Hiraki Sawa [Japan]


location: garden of a Youth Hostel, 21 Wałowa Str.

Where mundane reality and ethereal flight meet, Japanese-born, London-based artist Hiraki Sawa combines a child’s unfettered imagination with a shut-in’s hallucinatory observation of the home. And much like the antique toys and archaic technologies that inhabit the quiet rooms of such houses, his work recalls an earlier era of image making. Harkening back to storybooks, fairy tales and the earliest days of cinematic cartoons (where drawn and live action first overlapped), Sawa uses low-tech video animation to create dreamscapes on the verge of disappearance. More specifically, he assembles his videos by means of photographic superimposition – a technique dating back to first generation special effects, and aligned with his approach to “[making],” in his words, “the video image as I would a tangible object.” In so doing, he adopts the British penchant (seen in the work of Beatrix Potter and Lewis Carroll) for making unassuming domestic interiors into the incubator for surreal happenings. Blurring the lines between inner thoughts and outer environments, Sawa’s videos take on the quality of daydreams; “as if,” in the words of a critic, “the ordinary world were under a spell.” The recurring avatars that occupy these spells – from model jet planes to migrating animals – are continually in motion: reflecting underlying themes of time, travel, displacement and dislocation. As we peer into their world, these folkloric spirits continue to go about their rituals with nary a notice of our gaze – implicitly accepting our presence into Sawa’s enchanted ecology.

The Walowa Hostel is a place defined by movement, transforming from a steadfast institution of education and instruction into a transitory site for travelers crossing Europe. The connotations of such impermanence have also shifted in a post-nation world, where previous models of stability and site have yielded to transience, contingency, and the notion (some would say desirability) of indefinite travel. In 2003, as a then recent arrival to the UK, Sawa experienced all of this in his small London apartment: longing for a sense of home at the same time that he began to imagine a fabled pilgrimage taking place in his domestic surround. In the visions born somewhere between claustrophobia and agoraphobia, Migration imagines a procession of elfin passengers moving through our world when no one else is watching. Its black & white cast of humans and animals is drawn from one of the earliest students of motion and media – Eadweerd Muybridge – whose photographic studies of the body in motion become the fodder for Sawa’s 2003 animation. In this new domestic Eden, Muybridge’s nude company of men, women and animals of all shapes and sizes walk in slow, single file across a variety of household surfaces. Over sinks, windowpanes, counters and cabinets, they proceed determinedly but without clear design – leading critic Anna Zagola to suggest, “If we’re not sure of the destination, their deliberate and steady steps tell us that this is a journey of necessity.”

As an allegory for the passage of life and death, the migration of this neo-Biblical cast thereby eschews conclusion, at the same time that it suggests an absence of asylum. Evoking conditions of nomadism and exile, curator and critic Alex Farquharson sees in “[these figures’] relentless procession…a melancholic and fatalistic air, suggestive of a restless global culture on the move.” As recurrent in motion as it is in history, he adds that Sawa’s metaphoric Migration “is both a sign of our accelerated times (as signified by [the artist’s] jet planes), and as archaic as the first journeys of people across continents.” The ghosts of those travels – past, present and future – resonate through the grounds of this Hostel: echoing through the perimeters walls, swirling in the gardens, and living in the gates that keep people simultaneously in, and out. In this place where both humans and animals pass, in a momentary pause between life, death and infinity, Sawa offers a glimpse into the movement that is mankind.