In advance of our own Neighbouring project (15-18 June @ GI), one of our Scottish Japanese collaborators, Naoko Mabon, writes here of the work of Scottish artist Ilana Halperin in Japan. Halperin’s mineral investigations open us up to the urgency of our understanding of and identity with the geological in the age of Anthropocene.
Surely, I am not the only one who has come to a deeper realisation of the importance of the relationships with neighbours, especially after the outbreak of the pandemic and the following stay-at-home lifestyle. Even beyond the pandemic, if you live in a small household or your family lives far away, neighbours are the ones who will start to appear more often and be nearer to you in your daily life: they will become your elderly mother who keeps asking you what you ate for lunch today, your temporary postal depot who receives a parcel on your behalf, your pal who you can exchange rants on the controversial offside from yesterday’s match, your mentor who tells the seasonal cycle through changing colours, smells and sounds of habitants every time you have a small walk there, and your crush who has a handsome furry body and tail but most likely only gives you a quick glance and walks away. More recently, on the 13th of May on Kenmure Street in the Pollokshields area of Glasgow, we witnessed that people’s solidarity through hours of standoff and chanting “Leave our neighbours, let them go” eventually freed their two community neighbours – Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdevi – from an immigration enforcement raid ordered by the UK Home Office. Yet, at the same time, from childhood folktales to our current day experiences, we also know that neighbours have often been depicted as, or easily slip into, confrontational relationships. One typical Japanese folktale opens like this: Once upon a time, there was a kind-hearted old couple and a greedy old couple who lived next door to each other… Yes, usually something good happens to the kind-hearted people and something bad happens to the greedy people in the end. And I am sure that most of us have had an incident or two of unpleasant neighbour situations: noise, snoring, loud music, bullying, territorial communal garden fights and revenge… Neighbours and the relationships with them are shaped through a series of frictions and acts of care, over time. On a different scale, rocks too – caused by various antagonistic and cooperative phenomena and activities such as crystallisation, erosion, sedimentation, tectonic burial, metamorphism and melting – have been slowly changing their forms and qualities over deep geologic time.
Yamaguchi Prefecture on the westernmost tip of Honshu Island is known for its geological significance – notably through Akiyoshidai, the highest concentration of karst formations in Japan, and Akiyoshido, the nation’s largest and longest limestone cave, located in an area designated as a quasi-national park. Akiyoshidai is also a sacred site for geologists. It is where the old common understanding in geology that “the oldest elements lay at the deepest point below” was literally turned upside down. With his 1923 paper, Yoshiaki Ozawa, a paleontologist and geologist, proved that the plateau of Akiyoshidai had a reverse stratigraphy. This means that in Akiyoshidai, the highest point of the enormous karst landform covered by countless limestone is the oldest layer, emerging 350 million years ago as a coral reef. And from here, the idea of The Rock Cycle (Yamaguchi) also grew out and was nurtured and embodied, marking the second Scotland-Japan cross-disciplinary project that I have collaboratively worked on with the artist Ilana Halperin.
“What might shift in our understanding of and relationship with Akiyoshidai, and with geology and geological time as a whole, if we imagine ourselves both poetically and materially as part of the rock cycle? For example, can we begin to consider ourselves as part of a deep time calcium carbonate family tree – from Fusulina, to coral, to our bones and teeth?”
To ask these questions, The Rock Cycle (Yamaguchi) drew inspiration from the geological rock cycle. The rock cycle is a concept in geology describing how rocks change from one type to another through deep geologic time, amongst three main rock types: sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. In the project, there are three chapters, each of which conceptually represents different stages within the rock cycle:
Chapter One: “Life” interpreted as “Activity”
Chapter Two: “Sedimentary Rock” interpreted as “Accumulation/Consolidation”
Chapter Three: “Metamorphic Rock” interpreted as “Transformation”
Indeed, there is no “life” stage in the commonly-known rock cycle diagram. But as a subtle artistic intervention, Ilana introduced the idea of a “life” – or biological – stage into the process as a project concept. This approach supported the larger project intentions and Ilana’s practice, namely articulating through culture new ways of cultivating our understanding of and relationship with our fragile ecological world.
When everything was paused due to the pandemic not too long after Ilana and I came back from Yamaguchi where we were making exhibitions and events, proceeding with making a publication was one positive response that we made to the gap and absence of physicality and corporeal warmth caused by the pandemic. As well as illustrating the project in a poetic form, this new little artist book also keeps our ongoing deep geological exploration alive and tactile. On one uncharacteristically-Scottish sunny spring day, we made an online book launch event consisting of talk and conversation hosted by The Pier Arts Centre, with our three key Yamaguchi collaborators: Yoshihisa Nakano (Artist, and Professor at Yamaguchi University); Keijiro Suzuki (Contemporary Artist); and Kazuhiro Tanaka (Professor Emeritus, Trustee, and Vice President at Yamaguchi University). Although it was in a sometimes-awkward virtual realm, this occasion allowed us to have the joy of reuniting with distant colleagues and friends, feeling a synchronised nearness around us, and at the same time meeting new faces, across locations, with whom you otherwise have no chance to be connected.
In the event, as a response to a question of how he is coping with the current situation in Yamaguchi and Japan, Professor Tanaka, a geologist specialising in ground water, said:
“I think we have learned an important message from this crisis that the world is one. There is no boundary for Covid-19. So we should think about not only one’s own country, but the whole world.”
At the same time, my mind was tracing one line from Ilana’s recent book Fossil:
“And now, in some ways, we are part of an international conglomerate, intrinsically bound together by the virus. Invisible glue, holding everyone together in a shared catastrophe.” (*1)
Professor Tanaka’s comment also reminded me of a little conversation that Ilana and I had with him in his car driving back to Yamaguchi City from Kibetani Onsen in Shimane Prefecture. It was back in May 2018. He took us to Matsu no Yu inn for the first time to show us a rare geyser, their mineral rich spring source, that erupts every twenty-five minutes. This later became one of the crucial experimental production sites for Ilana’s field sculptures made out of our eight-month-long collaboration with Professor Tanaka. But an instant issue for the curatorial mind in me was – d**n, it is in the wrong prefecture! I brought this up thinking better now rather than later, and said to Tanaka-sensei that I wish the inn and the geyser were located within Yamaguchi Prefecture, not Shimane. While warmly looking at my wee concerned face, he laughed:
“Well, for geology, prefectural boundaries don’t really matter, do they?”
Since the minerals we analysed in the Kibetani geyser spring have the same calcium rich content and quality as what we see in Akiyoshidai karst plateau, especially in the stalagmites and stalactites forming slowly inside of the Akiyoshido caves, what really matters here is to think and imagine how the calcium rich water stream travels under the ground crossing the neighbouring prefectures, and what it could mean geologically and how the phenomena and relationship could be translated into the artistic context.
“I think that art should be able to give us hints to solve problems.”
Tanaka-sensei said that, as an accomplished scientist, this is the first time ever for him to collaborate with artists and he has been taught many things by artists, which has been a fresh and interesting experience for him. According to him, his time in the university is coming to an end reasonably soon. We sincerely hope that he and his wife can travel to Scotland for our Scottish exhibition on Orkney with The Pier Arts Centre next year so that we can keep our promise of toasting with some Scotch Whisky together.
Ultimately, rocks were the first immigrants – travelling across the surface of the earth throughout deep time to meet and form new geologies. (…) I am from New York on the North American Tectonic Plate, Naoko is from Fukuoka in the middle of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Here in Scotland, on the Eurasian Tectonic plate, we are assembling a new geological family tree. (*2)
Looking at our teeth, iron-tasting blood, bones, nails and body stones, as Ilana says, despite such a short lifetime of eighty years or so, we are a mineral component as well as animal, one which forms geology in the enormously deep geological cycle. While tracing back the trajectory of our collaborations to date, I came to imagine ourselves as pieces of pebbles. The pebbles flow and immigrate. They meet and form a new geology. While experiencing various antagonistic and cooperative phenomena and activities, maybe they will become neighbours. Neighbouring pebbles are not related by blood, social status, origin of nation, skin colour or faith. Shaped through a series of frictions and acts of care, over time, they will become an “international conglomerate”, bound by each other and community.
About the project:
The Rock Cycle (Yamaguchi) is a cross-disciplinary project by Ilana Halperin between Yamaguchi and Scotland, curated by Naoko Mabon. Building on Ilana’s two-week research residency in 2018 at Akiyoshidai International Art Village (AIAV), the project was launched in January 2019, marking the second Japan-Scotland exchange by Ilana and Naoko after 2015-17’s Geologic Intimacy (Yu no Hana) linking Beppu and Aberdeen. Through research and outreach activities crossing visual art and natural science, hosted by Yamaguchi University’s Akiyoshidai Academic Centre and Research Laboratory of Professor Yoshihisa Nakano, Ilana has developed a new body of work utilising materials and narrative unique to Yamaguchi, culminating in three parallel solo exhibitions in Autumn 2019 in Yamaguchi: at Akiyoshi-dai Museum of Natural History; AIAV; and Mine-Akiyoshidai Karst Plateau Geopark Center. Back in Scotland, The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness on Orkney will host an exhibition featuring Ilana’s new works, in conversation with thematically resonant works by Yamaguchi-based artists Yoshihisa Nakano and Keijiro Suzuki. The Rock Cycle (Yamaguchi) is funded by Akiyoshidai Academic Centre, Yamaguchi University; Creative Scotland, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation; and The Pier Arts Centre. It is an official event of ‘Japan Season of Culture in the UK’, and an affiliate programme of ‘UK in JAPAN’.