Liu ’09 illuminates Hamada’s “Vocabulary”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday in the List Gallery, Yuan Liu ’09 presented her talk on featured artist, Hiroyuki Hamada. Liu’s presentation, “Delving into the Universal Language of Hiroyuki Hamada’s Art” provided insight into Hamada’s process, ideals, and influences.

The elusive Hamada, whose biography (as Liu observed) is notoriously brief, avoids the explicit both in describing himself and his work. His pieces are numbered rather than named, and the closest a critic has come to provoking Hamada into acknowledging self-portraiture in his work is the recognition on Hamada’s part that he, like the palate with which he paints his sculptures, often wears white and brown.

Liu, who noted that it can be difficult to know how to describe Hamada’s startling sculptural pieces that bridge the realms of industrial and organic, provided viewers with several useful points of reference with which to consider and discuss Hamada’s work. She discussed Hamada’s process, beginning with the sketchbook, developing an armature of wood and foam, wrapping the armature in burlap and overlaying with plaster. The plaster is painted, drilled, and inscribed with wax and resins.

Liu’s attention to the dual influence of “mecha” and “wabi-sabi” was especially illuminating: “mecha” is an allusion to the manned vehicles and weaponry of anime and manga comics while “wabi-sabi” is a Japanese aesthetic of “the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Where some of Hamada’s work nods to forms and shapes not unlike engine turbines or pieces from a NASA rubble yard, the “wabi-sabi” element was well-addressed in pieces like “#55” which is built around a piece of Styrofoam that a friend of Hamada’s found on a beach. The friend gave Hamada the foam as the piece in itself reminded his of Hamada’s sculpture.

Hamada liked the piece enough to develop a sculptural base around the foam and the result has an effect that could be a marriage of onyx and limestone, a sort of impossible fragile-as-sand yet certain-as-iron combination that feels appropriate to much of Hamada’s work. As Liu put it, where #54 could resemble a “barnacle or lotus seed pod,” #61 is like the “exterior of a space shuttle.”

A point which Liu also took care to observe was the lighting choices of Hamada when installing his pieces in the List. “Each piece,” said Liu, “Has two shadows.” The result, as she explained, augments the “presence of the work.” She joked, “I’m uncomfortable standing this close!” before backing up to point out how the piece could be appreciated when viewed as a whole.

Most importantly, while Liu took cares to offer a “vocabulary” for Hamada’s work, she also emphasized that the fluidity of meaning and interpretation was crucial to Hamada’s intent. She underscored that Hamada’s refusal to assign a title, label, or obvious representation was a conscious artistic choice and vital to his approach.


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