On the afternoon that I go to meet Hanae Utamura, the first ‘intervention’ into her WW Gallery Patio Project ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ has just occurred. The wind and rain has brought her installation down; the fountain head is resting on the patio wall and fragments of plaster have scattered the pavement.
Utamura is excited by the news, beaming beneath her apologies: ‘with this accident I feel the work finally starts to happen’. ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ is a performative sculpture and installation with which Utamura poses and answers her own question: ‘What are we doing on earth, if not constructing and deconstructing something at the same time…’
With this violent outpouring of Hackney weather the process of seeking an answer begins. This is a work which will be in constant flux throughout March, as Utamura suggests, the only thing ‘set’ is the timeframe. Even the dried fountain of plaster remains fluid in the merciless grip of the landscape, redirecting its flow, shaping a new thing at every moment.
In its stark black and white, the ‘Fountain’ represents the struggle between opposing forces that exists in all matter. For Utamura the primary conflict is between East and West. In the West man tries to be the master of water, creating elaborate synthetic displays with its public monuments. In the East water always follows the natural flow. Utamura began by forcing her fountain of plaster upwards but gravity brought it down. Nature will continue to chip away at her defiant attempt to be absolute master and creator of ‘CONSTRUCT’.
For Utamura the appeal of the WW Gallery’s Patio Projects was that ‘external force which is not in the gallery space’, the unpredictable ‘interventions’ of the environment. Exposing her work to the ‘enormous power of nature’ Utamura finds the collaboration with, and negotiation of these external forces exciting and stimulating. The ‘fight with light and weather’, the shifting equilibrium of constructing and deconstructing, is a thing of beauty.
In Utamura’s work the continual performance of unanswerable questions frequently brings humour into play. She is left hopelessly casting a wave or throwing red dust to the wind in video-records which have a strange twist of comedy about them.
Is there humour to be found in ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ too? Hanae laughs, everything is approached with brightness. There is a ‘joke’ at play in the bathos of the viewer’s expectations. For all its ambition to be remembered as a landmark, the fountain is ‘fragile beneath its grandiosity.’ Utamura has shored her ‘CONSTRUCT’ against the anxiety of impermanence by bolstering its monumentality, but the wind can still pull it down.
The Patio Projects is also a collaboration with the public. The already growing oral history of local reactions to WW’s year-long outdoor art programme fostered a ‘sentimentality’ in Utamura towards her neighbourhood audience.
Inspired by her Japanese culture the ‘Fountain’ is in the tradition of a Shinto shrine, honouring the waterfall god. In Japan these shrines are often found at the side of the pavement, just as the WW Gallery patio is.
Utamura hopes to have created a shrine for passing pedestrians and curious neighbours: ‘outside is the most challenging location for a work art,’ here the work has to ‘demonstrate itself’. The Patio Projects reaches beyond the typical gallery-going crowd, it offers itself to local people. Shrine-like, ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ vies for our devotion and our ritual return.
Much of Hanae’s work involves fleeting performances of provocation and poignancy; sweeping the Sahara desert, writing with water in Trafalgar square, lying on a lake of ice in Scotland. It is the records of these performances, the photographs and videos, which she believes are the ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ of her work. Yet the real heart of her work is the lingering memories, the testimony of witnesses and repeated stories. The March-weathering and physical deconstruction of her installation represents the subtle construction of an Utamura legend. If ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ survives in the whispered memories of the local people Utamura will have found the answer to her question.
Hanae Utamura’s ‘CONSTRUCT: Fountain’ will be at the WW Gallery Patio Projects, Queensdown Road, Hackney, until the 1st April.
Words by Francesca Brooks.