“Volume ’84” re-created Lydia Okumura’s seminal 1984 exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) in São Paulo. Encouraged by her father, a calligrapher, the Brazilian Japanese artist transformed the interior of MAM in 30 days, collaborating with a local metal workshop to create a sequence of 47 wall and floor installations from steel wire, mesh, screens, wood paneling, and stretched fabric. At the time, this installation signified a turning point in Okumura’s career, redirecting her preoccupation with painted configurations toward monochromatic pieces more aesthetically aligned with developments in postmodern design. Okumura had not previously used raw industrial materials, and they now offered new ways to reaffirm and expand the possibilities of space through geometric abstraction—a mode of working that has sustained her practice for almost 50 years.
Okumura has stated that “geometry is an intelligent way to express the concept of multi-dimensionality, an aspect of the truth of life.” This exhibition therefore provided an opportunity to re-evaluate the intricate multi-dimensionality of a group of five key sculptures from the 1984 show, which exemplified a decisive year in her artistic trajectory. The centerpiece of the London installation was Cube 1,2,3, created from stainless steel wire mesh and suspended from the ceiling. Immediately visible from the threshold, the work acted as an invitation to enter. Although deceptively light and airy, close inspection revealed a complex interplay of overlapping planes. The three perforated cages are simultaneously open yet impenetrable, melding into their surroundings while preserving their drama. Light streaming through the windows caused their hard edges to blur and their latticed surfaces to ripple, conjuring the notion of mist obscuring mountain peaks or rain drumming onto a riverbed.
In Five Sides, four galvanized zinc mesh pyramids projected out from the wall toward the viewer. Again, these deceptively simple geometric compositions yielded complex experiential results, as the three-dimensional forms appeared to fold into and out of the wall to reveal hidden spaces analogous to the architecture. The work’s angled mutability is illusionistic, seemingly contracting when viewed from the side, but laying flush to the wall when seen face on. Conversely, Double―two overlapping cubes―is already flush. It is a clear-cut, yet sinuous arrangement using stainless steel rods fixed to the wall. This piece is perhaps most suggestive of her father’s calligraphic influence: well defined, controlled, and serene, yet retaining strength of purpose.
Several of Okumura’s most exemplary constructions were represented only by photographic documentation, including the fabric and wire White Volume, which lies prostrate on the floor like a giant pupa, and Labyrinth, a vast sculpture coiled at either end, created from painted stainless steel mesh. One of her most ambitious works, partly due to its sheer size, Labyrinth allows the viewer to see through its translucent barrier and walk within its space.
Okumura’s practice can be framed within the Minimalist tradition, and associations with the sculpture of Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt, and Fred Sandback have been made. However, formative influence came, surprisingly, from the paintings of Van Gogh, with which she has confessed a spiritual affinity. Perhaps she is only reclaiming an aesthetic that was always her own—a set of ancient ideals inscribed into Japanese culture that reveres the transience of natural form. A budding tree is the precursor to inevitable decay, and while Van Gogh might depict the munificent flourish of bloom, Okumura’s interest would lie in the coming and going, the incompleteness; this state, nonetheless imbued with splendor, grace, and subtlety, contributes to the aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
“Volume ’84”―which assembled Cube 1,2,3 and another four sculptures alongside four black and white contextual photographs in a single room―was too small to provide an in-depth understanding of Okumura’s work. Judging from photographs of the 1984 exhibition, many more wonderfully fluid constructions were originally on view: sculptures that fused abstraction, conceptualism, and Minimalism with Okumura’s unique lyrical sensibility. Her practice is fascinating, clearly warranting a larger U.K. showing, and in that respect, the taster provided by Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac certainly left one thirsting for more.