Architecture can play a significant role in the development of national identity and modern conceptions of culture and self. Japanese artist Takahiro Iwasaki explores the role of the concept of tradition in the construction of cultural identity in Japanese architecture. He creates intricately detailed miniatures that remodel both historical and contemporary Japanese buildings, questioning their interpretation in the contemporary world.
His Reflections Model series focuses on seven of Japan’s most sacred buildings that have a close relationship with the reflections cast in their surrounding waters. Commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria, the third and most monumental work of the series, ‘Reflection Model (Itsukushima)’, is a detailed three-dimensional reconstruction and re-imagination of the Shinto shrine of Itsukushima, a spiritually rich and culturally significant Japanese building best known for it’s ‘floating’ Toru gate.
Iwasaki’s 8 x 8 metre timber model suspends mid-air from the ceiling of the exhibition space, its inverse design as though it is reflected by an intangible mirror. According to NGV Curator of Asian Art, Wayne Crothers, Iwasaki “combines the building with an illusionary reflection to create a single, complete form.” Conditional of the visitor’s viewpoint, the suspension heavily manipulates perspective, altering and repositioning the structure’s placement – freeing architecture from gravity and creating the feeling that it is floating, serenely amongst the ether. This paradoxical take on gravity originated from the Buddhist and Shinto religions and their belief in the idea of Nirvana; an idealistic world, or paradise, beyond an existing life.
In homage, the original Shinto shrine was built on water to appear as though it had been floating in the air, released from gravity and from daily struggles and desires. Iwasaki uses this principle to build a structure that creates a new ethereal experience of this paradise allowing the visitor to construct their own quintessential world through the influence of the work’s celestial presence culminated by this weightless, floating illusion.
This feeling of weightlessness however can evoke feelings of vulnerability and even fragility. Iwasaki challenges this by establishing a counter-feeling of support and strength in the work by deconstructing the model into fourteen sections that interlock. This is a modern technique used to create earthquake-resistant buildings in Japan originating from an old Japanese method which uses the Taoist philosophy of ‘durability found in flexibility’. This approach allows structure, with its fragile and delicate components, to move without causing pressure points and deterioration insuring its durability – symbolic of Japan’s national strength.
Iwasaki also used the traditional temple-building material cypress wood in creating the model, a product known for its longevity. Unpolished, the colour and surface of the wood will gradually mature with age. By creating such an intricate, detailed structure with this material, it might seem that Iwasaki is implying that national and cultural identity is not anchored, but in a process of a continuing dialogue between changing historical and modern contexts. The mirror image of the building and its levitated state allows the viewer to reconnect and to reconstruct their own identity.
Iwasaki’s technological achievements are combined with an acute awareness of the ephemerality of existence, creating a rich dialogue between the concrete and the abstract. In ‘Reflection Model (Itsukushima)’, Iwasaki draws on our perception to transform our experience with architecture from a structural to a utopian state, connecting Japan’s modern perception of cultural self with its spiritual past.
Until 6 April, 2015
Reflection Model (Itsukushima), 2013–14
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 2014
Photo: Brooke Holm