During the installation of Masayuki Koorida’s exhibition at Grounds For Sculpture, it was all hands on deck. The museum crew, from registrar to preparators, from curator to director, were all on hand to oversee these enormous works of granite, marble, steel, and cast acrylic settle into the spaces where they will live through the run of the exhibition, through March 17, 2019.
Lambertville sculptor and installer Harry Gordon and his sculpture-moving team expertly maneuvered the multi-ton works from crate to gallery position. When something weighs nearly 15 tons, you can’t easily make minor adjustments once the mover leaves.
Although Koorida’s work has been featured in an installation in the new Japanese Garden of the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this is his first U.S. exhibition and the first time these 26 works of sculpture will be seen by the public.
The works appear like enormous eggs, like planets, like cells or atoms joined together, or a totem of eggs. Inspired by biomorphic shapes, the organic forms bear such titles as “Breed,” “Wave”, “Light,” “Rise,” “Seed,” and “Tentacle.” The title is not so literal, says Koorida. Sometimes he doesn’t title his work at all because he prefers viewers to come to the work with their own imaginations.
Some of the shapes look like cousins to others, perhaps in a different material or scale, and some appear to be composites of component parts. There are varying degrees of polish within a single work, playing with the reflective and non-reflective surfaces.
After taking in the shear elegance of the forms, one can’t help but wonder about the Herculean effort involved in bringing the works, weighing up to 14.5 tons each and reaching as high as 12 feet, from Koorida’s studio in Shanghai.
As Grounds For Sculpture chief curator Tom Moran tells it, Koorida first came to Grounds For Sculpture in 2015. He had been touring the U.S. for places to show his work, which has been exhibited in China, Europe, and at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the U.K. He then contacted Moran to show images of his work.
A year later Moran was invited to speak at a symposium at the Shanghai Sculpture Park, which he describes as being about the same distance from central Shanghai as GFS is from New York City. “It’s a developing part of the city with a university and new housing, and the sculpture park is quite large,” notes Moran.
The symposium went on for three days, and Moran, accompanied by GFS executive director Gary Garrido Schneider, followed up with an invitation to Koorida’s studio, about 15 minutes from the park. Koorida is both artistic director and sculptor-in-residence at Shanghai Sculpture Park. Moran equates it with Emily Mann’s post at McCarter, as both artistic director and playwright-in-residence.
Moran and Schneider were immediately struck. “It was one of those moments when you know it when you see it, the feeling that we have to make this happen,” says Moran. “Timing is everything, and this work would be wonderful for everyone to see in the U.S., in the context of a major exhibition. We agreed we had to show it.”
After the show was proposed, Moran returned to China several times, on other business, and stopped in to Koorida’s studio, making selections. In early 2017 Moran brought along GFS director of collections and exhibitions management Faith McClellan. In addition to the 26 works of sculpture, Koorida produced a special set of drawings for the exhibition.
During the process Koorida visited GFS to finalize the layout, and then again visited in early April for the receipt of the work, staying in one of the two apartments at GFS.
“The transport and shipment went flawlessly and was on time,” says Moran, from the team of people and brokers in China to the Port of Newark. Five containers were offloaded and then shipped by port truckers.
“It was delivered to Grounds on April 10, my birthday,” says Moran. “It was a great birthday gift.”
Gordon and his crew unloaded the containers, opened everything, and checked with GFS staff to make sure the work made it through shipping intact.
This was the first time GFS had worked on a shipment of this scale across the Pacific, says Moran. “It’s an amazing amount of work to make sure nothing is damaged. The coordination and having it go smoothly; I can’t say enough about it.”
Moran would not discuss what the cost of the shipment was. “We wouldn’t do something like this unless the work truly was worth the effort.” GFS is also investing in a major catalog for the exhibition, with photographs of the work installed there and three essays.
Koorida’s studio, though it has windows and doors, was dark, Moran says, so it was with great pleasure that they all watched the work settle in to the bright white spaces at GFS. A video is forthcoming that will show the process of creating the work for this show, beginning with the huge blocks of stone being jackhammered. Before it is polished, the black stone is gray. Grinding diamonds, sand paper, and a metal file with water are used to polish it.“Polishing is like meditation,” says Koorida.
During his many visits, Moran had the pleasure of seeing the work at varying stages of completion. “To see them at GFS is that aha moment, in this ideal space for them.”
Koorida’s works are made completely by hand. He uses computer technology to calculate the geometry of carving stone, but not the fabrication. “After spending oodles of money on the stone, you don’t just pound away,” says Moran.
“This was the exhibition that had to be. You don’t usually see such large work by hand. (In this respect he) comes from the lineage of Noguchi and Henry Moore.”
Born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1960, Koorida grew up in the surrounding countryside. It was the era of the Apollo moon landing, which gave him his sense of what life was like in post-World War II America. He was also interested in American music. At the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka, he saw Isamu Noguchi’s “Fountains in the Dream Pond.”
The son of a company trader and a homemaker, Koorida says “I didn’t know the job of artist before that.” His family liked the things young Masayuki made but also didn’t know that one could work as an artist and pursue it as a career.
When he studied history, Koorida learned more about American culture and Pop Art. He was also struck by how everything in the U.S. was so big.
He studied art at Mushashino Art University in Tokyo from 1979 to 1983. In 1999, after a time spent teaching, Koorida received a Japan residency grant that allowed him to live and work in the Netherlands. There, he worked in a foundry.
From the Netherlands he went to Taiwan to create works exhibited in Paradise Sculpture Park in Guilin. “He was taken on by an important backer to realize these pieces and moved China in 2005,” says Moran, comparing the backer to GFS’s J. Seward Johnson Jr.
The backer is a developer, says Moran, who “loves artists and developing cemeteries because Taiwanese are dedicated to preserving family sites for the afterlife.” Koorida was making his contemporary sculpture for the cemetery.
“The younger generation doesn’t go to the cemetery, so a sculpture park is a way to attract them to the cemetery. The cemetery also has traditional sculpture, such as statues of Buddha, as well as contemporary art. After that many cemeteries started to add sculpture,” Koorida says.
Koorida says his work is inspired by the natural world. Now that he lives in Shanghai he is not so much in touch with nature, and even the mountainous region he lived in near Osaka is no longer the countryside of his youth — it has been developed. But nature is inside him, from his early experiences, he says.
“I am always thinking of the negative space,” says Koorida, “and how positive and negative react to each other.” He is interested in the properties of the material, such as the reflectiveness of metal and the transparency of acrylic. “I make, you see — they react to one another. That is composition.”
In addition to the works in the GFS Museum Building, several works are sited outdoors, where they reflect and interact with other works in the park.
Some of the larger works can take two years to complete. The thinking is the part that takes the longest, Koorida says. “Sometimes it can take 10 years to realize something. I need the experience to conceive the shape.”
He talks about a single story that comes from an egg, or cell, splitting; about memory and how a seed has memory in its DNA. “I can’t express my work in words,” says Koorida. “I feel there is something obscure I want to express, and I’m seeking to understand it by expressing it.”
Masayuki Koorida, Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. On view through March 17, 2019. $10 to $18. 609-584-7800 or www.groundsforsculpture.org