Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi presents a ‘moving tapestry’ in Hong Kong – call it ants for art’s sake

Yukinori Yanagi uses ants to tunnel through images of flags and money made of sand, as a critique of borders and the symbols of power that separate us

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 May, 2017, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 6:00pm

Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi uses an unusual method to carve through the intricate sand flags he creates in plastic boxes – living ants.

In an installation titled Union Jack (1994), which is the centrepiece of his solo exhibition at art advisory firm Ticolat Tamura’s viewing space in Central, visitors can see the cracks and scars left by the insects, which travelled through a network of tubes leading to 20 flags of former British colonies including Hong Kong.

Yanagi says he has always been fascinated with the social intricacies of ant colonies and how they functioned. “Compared to human society, which fluctuates constantly … ants form a perfect group society controlled merely by their primitive central nervous system,” says Yanagi, who played with ants and other insects when he was a child.

“Although ants carry out the same social activities as human beings, they are a far cry from human society, I thought they could be a metaphor to think about our society.”

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The flags of former British colonies symbolise the “immeasurable” influence colonialism had on the modern world, the artist says.

By unleashing the ants, which travelled freely between “nations”, intermingling sand from the different colonies and corroding the coloniser’s flags, Yanagi also raises questions about the fading glory of the British empire and forces of migration and globalisation shaping the postcolonial world.

“Many Japanese artists avoided tackling cultural identity and political expressions in art,” says Kyoko Tamura, a Japanese collector and art adviser who co-founded Ticolat Tamura, referring to taboos and censorship in the post-war period in Japan.

“But Yanagi has a childlike curiosity about the world, borders, where we are from and where we are going, and he does it in a beautiful way.

Union Jack was an appropriate choice given Hong Kong’s colonial history and the transition it is going through after the handover, becoming part of China.”

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Tamura established the firm in 2012 with her partner Mathieu Ticolat to source primary and secondary market artworks for collectors and foundations. The firm holds annual exhibitions, featuring the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Richard Pettibone.

Alongside Union Jack hang a series of sand banknotes: two 100 yuan bills, a US$1 bill and a 10,000 Japanese yen bill, also attacked by ants, scarring the faces of Mao Zedong and George Washington, leaving behind a web of patterns.

For Yanagi, currencies and flags are icons of power that separate societies.

“Money bills are man-made symbols like national flags. Both are just paper and cloth,” he says. “It is only the human brain that understands these abstract concepts.”

The use of ants also interrogates society’s fixation with money and national identity. “They are a metaphor that demonstrates the irrelevance of national flags and money. This gives us the opportunity to be suspicious of the system.”

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Since his student days in Japan, Yanagi has cast a critical eye on social and political systems. He moved to New York in the 1990s, where he studied at Yale University and began creating installations that raised controversial questions about Japan’s history and its imperial rule, such as a massive red carpet with the imperial family crest that visitors could walk upon. Underneath the carpet was text from the Japanese Constitution about freedom of thought and speech.

He shot to fame for his flag pieces, which had global resonance. “After the collapse of the Berlin wall and end of the cold war, the borders that used to be certain began to shake. This was the motive for Flag Ant Farm pieces,” he explains.

In 1993, he won an award for an installation of flags of United Nations member countries titled The World Flag Ant Farm, 1990, at the Venice Biennale. Since then, he has made various iterations of the work, which have won him recognition at the Whitney Biennial, Liverpool Biennial and Tate Modern.

Yanagi is also known for his more recent ant farm works from the Study for American Art series, such as his replicas of Andy Warhol’s flowers.

In the ongoing exhibition, nine fractured flowers composed of coloured sand are displayed in a row with connecting tubes. Beside them is a striking red work showing the Museum of Modern Art’s founding director Alfred H. Barr Jnr’s famed “Cubism and Abstract Art” chart made of sand.

Overshadowing the diagram, the marks left by the ants are so large they evoke sun-scorched riverbeds. “Like flags and money, art is also an abstract idea created for human beings,” says Yanagi.

In a way, Warhol’s flowers and Barr’s chart are symbolic of Western art history and the ants suggest a desire to disrupt or even escape its limitations.

Whether it’s the art world or global politics, Yanagi rejects the need for borders. He once described his work as “a simple, equal and hopeful way of expressing the gradual unification of all of the world’s nations”, an idea that is evoked in this show.

Yanagi is careful not to tether his art to current events, but given the growing nationalist rhetoric across the globe, the questions his art poses are more urgent than ever.

“Yukinori Yanagi”, Ticolat Tamura, 601 Printing House, 6 Duddell Street, Central. By appointment: 3998 4147. Ends June 9