Sharjapan: bringing new technologies and Japanese practices to the Sharjah art scene

Second iteration of Sharjapan features electro-aquatic music, theatrical movement pieces and an android conducted orchestra

Tomoko Sauvage's In Curved Water at Bait Al Shamsi, Sharjah.  Leslie Pableo / The National
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Ice blocks, bound by rope and hanging from wooden beams, drip into ceramic bowls. With underwater microphones placed in the bowls, the trickling sound of the water dripping is amplified. It is a musicality of drops that you hear as you walk into the dimly lit, cool space at Sharjah Art Foundation’s Bait Obaid Al Shamsi. The notes resonate, full and expansive, in the restored creekside Emirati house complex; so much so that most of those who attended the opening of the second Sharjapan exhibition, Inter-Resonance: Inter-Organics Japanese Performance and Sound Art, last month, closed their eyes to be fully enveloped by the watery timbre.

The installation, In Curved Water, is one part of the show, organised by Sharjah Art Foundation, which runs until Saturday, February 15.

Curator Yuko Hasegawa and artist Tomoko Sauvage beside the In Curved Water installation at Bait Al Shamsi, Sharjah.  Leslie Pableo / The National 

The exhibition focuses on bringing traditional Japanese practices and technology to the emirate. The water bowls installation is one of many in the historic Bait Al Shamsi venue, which also includes automated xylophones, magnet-driven bells, musical compasses and floor-strewn lightbulbs. Stand at the centre of the exhibition and you’ll hear the faint chimes, droplets and sizzles at random from each direction. Japanese artist Tomoko Sauvage spent 10 years developing her electro-aquatic instrument. Porcelain bowls, water drops, bubbles and hydrophonic feedback are its main components. Sauvage decided to develop the water bowls after attending an Anayampatti Ganesan concert in 2006. The musical virtuoso plays the Jalatharangam, the traditional Carnatic instrument made up of water-filled porcelain bowls.

"I've been experimenting with musical sounds since for ever," Sauvage, who has been based in France for the past 16 years, tells The National. "I started working on the water bowls after seeing Ganesan perform. I went home and started hitting china bowls with chopsticks in my kitchen. The water bowls started taking form after I had the idea of using hydrophones."

Sauvage’s In Curved Water is a direct statement on the environment. The ice blocks are meant to allude to the glaciers melting as a result of climate change. Sauvage says that most people employ an out-of-sight, out-of-mind stance when it comes to environmental issues.

“My musical experimentation is grounded in live-performance-based practices that investigate the improvisation and interaction with the environment,” she says, adding that she hopes the installation will bridge the distance between the melting glaciers and the listener, making them feel as if they are bearing witness, in real time, to climate change. In this context, the meditative watery music becomes heavy with an ominously pressing message.

Though the water drops in Sauvage’s installation are randomly timed, the artist uses the electro-aquatic instrument in deliberately arranged live performances. Her 2007 album Musique Hydromantique exclusively features the instrument, and though it is comprised of only three tracks, it runs for more than 40 minutes.

Curator Yuko Hasegawa, the artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo at Sharjapan, Bait Al Shamsi, Sharjah. Leslie Pableo / The National

Sharjapan is part of a four-year agreement between the Sharjah Art Foundation and curator Yuko Hasegawa. Last year’s exhibition, The Poetics of Space, focused on Japanese book design from the early 20th century to present day. This year, the focus is on performance art, sound-based installations and new technologies and traditional Japanese practices that explore the interactions between nature, technology and human life.

The exhibition comprises installations at Bait Obaid Al Shamsi and five performances that take place in venues across Sharjah. These feature a variety of art forms, including dance, music and literature. In addition to Sauvage, the participating artists are Eitetsu Hayashi, Yuko Mohri, Mirai Moriyama, Keiichiro Shibuya and Min Tanaka.

“We wanted to bring a varied set of Japanese performances to this year’s exhibition, not just the well-known Kabuki theatre,” says Hasegawa, who is also artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. “There are Sauvage’s water bowls, which allow people to visualise the looming threat of climate change; Eitetsu Hayashi, who will perform traditional Japanese taiko drumming in his pioneering style; and Min Tanaka, who will present an improvised dance piece that challenges the conventions of modern dance and questions the role of dance in contemporary society.”

The dance pieces are inspired by the Japanese art of Butoh. Established after the Second World War, Butoh rebels directly against western styles of dance, with most of the moves carried out on the ground. “It has an aggressive style to it,” says Hasegawa. The movements are slow and unlike the western techniques of dance. The avant-garde dance aims to rebel against western influence.”

An actor performing a theatrical reading of texts by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago's 'Blindness' at Sharjapan. Leslie Pableo / The National 

The opening performance at this year's Sharjapan was a movement piece by Moriyama. The Japanese actor, who began his dance training at five years old, brought a theatrical reading of Jose Saramago's Blindness to the Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts. The performance was called Consideration of the Invisible / Visible.

Directed to wear an earphone in one ear, members of the audience were seated on the stage, some two metres from Moriyama. The actor began his performance centre stage, reading the opening passage of the Nobel prize-winner Saramago’s novel from an iPad. The story revolves around an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the chaos that follows.

With flickering lights, fragmented texts and movements, Moriyama invited audiences to take part in the plot. The performance seems to allude to modern social issues such as depression and loneliness. Uncomfortable at times and serene at others, Moriyama’s performance was deeply contemplative. Though this performance has now elapsed, the schedule of events promises to be equally as exciting.

Sharjapan: Inter-Resonance: Inter-Organics Japanese Performance and Sound Art runs until Saturday, February 15. Shows take place in various locations across Sharjah