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What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye

If music could take on form, shape and pattern, what might it look like?

This isn’t a new question that artists have addressed – consider, for example, Wassily Kandinsky, who famously experienced the condition of synesthesia, “seeing” colours in his head when he listened to music and hearing music as he painted. As explained in this great summary by the  Denver Art Museum, Kandinsky abandoned a law career to study painting “after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Richard Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre.” He later described the life-changing experience as such:

“I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

(As an aside, Singaporeans may recall seeing Kandinsky’s Impression V (Park) (1911), at the National Gallery Singapore in 2016).

Japanese artist Lyota Yagi in his exhibition What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye located at the art gallery of the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) School of Art, Design and Media, explores ideas along a similar tangent by embarking upon an exercise to turn sound into real and tangible physical things.

 In his 2006 series of Portamento video works, Yagi attempts to use a vinyl record player as a pottery wheel: The effect is strangely hypnotic as a physical clay shape slowly takes form according to the musical patterns of the vinyl grooves. The clay’s form and the sound produced affect each other, and change depending on how strongly the potter (ceramist Toshio Matsui) touches the clay.
A closer look

In Vinyl (2005-2008), a record made of ice is literally and physically played on a record player, its shape having been created through water frozen in a silicone mould patterned after a real vinyl record:

The record player sits on a refrigerator which holds the ice records – speak to the gallery-sitter if you’d like to hear one being played.

The ice record incredibly, is able to actually play music and for a few seconds, we were transfixed by the clear and distinct sounds emerging from the record player. After a time though, the sound starts to warp- the musical notes melt into one another, just as the ice turns to water. Music-lovers may recognise classical tunes from Claude Debussy and Frédéric Chopin, as well as Henry Mancini’s popular song Moon River.

It’s all really quite poetic and beautiful, and the work made us think about the ephemerality of things – how unexpected experiences can be strangely perfect, even if they last for mere seconds.

Tomotaro Kaneko however, offers a different perspective on the material aspects of the artwork. In his essay, Material Culture as Seen through Lyota Yagi’s Works, he focuses on the refrigerator which stores the ice records and observes that iceboxes, much like sound recordings, are tools which allow for the preservation of things. The latter records and documents live performances, while the former preserves food items and ice.

Is the melting of the ice record a wasteful act? What after all, is the point of listening to a record made of ice? Or of attempting to fashion a pot from a spinning vinyl record?

In answering these questions, it becomes apparent as to why the exhibition has been so-named. Its title borrows from one of the loveliest quotes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Everyone’s favourite grown-up-children’s-book. If you haven’t read it, don’t let the whimsical illustrations fool you – it’s terribly sad

In the story, you might remember that the eponymous Little Prince leaves his home planet and his adored (but sometimes-annoying) friend a rose, in order to travel the universe. As he encounters fantastic new planets and experiences, he comes across a garden blooming with roses, disappointedly realising then, that his rose is but one of many ordinary flowers. As more time passes, he befriends a fox who teaches him that his rose is special because he has “tamed” it. The Little Prince then says to the other roses:

“You are beautiful, but you are empty…One could not die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But in herself she matters more than all of you together, since it is she I watered, since it is she that I placed under the glass dome, since it is she that I sheltered with the screen, since it is she whose caterpillars I killed (except the two or three we saved up to become butterflies), since it is she that I listened to when she complained or boasted, or when she was simply being silent. Since it is she who is my rose.”

To paraphrase the book, it is precisely the time that you waste on things that then makes them valuable and important, and precisely because you have tamed them, that they then become your responsibility. Emotions such as love and attachment can’t be quantified in any tangible way, and yet they are the most important things of all.

The first work one encounters in the show Ringwanderung (2012), manages to draw these ideas together through the use of a 3D video, viewer and headphones:

One stands at the binoculars, peers through, and is then able to see a constellation of moving “stars” interspersed with quotes from The Little Prince. The “stars” are in fact the punctuation marks, and the dots from letters “i” and “j,”  taken from the book. The conceptual thinking behind this work is clever – Yagi attempts to show that even if the most important components from the book (i.e. its words) are removed, the objects which remain (i.e. the punctuation marks) may still be able to offer a transcendental experience to viewers. Indeed, what is essential is invisible to the eye.

We don’t always have time to sit and contemplate the bigger things in life – but Yagi’s art offers a good entry-point into a heightened awareness about our lives, relationships and surroundings. Distant Time, Near Time (2008) for example, personally reminded me of how caught up one can get in the minutiae of life – of work, of chores, of finances, of consumption, of obligations – thus causing us to ignore the wider world around us. Distant Time, Near Time is made up of a tiny model town placed on top of different-sized records being turned on a rack.

Is this us? Are we simply going round and round in circles in our mundane little city lives?

Moving away from such dark thoughts, special mention has to be given to the exhibition catalogue, which is a quirky booklet set into a gorgeous teal backing. It’s available for keeps, for free.

Additional resources are also available from the gallery sitter, but you’ll have to do your reading while in the gallery

The NTU School of Art, Design and Media may not be the easiest of locations to get to if you don’t already go to school there, but we would highly recommend a visit to this lovely, intellectual gallery in the West of Singapore. The university grounds are charming, and the gallery’s location means that its exhibition spaces are usually free and clear for an afternoon of quiet contemplation.

What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye runs until 7 April.

Featured Image Credit: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Publisher: Penguin Books, illustration by galactus21.

This article is produced in paid partnership with ADM Gallery, NTU School of Art, Design & Media. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.


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