Hana Usui: ELECTRIC SHADOWS
curated by Chiara Giorgetti
Exhibition 15 March – 05 May 2023
Kaisterstr. 54, 1070 Vienna
Fotografare l’energia. La mostra di Hana Usui a Vienna
by Luca Sposato (review in Italian and some pictures of the exhibition and the installation)
New glances: how images condition experiences
Thoughts on Hana Usui's exhibition Electric Shadows
by Chiara Giorgetti, artist and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan
Today we are surrounded by images, photographs and videos, from the obsessive advertising screens in railway stations to our smartphones, which we use "bulimically" and which are full of information about where we are and what is happening elsewhere. Inside “Electric Shadows” at Kunstraum Feller (Feller Art Space) in Vienna the artist Hana Usui places us in front of a reflection on technologies, all these digital worlds are only possible because of the consumption of immense amounts of electricity, most of which comes from fossil or nuclear sources. Worldwide, cities are ever more digitally mapped,made usable, traversable, they comfort us with foreseen routes with infinite names and references of restaurants, museums, cinemas, shops, etc. that can be crossed with a click that plunges us into a whirlpool of images, videos, links to other images, videos, links. We can feel “safe”, we could plan evenings with friends, trips to the countryside by choosing the trekking route and stops in advance for a lunch break, flights or train journeys in real time, paying for tickets, buying, tracking on-line and then pick up the goods in a selected locker; an infinite number of activities not even remotely imaginable until a few years ago. The mainstream architects and urbanists are planning increasingly “immersive cities” to make the tourist destinations a total experience, such as the futuristic New Murabba which will define Riyadh's new skyline. Immersive experiences, truer than reality and in a constant surplus, are addictive and accustoming us to ever more extraordinary expectations, though end up gradually boring and desensitising us. New technologies contribute to develop a new “aesthetic of wonder”, an obsession with smoother images, perfect shapes, wrinkle-free faces, one-piece bodywork cars, and all flawless: it is the wow factor. In this extraordinary magical contemporaneity, the enchanted surprise that makes people feel great excitement or admiration, at the same time, arouses desire for different experiences, that we could define as “vintage analogical panorama” (from the Greek pan- 'all' and hórama 'vision'). Tiredness, when and if not depression, replaces performance and information anxiety, the illusion of a life on vacation, the exaltation of free time as a life goal ends up dazing us more.
Art testifies to changes that have occurred over the last 20 years with ever greater acceleration. This year the Belvedere Research Centre in Vienna is continuing its conference series on the digital transformation of art museums, and critically examines the imagined cultural metaverse, a series of reflections made increasingly urgent and necessary after the Covid 19 pandemic. In parallel, Albertina Modern opens “Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst: The Revolution in Printmaking” an exhibition which presents 70 works of post 1945 art history, exploring the creative possibilities offered by different printing technologies during time as a reflection on the languages used from artists and focusing on the more technical-ideational aspects. In the title, the word “printmaking” seems to indicate, but not necessarily circumscribe, an extremely broad field of research that has distant roots, linked to a historical period in which “making art” was also the territory of knowledge and manual practices.
Hana Usui, a Japanese contemporary artist trained in her youth as a calligrapher, who lives and works in Vienna, catapulted us into an unclassifiable and surprising exhibition. We observe her research across a wide range of methods (“analog” and “digital” to remain in the territory of our observation on the present) which permitted her to pass through “traditional” to “contemporary” signifying signs in a continuum of migrations and cross references. The series of artworks place us in front of an intense reflection on our present, on the possible future, and on the changes underway. Usui’s research makes us fall within a double sentiment: a motionless world of black devastation, a gloomy no-go zone, and at the same time it leads us in the playfulness of sunny days and a soft awakening place of the consciences where the methods and images seem to rebirth from the near future.
Outside of Kunstraum Feller, colour and slightly blurred photographs on large windows greeted us like in a storytelling of a harmless natural landscape of life-giving fields. But at the same time, we are seeing the Buhonice nuclear power station with its steaming cooling towers looming ominously about 100 km from Vienna. Although there are no active nuclear power plants in Austria, some of the oldest and most dangerous active nuclear power plants in Europe are located not far from the Austrian capital. We have been attracted by the beauty of an apparently bucolic landscape, yet what is the artist asking us? That countryside introduces the evocative and dual atmospheres of the interior: in the room on the left we walk inside shadows, signs, emerged and submerged lights in a juxtaposition between dark and dazzling areas, glares in a growing sense of finiteness. These series of artworks which bear the same title of the exhibition “Electric Shadows” are not disconnected from visual balance and lyric images of Usui’s personal black and white atmospheres, but at the same time they are open to new visions with a cycle of re-meditated images and thoughts. For many years, Hana Usui used ink wash as the background of her drawings made with oil paints and monotypes. Later, she replaced the ink washes with black and white photographs, as if the cloud-like washings had condensed into blurred digital images. With “Electric Shadows” an inversion occurs in that the photographs were printed on transparent papers and are foregrounded. Another first is the fact that the photographs are in colour, although they appear almost black and white. In these new series of drawing-photographs, which Usui realised as a result of a joyful visit to her home and parents in Tokyo after a long and forced absence due to the pandemic, we find barely visible ink washings and black oil lines that groove the papers and shine through the photographs of the shadows of Tokyo's playful above-ground electrical networks. The images seem to restore a visual balance and harmony that exist in nature. The artist’s observation is a moment of grace and it carries us away by the enchantment of the shadow lines. Time is fixed with the artist’s indirect gesture across a paper used as a diaphragm. The tools and materials are chosen and used to communicate with the observer driven and manipulated in a constant and delicate manner, soft but rich, ethereal but physical, the oily traces are evidence of a constant, gentle but struggling desire. They suggest the electrical network that carried the electricity from Fukushima to Tokyo, which Hana Usui addressed with her series “Fukushima” in 2019. The artist points out that most of the time we use the extremely useful electricity without concern, even maybe enjoying the sight of the tangle of cables of the electrical networks but repress the origin of this energy in the shadows of consciousness. And the playful shadows from Tokyo’s networks in the shining sun, beautiful in themselves, are perhaps a vague reference to the well-known human shadow which was etched in stone by the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Positive/negative, unique, and serial are reflected in material’s physical consistency, from one side the water base: liquid ink, poetical, lean and to the opposite one the greasy oil paint, fleshy, sure, real, irrevocable. The oil colour, a substance associated with traditional western painting, is in dialogue with the photographs on paper in a hybridization of forms and genres common and widespread in contemporary art. Now we generally speak of visual art without necessarily going into the definition of painting, graphics, sculpture, etc. or worse, define an artist as a painter or as a sculptor. Our time is more complex than the past, artists use a wide panorama of different methods and systems according to their projects. It is therefore necessary to know, control, and be able to learn and work in multiple techniques in today’s practice.
The “dual game” in Usui’s artworks across mediums allows her to re-think the manifold Japanese alphabet synthetized most of the times in dual sheets of paper that hold on vibrated traces marked out with metallic tools from an oil worked surface. The layering of signs highlights a path that winds and develops over the years, establishing an increasing link with the Austrian world, perhaps made even more visible in the recent series of works in which a clear sign, made with a felt-tip pen, immune from uncertainties, furrows the sheets.
The repetition of variants in Usui’s artwork is perceived by the observer as in a monochromatic video, a visual document of a universal/private history which through distant cultures attempts a personal synthesis with repeated frames. But the perception of black and white images is illusory, colour details emerge almost as if they were printing errors, and they give relief allowing us to breathe again after an initial semi-disturbing surprise, yet are they the key to understanding the whole? Restart with reading the artworks on the left side of the exhibition rooms, we see the images of the pylons in black and white, but then we enter the fragments of the Japanese landscape in which residues and stripes of blue, green, and yellow reveal the coloured nature of the apparently monochromatic subsequent works.
From “No More Fukushimas”, a project for Vienna Art Week in 2014, Usui's artistic research has acquired suggestions arising from a partial negative world, the Japanese one, which, from a Western point of view is both fascinating but also hostile towards the quality of life and the emotional well-being of its citizens. A country that is wonderful by nature, has a very high and fine culture, but at the same time, violated by some cruel laws such as the death penalty and intolerant traditions. Usui has always been against the use of nuclear power – more specifically, against dangerous nuclear fission for the production of electricity and even more so against the military use of nuclear weapons. Since 2014 she has started producing artistic works related to political and social aspects, and over the years the need to tell the injustices linked to some reckless choices of Japanese politics has increasingly defined itself up to this epilogue exhibition where the intentions of rebirth and research for a possible way out are suggested by the overlapping of lyrical images and emanated by a sort of meditative silence and aura.
The immersive installation in the room on the right of Kunstraum Feller presents scenes from “failed apocalypse”, a series of photographs with which the walls of the room were more or less completely filled that testify to the presence of the artist inside the Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant, which never went into operation thanks to Austrian protests in the seventies. We are with Usui inside that place and experience in the darkness of a blackout that can have disastrous consequences especially for a nuclear centre. We search for possible answers that the artist seems to suggest by providing each visitor with a hand crank torch to illuminate the room and marking a core zone with four yellow-black cones which signal danger and salvation at the same time. The artist photographed with her smartphone numerous details of the nuclear power plant's interior and had about 50 of them printed out several times on different paper formats. She then divided them into serial groups in the room, i.e. zones in which she pasted the same motif dozens of times on the wall. This obsessive iteration is again reminiscent of frames in films and increases the tension. The photographs are visible only through the action of the torch and create a disorientation from impending danger to our rescue. The room is not a fake area with ephemeral and trendy experiences made with holograms; we can’t escape, we are alone, and understand that we must act. We must keep cranking the little yellow lamp. The resulting buzzing sound, reminiscent of wind-up toy cars, modulates with the speed of rotation and triggers a kind of play instinct in us those contrasts with the surroundings. Not a stroll in romantic feeling of beauty and ruin, neither industrial archaeology, nor smug and decadent feeling of ruinenlust, but an involvement in a dynamic action, a spur to the awakening of consciences and to pure, true, authentic beauty, the one that nestles in knowing how to see and knowing how to do.
Being aware, observing and reflecting on our actions seems to come as a message of Hana Usui's exhibition that is both evocative and ethical. How much progress given by the development of human intelligence can really guide us towards better scenarios for humanity? What is the artist's function if not to bring us closer to the beauty of life and nature offering creative perspectives, inspiring new ideas, and sparking critical thinking? Leaving the exhibition and seeing the colour photos of the Buhonice nuclear power plant again, we have another chance to re-read the experience lived inside: positive and negative are complementary, and black and white and colour do not necessarily have pre-established communicative characteristics. The artist places us in front of an apparently simple and static vision, which has beautiful and “colour” vibrant shadows, developed in a pacific picture, the subsequent step is to look towards our awareness to understand who we truly are.