The unbearable lightness of corn

When we think of art, it is often envisioned as ethereal as floating clouds. I often see it as insubstantial as mist that escapes my grasp. My perspective, however, has started to change while spending time at Atelier Hiko, especially while witnessing how Yacchan creates his artwork. 

My first meeting with the artist Yacchan arose from a misunderstanding. I was riding my bike to Atelier Hiko and thinking about its nagaiya architecture and how it needed restoration work. As I approached, I was excited to hear “Dang Dang Dang,” the steady sound of a carpenter swinging a hammer to a wall. There was a pause and then “Dang Dang Dang,” repeated in cadence. I wanted to find the carpenter and discuss the renovation work.

As I entered the atelier, I saw burly-figured altelier member Yacchan was intensely creating a unique art form. Highly focused, he was knocking in some small colored nails, one by one. His intensity was underscored by the “Fu Fu Fu” of his exhalation at each fall of the hammer.

What I took for granted as the sound of a carpenter’s labor was actually art under creation. I was fooled by my own preconception that art must be a lofty process. How embarrassing is that! The act of hammering nails is not merely limited to construction work, it can be artistic impression. Since Yachan was not knocking nails into the wall, I wondered what medium he was working with to make such a “Dang Dang Dang?” 

Surprisingly, it came from what looked like a thin cardboard tube that seemed to be composed only of many layers of paper. How could thin paper resonate with the sound of hammering?

Yacchan had applied a generous amount of glue mixed with dye to penetrate the surface of the tube which soaked into the absorbent material. After letting it dry, it become almost as solid and durable as dried bamboo stalks. Through this unexpected process, the potential of paper as a canvas for art was unlocked.

For over one-and-one-half hours, Yacchan kept sitting still there, repeating the same sequence – knocking the nails into the paper tube. He relaxed his shoulders, elbows, and wrists, and relied on the weight and force of the hammer to do the work but sweat beaded upon his forehead belying his intensity on this early summer afternoon.

Since the paper tube tends to roll, it is unstable to drive a nail onto it. On top of that, Yacchan holds the paper tube with left hand while having the next 10 pieces of nails to be knocked. At the same time he swings the hammer down with right hand, aiming for the spot he wants to hit. I noticed the intense effort he made to line up the colorful nails in evenly-spaced rows of the same color.

I decided to throw away my preconceptions and experience the scene unfolding in front of me. I wanted to understand why Yacchan is so determined at his task. Was it perhaps the joy in creating that had him so deeply immersed in his art work?

As I was watching the precision of how his right and left hands coordinated together, Ishizaki-san told me that Yacchan’s favorite food was corn, and I immediately perceived it! The shape of the paper tube and the spacing between the nails are reminiscent of the ordered rows of corn on the cob! Had I solved it? If one can create something he loves entirely by relying on himself, then his happiness would be relatable. 

“For Yacchan, the nails may represent ‘unreasonable things’. Every time a countless number of ‘unreasonable things’ are knocked into the paper tube, he feels slightly relieved and his favorite food, corn, can be sublimated.” said Ishizaki-san. I learned from her that Yacchan first started creating his “corn art” when going through a difficult and chaotic time during his middle school graduation. For him, it was an “unreasonable thing” that people had to part from each other at certain times in their lives.  

Another reason may lie in the work itself, I pondered. Yacchan knocks the sharp, painful end of the nail into the center of the paper tube, leaving the flat smooth head of the colored nails in orderly rows on the curved tube. As a result, countless myriad-colored circles are lined up in an orderly manner on its surface. The sharp ends, like thorns that can cause pain, are safely hidden away within. 

Yacchan continues to work with a serious expression on his face and I wondered what emotions fueled his art. Whether it was satisfaction or emotional unrest, like the interior of the paper tube, it was impossible to know what lies beneath. By the time he completed filling the corn full of nails, it was many times heavier than the original paper tube. He however stood up vigorously from his chair with lightness as if unburdened of a weight. I imagined I could feel his satisfaction. 

Within that specific moment, the unbearable weight accumulated from numerous “unreasonable things” he must face, may have partially departed from Yacchan. Yet can he reduce that heaviness without going through the similar process again and again? 

Then, another question arose. How should we confront works of art? Sometimes it feels unobtainable, like grasping at a cloud, and sometimes it we feel a deep meaning and weight that becomes anticipation. Despite attempts by scholars to categorize, define and interpret art objectively, subjective judgments differ depending on each person’s experiences. This is never clearer than with the types of “art brutal” that is created within the ateliers of special artists. In this way, can we see that a heavy corn cob of paper and nails might convey an unbearable lightness?

If you approach works by tossing aside your preconceptions, and then start by embracing the work and exploring how it was created, you can then experience the art through your own lens.

In this way, you may feel a weight and be shaken by your own ambivalent thoughts or sorrowful experiences and feel unable to bear their weight. That is an art experience.

By Jude Jiang

Jude Jiang is a bilingual writer based in China. She has a strong interest in bridging the understanding between western and eastern worlds through storytelling.

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