Shake the Air - Design Bureau

Jun Kaneko

Jun Kaneko

Jun Kaneko

Jun Kaneko

Jun Kaneko

Jun Kaneko

Shake the Air

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Artist Jun Kaneko creates ceramic forms that seem capable of living comfortably in practically any setting, proudly staking their claim while still settling in respectfully to their surroundings. The inexplicable presence instilled in his pieces may be explained by his approach. It’s not just about the work, but also how and where it lives. “Nothing exists by itself, but in relation to all that surrounds it,” says Kaneko. “Once you put something in a space, everything around it relates and affects it; the environment becomes part of the piece.”

He compares his intuitive balancing act of the elements affecting a final work of art to the process of making music. “Initiallly, I start from scratch, and try to understand a given space,” Kaneko says. “Within that space, like a musician might with a composition, I make a choice of how a volume might be needed, a scale, and how many of those things, how many times they repeat.”

“When you start considering colors, it can complicate things and alter the energy,” Kaneko says. “A yellow piece in green woods would stick out a lot, but put a yellow and a red and a blue piece in the same wood, then your eye moves around and integrates the forest or environment in a more active way.”

Born in Nagoya, the Japanese artist moved to California in the early ’60s. He later enrolled at the Chouinard Institute of Art. Kaneko also studied with other well-known ceramic artists Peter VoulkosPaul Soldner and Jerry Rothman. During this time, now defined as the contemporary ceramic movement, these artists began pushing the medium with scale and abstraction of form and surface treatment. Kaneko went on to complete teaching stints at highly regarded ceramic programs across the US, including Scripps College in California, Cranbrook Academy of Art  in Michigan and the Rhode Island School of Design. He later relocated to Omaha, NE, where he currently resides and works from his expansive studio.

Once you put something in a space, everything around it relates and affects it; the environment becomes part of the piece.

Kaneko has said he designs his sculptures to “shake the air.”  And shake the air they do.  This poetic but vague phrase aptly describes the presence that Kaneko’s works exude in a myriad of environments. His sculptures live in the permanent collections of  61 museums around the world: the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and the Detroit Institute of Art, among many others. His giant geometrically glazed head sculptures lined New York’s Park Ave in 2008, and his large Dangos reside in the Water Plaza at Bartle Hall in Kansas City, and preside over part of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. His work recently popped up all over Philadelphia, anchored with a solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Recently, the prolific artist has taken a turn as set, costume and video projection designer for a new production of The Magic Flute for the San Francisco Opera; previously, he designed the sets, costumes and video projections for Madame Butterfly and Beethoveen’s Fidelio in Philadelphia. Admittedly not an opera fan, he says he listened to Madame Butterfly, which runs about  two and a half hours in total, two to three times a day for a three month period before even agreeing to design the opera. Once he eventually agreed, the total design time for Madame Butterfly was a little over three years. Doing this consistently everyday inspires his vision. “Images start coming out,” he says. “I start seeing things, and that is my starting point.” Of the wide variety of work that he takes on, Kaneko says simply, “Whatever interests me, I do it and see how it goes.”

Kaneko’s trademark Dangos, the Japanese term for “dumpling,” are particularly expressive of his dynamic energy. The hollow-cast ceramic ovular sculptures, ranging from five to 15 feet in height, are covered in his signature geometric patterns. Individually, the Dangos create a balanced tension between their soft, blunt forms and layered, painterly surface treatments.  They also create subtle conversations with their surroundings, allowing each piece to both acclimate to various settings and to provide the energy Kaneko hopes to instill in them. He once wrote of his creations, “Whether I’m making a large or small object, in the end I hope it will make sense to have that particular scale and form together and that it will give off enough visual energy to shake the air around it.”

Although Kaneko says he enjoys the creative freedom that comes with creating art for art’s sake, his adaptive range of ability and spatial considerations make Kaneko and his works an interesting and popular candidate for public art commissions, a challenge the artist welcomes. Kaneko was asked to create a large-scale commission for a project in Des Moines reviving a section of the city’s riverfront.Substance Architecture was hired to develop a portion of a recreational trail along the river, with a public café pavilion and corresponding pump station. Principal Paul Mankins, who also holds a position on the board of the public art foundation in Des Moines, saw an opportunity to incorporate public art into the design.  Along with Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Art Center, Mankins approached Kaneko, whose “nothing exists by itself” approach made him a natural fit for the project. For public commissions like the riverwalk project, Kaneko employs a method of immersive research. “I spend a lot of time understanding a space, who might use it, what the traffic pattern may be and how that affects the space.”  He conducted a preliminary study for three months studying architectural drawings and tried to do as many site visits as possible. “You have to consider the space that is given; each space has a unique quality, and I like to try to learn how to make the whole environment,” he says. “I think of who is going to use it, and how it is used; if there is a 50-story building right next to it versus a green space, that drastically changes my result. I have to collaborate with the environment in this way.”

For the Des Moines commission, Kaneko contemplated the river’s surroundings, which included an intersection of a bridge, recreational trail and a street. “I wanted to make a piece that is visually interesting when you are crossing a bridge from far away, and [as you] get closer and closer, [you] start seeing details,” Kaneko says. The piece also needed to have dual functionality to respond to its uses. “It was important that it be interesting at both day and night, but I wanted to use glass. So I proposed a glass panel with light inside— colored glass and an interesting pattern.”  The idea was to create several 30-foot tall steel structures and to incorporate the colored, patterned architectural glass sheets into these towers. Kaneko proposed to install these 17 tower forms into the plaza space, all “leaning a little bit, and angled in different directions, so it looks like they are dancing in the plaza.”

Kaneko’s proposal was ambitious, and as is the nature with public projects involving committees, government, and several stakeholders, it was ultimately determined to be a bit too involved for the allotted budget. It’s a situation not unfamiliar for the artist, though Mankin, Fleming, and the Public Art Committee still felt it important that Kaneko’s work be involved with the space. Kaneko and Mankin agreed that public art commission should be a true collaboration between architect and artist, and ideally would have liked Kaneko’s initial proposal for the Riverwalk project to be realized. So as a compromise, it was decided that several existing Dangos would be acquired for the space. Fleming visited Kaneko’s studio in Omaha and selected five Dangos for the space, and have made plans to incorporate a version of the patterned glass wall from his original proposal.

“Many times I have to rethink the space, based on these budget and committee changes. It does change the conceptual approach completely, but that doesn’t mean the resulting art piece is not as important for the space,” Kaneko says. He believes the Dangos that will soon live along the Des Moines River work well with the space, saying, “If I feel that it’s not possible to maintain the integrity of the work, I don’t do it.”

In this way, even though they were not created specifically for the Des Moines Riverwalk, the five Dangos Fleming selected will undoubtedly live comfortably there, both dynamically shifting the energy of the space while respecting it as well. Just as they seem at home in a museum setting, a convention center plaza, or the lobby of a building, the five Dangos will enliven their surroundings and, as Kaneko said, “shake the air” around them.

However varied, all of Kaneko’s works refer back to a Shinto principle from his Japanese heritage that he often refers to—one that can both explain his approach and resulting work.  Art critic Arthur Danto’s description: “There is a principle that can be said to govern all the artistic decisions [of] Kaneko’s works…the Japanese name for the principle is ma, meaning spirit. Each thing has or is a spirit … Kaneko’s insight is that not only do what we think of as things have spirits—the space between things has ma, as well.”

Text by Sara Jacobson
Photography by Jim Dow, Takashi Hatakeyama, and Richard Nicol


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