By describing her practice as “Post Glass,” Yuka Otani, a Fall, 2011 resident fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, acknowledges her connection with glass, specifically with the twentieth-century studio glass movement; however, she more provocatively declares that this relationship is not an exclusive one. Otani along with a number of contemporary artists who work with glass embraces other traditional and alternative media, performance, process-oriented art and conceptual art. She and her friend Anjali Shrinivasan (also a former CGCA fellow) are the curatorial team yuka + anjali who explore the latent connections between glass and new media.
At WheatonArts Otani prepared for future work that will be presented as part of the “Watarase Art Project” in Ashio, Japan. The multi-year project was developed to reframe public perceptions of a chemically polluted area. A rich copper mine was operated in Ashio as early as 1610. Closed for much of the 19th century, growing industrialization led to the reopening of the mine in 1871. It produced more than two-thirds of Japan’s copper until it closed in 1973. Toxins, including sulfuric acid, from the refinery permeated water, earth and air rendering parts unlivable. Recent tests, though, confirm that levels of pollution have dropped considerably and will continue to improve.
Otani is one of 40 artists chosen to make work in 2012 responding to the Ashio site. She us basing her work on essay by the poet Kamo no Chomei (1153 – 1216) is an on-going source of inspiration. Sometimes compared to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Chomei is well-known in Japan for his retreat to a small hermitage he built in the Hino mountains.
Otani finds several points in Chomei’s “Hojoki” (“My Ten-Foot Hut”) applicable to life today and to the Ashio site. Recent events almost mirror the disastrous chaos in Chomei’s lifetime: revolutions, as well as earthquakes, whirlwinds and other natural disasters. In the face of these things, Chomei counsels detachment and synchrony with nature. “In general, the past, present, and future history of human beings is a product of the mind,” he says. Chomei himself determined to leave society and live simply in nature without luxuries, although musical instruments, books and beautiful views of the mountains in all seasons mitigated other privations.
The opening of the “Hojoki” is especially important to Otani:
Though the river’s current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.
“He uses this very simple metaphor but I think it’s a very dynamic expression that is an inspiration of my glass making,” Otani explains. “I actually made a series of works that explore the idea of bubbles that was the main theme for my MFA studies.”
She visited Ashio right before coming to WheatonArts and reports that water in the once toxic river is now safe. It’s safe to eat the fish. She stayed in a very old country style house by the river and plans to site her installation there. The project will include ten to twelve clear glass panels to which excerpts from the essay in Chomei’s original now archaic Japanese are applied on one side and excerpts in English on the other. Otani likes the idea that the writing on both sides will be “a little inaccessible” to contemporary Japanese. Similarly, she is pleased with the contrasts in orthography. “I wanted to use the transparency of glass so this doesn’t have a right side or a back side. I like the fact that it doesn’t make a perfect match.”
Additional elements of the installation will be about water. “I have the fantasy of literally merging glass and water together.” She plans to use the form of the traditional Japanese water basin – usually made of stone–making basins in which a minimal glass exterior appears identical to the water inside it. Lighting may cast shadows and reflections of ripples.
In a museum in Ashio, Otani saw a cobalt blue bottle from the nineteenth century that contained something called “God Medicine,” Probably its active ingredient was opium (also a popular nineteenth century cure-all in the US). She postulates that the miners of Ashio needed a palliative “for the energy-consuming physical labor and harsh conditions. A lot of miners died in their work.” Noting her interest in the little bottle, the museum director gave it to her (She plans to return at the end of the project). Internet research informed her that cobalt blue glass was often the symbolic color for poison containers. Otani was excited to see very similar bottles with a similar function, also cobalt blue, in the Museum of American Glass and to discover a completely unexpected connection between Millville, NJ and Ashio.