I have two images of Kinji Akagawa in my mind as I sit down to write this.Photo: Mark Luinenburg
The first is a memory from my job as editor of the Walker Art Center magazine. I’d interviewed Kinji, and to illustrate our conversation invited him in for a photo shoot. Our photographer had tracked down the scale model of Garden Seating, Reading, Thinking, the bench he was commissioned to create for the 1988 opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. In the photo, he appears gigantic, a smiling giant gently cradling the delicate bench in thick woodworker’s hands.
The other is from a few weeks ago. In the MCAD 3D Studio, he was showing me his half of a project that will be on view at the Northern Clay Center in fall 2007: an enormous sushi bar, with seating for two, that will eventually be set with ceramic sushi plates, sake cups, and a vase, all made by potter Randy Johnston. As we talked side-by-side on an oak-plank seat, I felt tiny: our feet dangled, unable to reach the ground, as if we were kids granted a spot at the grownup table.
I don’t want to make too much of these mental images, except to say: with Kinji, everything shifts. The master artist becomes a humble servant; the monument is dwarfed by that which it celebrates; and the biggest truths can be found sometimes in small worlds beneath your feet.
When I encounter Kinji’s art, scale is what I notice first. His works are massive, heavy, eminently concrete in the claim they make on reality (rough-cut stone, wood slabs veined with grain along hand-waxed edges). But, unlike some of modern art’s fabled builders of enormous structures, the magnitude of these monuments is not scaled to Kinji’s ego. One who often points out the etymological roots shared by humus (soil) and humility, Kinji admits he’d be happy to see a family so involved with his work — having a picnic on it, say — that they completely ignore it. In his vision, the art and the artist are but two of many elements in what he calls the “ecology of human experience.”
Of course, his materials could be seen as a monument of another sort — to nature. As he told me about the bench in the Walker’s sculpture garden, the materials are familiar, the stuff we Midwesterners feel comfortable around. Made from St. Croix basalt, Minnesota’s acclaimed granite, and locally sourced cedar, it offers both seating and a lectern for reading. “The bench provides psychological rest, intellectual rest, and physical rest,” he said. But this belief suggests something else: that we are comfortable with the materials because we realize we, too, are nature.
This understanding of interconnectedness permeates much of Kinji’s work. He says ecology can no longer be ignored by artists — or anyone else. “For the first time in Western culture, our survival is at stake,” he says. “It’s no longer philosophical. We have interdependent lives, interdependent nature of meanings: It’s all codependent; we are co-creating.”
Recently, Kinji was showing me slides of his work. Among photos of his installations at various parks and universities were images from his class presentations at MCAD, including examples of good and bad designs for public space. What does a playground constructed beside an interstate highway sound barrier say about how we value children? Do state park trash cans made from 55-gallon oil drums reveal our aesthetic approach to green spaces?
It was a simple image that most affected me. It’s telling that before entering one of Japan’s most beautiful sites, the Buddhist temple in Nara, Kinji stopped to shoot photos of the parking lot. Given his beliefs about art, it makes sense: the surface was made from small pieces of stone, interlaced so moss could grow within the grid. Parking there, Kinji quipped, you’ll be sure to make sure your car isn’t leaking oil. Then a comment slipped out of Kinji’s mouth so easily, I almost missed it. “This is care,” he said, “manifesting the world.”
This handful of words did more to help me understand Kinji and his work than all the hours we’d spent discussing Buddhism and Beuys, Tiravanija and Heidegger. Art or design or writing or business, in whatever endeavor we choose, we can create new, albeit sometimes small, worlds. We can manifest new ones.
An essay I wrote on Kinji Akagawa for a publication in honor of his designation as 2007 McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist.
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