividly, ' says Lee, speaking also of 'dislocating whatever happens to be around'.
Such 'dislocation' is not via the tired tactic of simply plucking an object from the 'real' world and placing it in a gallery. Mono-ha is more interested in relationships between things: between stone and paper, for instance, as in a work by Koshimizu Susumu where the stone, bisected, is some three tonnes in weight and totally enveloped in a pale paper shroud - an unforeseen conjunction of delicacy and mass.
Just as Arte Povera had roots in western religion and mythology, so Mono-ha - to western eyes at least - seems also to be culturally specific. The boulders in Lee's Relatum (1969) and mounds of oil clay in Sekine's Phase of Nothingness (1969) could bring to mind Japanese gardens, with their islands of stone in a stretch of raked sand.
Both these pieces counterpoint solid with void, as do Sekine's earth cylinder and two paintings by Lee, where the pigment (mixed with vegetable paste) is dense at one side of the canvas but scarcely visible at the other.
This dialogue between the tangible and intangible persists in the show's culminating work, Suga Kishio's Situation of Leaving (1972).
Suga has unwound a long length of metal cable from a drum still lying on the floor and attached it to hooks around three walls of the gallery, forming a series of overlapping diagonals half a metre or so off the ground.
Where these wires converge he has balanced pieces of sawn timber or stone, so they float in mid-air at intervals across the room.
While Situation of Leaving is scaled to the human body - its scattered elements could each be held in your hand - it might be only an extract from an infinite system. With nature (the irregular stones) and culture (machine-processed wood) in equipoise, this installation can easily be seen as metaphoric, but at the same time it is a literal presentation of materials, without illusion or subterfuge - as the drum from which it all begins, still lying there, makes clear.
In an essay in the catalogue, Tatehata Akira says that 'things have always been here and will always resist being institutionalised by art'. Not just by art but by daily life: the message of Mono-ha is that, in their use, associations and significance, things (materials) can always be rethought - a liberating legacy that Kettle's Yard keeps alive.