To Dream the Impossible Dream
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Are you, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, in the habit of believing six impossible things before breakfast? If so, Escher x nendo: Between Two Worlds is definitely the show for you. On the one hand, we have M. C. Escher, he of the tessellated animals and mind-bending imaginary architecture. On the other, we have nendo, led by Oki Sato. Well known to NGV visitors from their project 50 Manga Chairs – presented at the museum last year – this Japanese design firm has mastered a visually spare yet conceptually rich idiom, the perfect counterpart to Escher’s own fantastical visions.
In a statement about the exhibition, Sato has said that he wanted to concentrate on the ‘un-similarities’ between his own work and Escher’s; and it is true that in some ways, they are totally opposite. The designs of nendo unfold of two-dimensional ideas into real space, while Escher compressed apparent depth into flat images. Escher found the essential visual poetry in mathematics, while nendo generate complex systems by letting a poetic “seed” germinate.
Yet they have so much in common. Both devote themselves to the magic that hides just below the surfaces of mundane life. Often, they draw this enchantment out using simple geometry, which they use as a lens, through which the world appears both distorted and clarified. And both achieve these effects through exquisite craftsmanship. The works of both Escher and nendo have a lapidary precision, realized through a constant pressure of consideration, gentle but firm. In lesser hands, this relentlessness could be exhausting, leaving no room for the viewer’s own imagination. But they know how to derive from this intensity a seemingly effortless grace.
This quality is already present in Escher’s early work – it’s as if he was born with a different set of eyes from the rest of us. Clouds Above the Coast (1919/20) is a good example. The three elements of the image – a radiant sun, a dark clump of cumulus clouds, and a shoreline seen in deep perspective – are depicted in an eerily exacting fashion, concentric circles and bent parallelograms and a single isosceles triangle. This is nature’s grandeur in its barest essence. It would be just an arid graphic exercise, however, if not for Escher’s handling of the clouds, which are constructed of rounded blocks, like an airborne cathedral. No obvious logic connects these extraordinary forms to the hard-edged shadows on the ground below. The unexpected juxtaposition creates an effect of visionary intensity; it’s as if his pictorial imagination had passed through a wormhole between sky and earth. Everywhere in Escher, one finds this same combination of the lucid and the irrational. When a mirror reflects something impossible, that image is rendered with the utmost calm. A simple puddle on the forest floor, tracked with muddy footprints, becomes a petri dish for the intermingling of worlds. When a tessellation of reptiles takes on three-dimensional life, the creatures march placidly over a tabletop, then obediently assume their former positions.
This sensibility, in which ordinary becomes extraordinary with nonchalant ease, is one that nendo shares completely. The 50 Manga Chairs project is spectacular, yet the designs sprang from the pages of comic books, the most commonplace of Japanese visual sources. Sato focused on the genre’s incidental graphic motifs – like speed lines and speech balloons – and imagined them wandering off the page and into real space, just like Escher’s lizards. In nendo’s newest body of furniture, a similar feat of prestidigitation is achieved with colour. Blue stains, the color of an especially beautiful summer’s day, are dabbed carefully on to slender shapes of steel. The pieces bring to mind the palette of a landscape painter, gazing upwards at the vault of heaven.
Sato’s exhibition design for Between Two Worlds starts with another cosmic gesture: a floor printed with a field of stars, as well as the simple outline of a house, which gradually dissipates, step by step, into a wisp of smoke. By placing this imagery underfoot, nendo evoke the ephemerality and scope of Escher’s art. All things might well melt into air, or disappear the vastness of space, but he viewed that prospect with otherworldly serenity.
The outline house repeats throughout the exhibition, in many guises. In solid block form, it serves as a component for seating; as a flat icon, it tessellates across a grayscale floor. Then, a breathtaking leap of scale: ranks of houses act as viewing chambers for Escher’s works. Their rooflines unfold like wings, or the interlaced fingers of a familiar children’s game (“here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people”). The house recurs again in the next gallery, as a linear element for scaffolding; and then again, as the profile for a passage, a single rush of perspective. Finally, nendo give us thousands of miniature houses, arranged into a circular hanging sculpture, cunningly contrived so that a single huge house seems to hover at its core.
There is a knowing irony in the choice of this motif, given that one of Escher’s best-known remarks is, “it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim: This is a house.” But of course, a bit of absurdity was Escher’s stock in trade. He delighted in pictorial conventions, the sleights of hand that can make the simplest drawing into architecture, or the most complex rendering come unstuck in the mind’s eye. Across seemingly infinite repetitions and variations, nendo’s house eludes any fixed identity as an object or an image. This is the perfect accompaniment to Escher’s work, in which representation and abstraction appear to swallow one another whole.
Between Two Worlds is a well-chosen title, perfectly capturing this fluctuation between the real and the unreal, as well as the cultural distance between Escher and Sato – the buttoned-up Dutchman and the Japanese futurist. It also summons up the strange, floating feeling that emanates from both artists’ work. For what actually lies between worlds? Just the void of space, like that pictured in the exhibition’s entry passage. Such emptiness can be a powerful artistic force. The concept of mu, “nothingness,” is enshrined at the highest levels of Japanese culture, in the spaciousness of ink paintings and calligraphy, the long silences of noh theater, the discreet ellipses of haiku poems, and the meditative practices of Buddhism. The principle has long been important to Sato. In his designs, the intervals between are often most resonant.
Emptiness might seem to play much less of a role in Escher’s work, which is typically packed edge-to-edge with visual incident. Indeed, his tessellations and his densely detailed drawings have a touch of horror vacui. Yet at a deeper level, Escher was in fact dedicated to the exploration of absence: the gap between what we see with our eyes and what we can hold in our mind. His pictures are like bridges extending across that abyss. In Escher x nendo, we have the perfect setting to encounter them: a space where the possible and the impossible meet, shake hands, and slowly but surely, begin to dance.