Posted:Sep 16, 2022

Expanding the Framework of “Art”: Cosmology of Yasuo Nomura

Norimichi Hirakawa and Yasuo Nomura’s exhibition “The Given Universe and the Days of Wonder” was displayed at the Iwami Art Museum of Shimane Prefecture from July 2 through August 29, 2022. Both artists straddle the domains of art and science. In this review, art critic Ryo Sawayama discusses the artwork of Yasuo Nomura. (Translation: Shirley Gabber; Edited: Alena Heiß)

View of Yasuo Nomura’s InsideOut 2022 at the exhibition Photo by Shotoku Koh

Interest in universe and multi-dimensionality: beyond the human framework of “art” 

Can there be “art” without the human framework of “art”? Perhaps such a question is present in the works featured in Norimichi Hirakawa and Yasuo Nomura’s two-person exhibition at the Iwami Art Museum of Shimane Prefecture. Hirakawa and Nomura’s works have much in common, including the themes of science and the universe. Both of their works, conceived outside the bounds of human conceptualizations, inevitably expand the scale of the art framework itself. Although this exhibition’s goal was to highlight artists connected to Shimane Prefecture, it surpasses that localized framework. Both artists’ pieces can be said to have cosmological and scientific expandability. 

Although this review will only take up Nomura’s work, Norimichi Hirakawa’s work was also of an extremely high level. The fact that this public art museum chose to exhibit artists of medium standing who are not affected by industry trends is also quite significant.

View of Yasuo Nomura’s InsideOut 2022 at the exhibition Photo by Shotoku Koh

The exhibition features three of Hirakawa’s works, one of Nomura’s, and one collaborative piece from both artists. Nomura’s large structure piece “InsideOut” (2022) was created and installed on-site. Designed to fully utilize the space available in the exhibition room with the highest ceiling, the piece can be described as a giant hemispherical dome. 

Before viewers can experience the dome (in other words, before entering the room,) they must first pass through a small “cave” or “tunnel.” As they go through, a diffuser emits a faint fragrance. At the end of the tunnel, a ten-meter diameter dome reveals itself in front of the audience. The dome’s structure is formed from tetrahedron-shaped units remising of Buckminster Fuller’s dome (In his idea of the geodesic dome, Fuller thought of regular tetrahedrons as a building block of the universe). The dome is also wrapped in a thin translucent film and quietly vibrates with the fluctuation of air sent through the skylight. The viewer’s body is enveloped in a sensation as if they have entered a large, gently shaking soap bubble. Further into the room, viewers can hear the environmental sounds recorded at the Takatsu River in Shimane Prefecture. Despite being unprocessed audio, the continuous sounds transmit the geometrical regularity in ecological systems. 

Further inside hangs and slowly rotates a pyramidal structure of the same tetrahedral units. While turning, the tetrahedrons transform the outside of the dome as their colored sides reflect on the film. Countless red, green, yellow, pink, and purple triangles diffusely reflect and resonate with the light streaming from the exhibition room skylight. At this point, two polarities make the viewer’s experience abstract: one is the amorphous movement of the natural phenomena of air and light, and the other is that all the forms being visually reflected are nothing but geometrically controlled triangles. Therefore, in question here is not the abstraction of the artwork form itself but rather the abstraction of space and experience.

The viewer witnesses a tetrahedral structure projected onto the film membrane of the dome as it breaks up into separate triangular pieces. It is the transformation of the three-dimensional object into a myriad of reflections = images created by the overlapping rays of light. What can be seen there is the geometry of cutting the three-dimensional into two-dimensional cross sections. Furthermore, this phenomenon visually presents the fluidity of topology known as “dimensions.” What creates it is light emitted from a four-dimensional direction beyond human perception.

According to Nomura, the dome represents the globe. Thus, within the title of “InsideOut” is hidden the concept of “turning the globe inside out.” Therefore, entering this dome empirically means a topological reversal of phase, in which we observe the surface of the inverted globe from within it. The topological specificity of the dome, in which the surface of the globe is turned inside out and observed from within, is linked to the experiential phase of the work, in which triangles are folded and reflected, eventually leading to a loss of orientation.

As Nomura states, this dome is structurally close to the form known in the math as a “Klein bottle (※1).” The following excerpt is from an exhibition handout: 

In the world of math, there is a mysterious bottle called a “Klein Bottle” which lacks an inside and an outside. There is only a thin surface separating the inside and the outside of the bottle, and if you go along that surface thinking that you are on the inside, before you know it, you will end up on the outside. If, as you were passing through a tunnel, space turned inside out, where would be the boundary of the universe which ought to be expanding out? Please try to use every inch of your body to experience this in the museum. Inside of your body, which is made from stars that were born 13.8 billion years ago, you might be able to feel the same vast universe expanding. 

In Nomura’s “InsideOut,” the viewer’s experience is planned to start by going through a cave, then smelling fragrances, and listening to the sounds that echo further inside the room. Before they know it, the viewers feel that space has turned inside out, just like in a Klein bottle. Here the sensations of smell, sound, color, and air mix fuzzily and melt together. 

View of Yasuo Nomura’s Inside Out 2022 at the exhibition Photo by Shotoku Koh

This reminded me of a curious description of space without limits reminiscent of a Klein bottle that Charles Sanders Peirce mentions in Reasoning and the Logic of Things. Although it is a little long, I’ll quote him: 

Now I am going…to describe an unbounded three-dimensional space, having a different shape from the space we know. Begin if you please by imagining a closed cave bounded on all sides. In order not to complicate the subject with optical ideas which are not necessary, I will suppose that this cave is pitch dark. I will also suppose that you can swim about in the air regardless of gravity. I will suppose that you have learned this cave thoroughly; that you know it is pretty cool, but warmer in some places, you know just where, than others, and that the different parts have different odors by which they are known. I will suppose that these odors are those of neroli, portugal, limette, lemon, bergamot, and lemongrass, – all of them generically alike. I will further suppose that you feel floating in this cave two great balloons entirely separated from the walls and from each other, yet perfectly stationary. With the feeling of each of them and with its precise locality I suppose you to be familiarly acquainted. I will further suppose that you formerly inhabited a cave exactly like this one, except it was rather warm, that the distribution of temperature was entirely different, and that [the] odors in different localities in it with which you are equally familiar, were those of frankincense, benzoin, camphor, sandal-wood, cinnamon, and coffee, thus contrasting strongly with those of the other cave. I will further suppose the texture-feeling of the walls and of the two balloons to be widely different in the two caves. Now, let us suppose that you, being as familiar with both caves as with your pocket, learn that works are in progress to open them into one another. At length, you are informed that the wall of one of the balloons has been reduced to a mere film which you can feel with your hand but through which you can pass. You being all this time in the cool cave swim up to that balloon and try it. You pass through it readily; only in doing so you feel a strange twist, such as you have never felt, and you find by feeling with your hand that you are just passing out through one of the corresponding balloons of the warm cave. You recognize the warmth of that cave[,] its perfume, and the texture of the walls. After you have passed backward and forward often enough to become familiar with the fact that the passage may be made through every part of the surface of the balloon, you are told that the other balloon is now in the same state. You try it and find it to be so, passing round and round in every way. Finally, you are told that the outer walls have been removed. You swim to where they were. You feel the queer twist and you find yourself in the other cave. You ascertain by trial that it is so with every part of the walls, the floor, and the roof. They do not exist any longer. There is no outer boundary at all (※2).

In the Perth experiment described here, the observer dives through a cave, freely floating in the air. During that time, they are enveloped by various scents. Large balloons appear as the observer continues to swim, guided by the scents. The observer realizes that not only can they touch them, but the balloons also have a unique surface that allows the observer to pass through them. When passing through, they feel a “strange twist.” Inside the balloon is the inside of the first cave. There are no walls anymore, and “there is no outer boundary at all.” 

The observer Peirce describes here passes through the film of the dome of air called a “balloon” while relying on various smells and textures. As they experience this movement through it, they learn that the inside and outside are connected without boundaries. All boundaries and limits have disappeared in what could be called a “living Klein bottle.” 

Looking at it this way, Peirce’s description and Nomura’s dome have an almost perfect concurrency. However, in reality, Nomura was unaware of Peirce’s discussion (which is why I was amazed at this almost supernatural coincidence.) Peirce had no clear influence on Nomura. Therefore, this dialogue between philosophy and art crosses space and time in a chance meeting. This is where the modernity of Nomura’s artwork equals the pioneering nature of Peirce’s philosophy. 

The concurrency of the two becomes more evident when you consider that the inside and outside of both Peirce’s and Nomura’s structures are connected not only through spatial continuity but through various other forms of continuity, such as the sensory qualities of color, smell, sound, and touch. Peirce said that many forms of continuity “had in an antecedent stage of development a vaguer being before the relations of its dimensions became definite and contracted” (1992, pp. 259), and he calls that “the cosmos of sense qualities.” Nomura’s structure is undoubtedly pursuing a “cosmos of sense qualities” where the spatial continuity between inside and outside and the various sensory continuities have become one, and the boundaries between dimensions do not yet exist. 

According to Kunitake Ito, Peirce preceded Einstein’s theory of relativity and repudiated the “steady state theory of cosmology,” which claims that the whole universe is in an eternally immutable condition. He developed a pioneering and modern original cosmology (※3). One passage in the referenced Reasoning and the Logic of Things shows Peirce’s metaphysical vision, stimulated by the paradigm shift of 19th-century science and physics and preceded the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Ito calls this “Peirce’s cosmology.” Thus, Peirce’s description can seem strange because he approaches the incomprehensible and strange nature of space-time in the universe itself. 

The multidimensional Möbius strip and Klein bottle, the observers’ multi-spatial experiences, and Peirce’s metaphysical vision that conceives of the unique spatial-temporal conditions that make those experiences possible are not only connected to modern-day multiverse theory and superstring theory but if anything can be taken as their precursor.

At a workshop held in the exhibition room on July 9, viewers and research psychologists participated in a meditative practice where they ate a single raisin. The participants shared their realization that becoming aware of the “cosmos of sense qualities” inside of themselves was an experience of turning inside out, similar to the artwork concept. Photo courtesy of the artist

What Nomura created cannot be divided into inside and outside or front and back. His work looks at the universe in which the end of the universe and the inside of the earth are inverted. Here and now, the far ends of the universe are being summoned. Nomura developed this piece in concert with modern developments in astrophysics, which certainly affected the implementation of his art. To the extent that it can provide realism to this expression of Nomura’s, modern astrophysics draws ever nearer to the inscrutable nature of space-time in the universe.

This unbounded space is also connected to the concept of “higher dimensions,” which Nomura has been consistently chasing after. An unbounded form like the Klein bottle cannot be fully implemented in three-dimensional space and can only be materialized without inconsistencies in the four-dimensional world. Therefore, this structure conceptually diverges from the dimensional forms that conventional art has depended upon, namely two-dimensional pictures and three-dimensional sculptures. Nomura’s structure thus belongs to the lineage of Dimensional Art, which grew from The Dimensionist Manifesto written by Charles Sirató in 1936. 

View of Yasuo Nomura’s Inside Out 2022 at the exhibition Photo by Shotoku Koh

(※1) A Klein bottle is a bottle that does not have an edge that divides the inside and outside. Therefore, an ant could start walking anywhere on the bottle and would be able to reach any other point on the surface of the bottle. A Klein bottle has an elongated neck that goes through the bottle’s side and ends in a hole in the base.
(※2) Peirce, Charles Sanders (1992) Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898 (pp. 251-253) (Kenneth Laine Ketner, Ed.), Harvard University Press.
(※3) Ito, Kunitake (2006) Peirce no Uchuuron [パースの宇宙論] (pp. 2), Iwanami Shoten.

Ryo Sawayama

Ryo Sawayama

Born in 1982. Art critic. Author of "The Dynamics of Painting" (published by Kanbanbo, 2020) and the co-author of "10 Lectures on Contemporary Art" (edited by Masayuki Tanaka, published by Musashino Art University Press, 2017).