Hiroki Niimi Essay
Spring 2001 Fellow
Hiroki Niimi brought a stack of photographs of traditional Japanese tools to his Spring, 2001 residency at the Creative Glass Center of America: shovels, hoes, baskets, ladles, and traps. He based most of his sculpture directly on these handmade tools which are no longer used in today’s world. Nevertheless, Niimi finds that the once functional forms remain beautiful and full of meaning. This interest partly grew out of his father’s interest in antique tools, but also Niimi wants to know his roots. “Each tool comes from a place in the [Japanese] culture,” he says. He feels that objects which may well have served generations of workers and craftspeople are inscribed with the touch of many hands and time itself.
Niimi’s aesthetic is based on the Japanese idea of sabi, a sense of value which is found in objects and materials which are old and weathered like rusted iron and worn wood. Sabi embodies a sense of the past — of the action of time and nature. An old shed which is falling down may have the beauty of sabi. Sabi often embodies a sense of use. Perhaps the usefulness of a broken tool has been literally used up but it has been a partner in someone’s work, it is a record of human activity.
Because of his aesthetic, Niimi rejects brilliantly colored and clear glass, preferring dark blue or black or white glass. Although he thinks clear glass is “very beautiful,” its transparency tends to dissolve the form. He casts glass and occasionally uses blown glass shapes but, even then, generally sand-blasts it or otherwise alters the surface. He says, “Shiny texture has no history; I feel the texture of history in sand casting and kiln casting.”
His most ambitious works at CGCA were large (60 lb) sculptures based on fish traps. The subject matter and simple useful forms present clear links to the Arte Povera of Italo Scanga and the more minimal work of Martin Puryear inspired by traditional African crafts. Niimi made the models for the fish trap sculptures from styrofoam. After investing the styrofoam in a plaster mold, he laboriously scraped it out to prevent dangerous fumes of burnout during casting. The largest fish traps in blue-black are open conical shapes. The originals in wood or bamboo were designed to lure fish through a funnel-like opening into space so angled that larger fish are unable to swim out. Openings between the slats of the trap allow small fish to escape and also keep the trapped light enough for the fisherman to raise it. The glass trap, of course, is much heavier. Its slight translucence hints at the sculpture’s relationship to water.
Some lighter weight fish trap sculptures are equally ambitious in scale but much more fragile. These were built up from thin strips of cane, some glued together and some fused. White and clear glass edge the blue like an icy rime in a more varied but still essentially monochrome pattern. The obviously brittle, immensely fragile glass structure which perfectly mimics a resilient basket-like bamboo trap underlines the fate of the old tools: the fact that after generations of use they have become obsolete.
Observing Niimi’s interest in fish traps and related objects, Joe Mattson, a senior glass artist in the factory at Wheaton Village, invited him to go fishing off the coast of New Jersey where Niimi caught unusual fish: a skate and a small shark. One of Niimi’s most satisfying fishing-inspired works takes the form of a large fishing weight or sinker perhaps 8″ in diameter. The slate-colored oval of glass is neatly bound at its widest circumference with wheat-colored hemp rope, prickly and glossy in contrast to the matte smooth surface of the glass. It was blown in two halves and then the indentation for the rope ground down.
Similarly, Niimi produced pairs of tack-shaped forms, each seven or eight inches high, to be assembled into another very accurate full-scale duplication of a traditional tool. The circular tack tops will be glued together and the points of the tack shapes will become the rollable handles of grinders. The originals were designed to roll along a narrow trough and crush grain.
The texture of wood is preserved in Bark, a green-tinted somewhat irregular cast glass monolith. Ovals of devitrified glass are placed inside a framework of wood and metal in individual sculptures dedicated toAncient Times and Time. In these works, Niimi asks glass to represent something elemental and again connected to the idea of sabi.
Niimi often works in an installation context. A six-foot long row of 35 slump-altered glass sheets stands upright as if the devitrified undulating, paper-like sheet squares were supported by a pile of white rice husks. In actuality, each is held in position by a concealed iron framework. Again, incorporating homely rural products–rice husks which are traditionally used as fertilizer– in an almost Arte Povera manner, Niimi celebrates a vanishing way of life, but, more profoundly, the inevitable, unending process of time itself.