Tokihiro Sato photographs familiar places like the forest, the seashore, and city intersections, but makes his images magical with small ghostlike discs of light that float through each scene near ground level and seem to move toward the viewer. These tiny lights emerge from the woods like fairies on a nocturnal excursion, seem to blow loose through city streets, or sparkle over the seashore at night. In some photographs, vertical lines of light descend staircases in crowded ranks, recalling the brooms that terrorized Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
We dont know how the discs or lines got into these places or what will become of them. They have no beginning and no end and their timelessness connects them to traditional Japanese landscapes. Satos scenes are unpeopled, which recalls Oriental attitudes toward man in nature. There is enough blurriness in these images to evoke 19th century photography and lift us out of the present. Sato is a contemporary artist who has made his peace with the past, a welcome relief from today's deluge of Japanese cartoon imagery.
Satos solo show, "Photo Respiration," is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan. 15-May 8, 2005. It includes 13 gelatin silver transparencies, mostly measuring 35.5 x 44.5 in. Each photograph is printed on a transparent sheet of paper that the artist spring-mounts on a rectangular light panel. Light flows through each piece from behind, intensifying Sato's effects.
To make these photographs, Sato places an 8 x 10 camera on a tripod, opens the lens for an hour-long exposure, and physically enters the scene, pointing a flashlight at the camera by night or using a mirror to reflect light back toward the lens by day. Starting from the back of the scene, he works forward, but the long exposure renders his body invisible, as it does any moving object so we see only the background and the spots of light. Natural motion, such as ocean waves becomes mist and there are often unexplained blurs and ghostly objects in these photographs.
Sato calls his work "breath-graphs" or "photo-respiration," because he makes "a direct connection between my breath and the act of tracing out the light." This, he says, has the same significance as in monotonous activities such as long distance running or swimming, when ones focus is only on breathing."
The artist takes at least an hour and probably much longer to make a photograph, but compresses this passage of time into a single image. We can compare his work to Japanese scrolls or Medieval European art in which a personage may appear twice in a single scene to show narrative progress. We infer Satos presence in these photographs, but do not see him. He is there and not there. The lights he leaves behind evoke his -- and our -- fleeting existence.
An exhibition of potatoes
"Despite their blandness, potatoes are very versatile: they can be boiled, fried, steamed, grilled or baked. They can grow in cold and inhospitable soil. Potatoes have at least some of just about every nutrient, so it is possible to survive a long time only eating potatoes."
This passage comes from a statement by Rena Leinberger, an artist who eats potatoes like all of us, but who also projects her life experience on them in startling ways. Leinbergers recent solo show at Chicago's ZG Gallery, Feb. 11-Mar. 12, 2005, comes out of a period of illness that has yet to end. For weeks, the artist slept 16 hours every day as she battled "overwhelming fatigue" and migraines. She still has afflictions that baffle her doctors.
While she was ill, Leinberger had a "nutty" idea for a video about potatoes, but was unable to act. Later, she knitted hugely oversized woolen socks as an art piece, but found them unsatisfactory -- until she inserted potatoes. This led to works like Mulch/Scarf, a floor piece that consists of potatoes and knitted strips of wool, alpaca, cotton and silk. The strips in Mulch/Scarf cover the potatoes like a blanket and shelter them like a cocoon. Closely related is Unearth/Hallway, a floor piece in which Leinberger covers potatoes with a 15-ft.-long corduroy patchwork. Leinberger also created and photographed several temporary potato installations. In a lighter mood, she made Into the Cellar, a color video with sound that shows masses of potatoes rolling down a staircase.
The most powerful pieces in this show are also the smallest. Leinberger mounts sheets of sandpaper on 4 x 4 in. and 8 x 8 in. panels of Douglas fir and removes parts of the sandpaper to create simple flat designs. We see a cutaway landscape with small roughly circular openings beneath ground level. These could be potatoes, subterranean chambers or buried bodies.
Leinberger has rejected traditional art materials in favor of pedestrian objects like potatoes, sewer covers, and mens pants. At an earlier time, she altered her sources by making sewer cover shapes from felt, for example, or 13-foot long pants. This made us see the objects afresh, but communicated little more. Her latest show is a major advance, both in terms of invention and of feeling.