perceiving hope in otodate and no so mi – a review of the installations and a performance by Akio Suzuki and Hiromi Miyakita at The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
at 10:58am on 25th April 2020
Performance of Akio Suzuki & Hiromi Miyakita in 2017. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo & Yang Yeung
At the particular juncture of time where the subtle hues of the cherry blossom, the smell of barbeque, and children’s laughs came together at Kiba Park, The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) reopened after a three-year closure. Its long and wide entrance hall with a glass façade makes plant and human lives in the park fully visible. The balance between openness and seclusion presents the place as both welcoming and intimate.
Akio Suzuki’s otodate has been newly commissioned by the museum for open air and non-gallery spaces that had not been used to show works before. In the entrance hall, two of Akio Suzuki’s installation otodate  can be found. Standing on these listening points allows one to imagine hearing sounds from the outside. The artist describes these as exercises in purifying one’s sense of hearing. I propose they are hinges to not just one, but all the senses, enabling a sensitivity that does not grasp onto any particular object, but rather stills the mind to bring out a quietude within. Language that tends to divide gives way to a wholesome sense of presence that prepares one for the encounter with everything else in the museum.
otodate in context
In the Open Air Gallery, five sets of no zo mi are arranged in a straight line. Each set is a low stack of staircase, with an otodate plate on the top. One otodate named ha ru ka is set apart from no zo mi. It lies close to the stone wall that marks the end of the Open Air Gallery. On March 30, 2019, Suzuki and Hiromi Miyakita gave a live performance that weaved these listening points together. The live performance began with Miyakita walking in an ordinary pedestrian pace towards ha ru ka. She stepped onto it and paused. Suzuki was sitting diagonally to her. He brought two short bamboo stalks upon each other, hollow to hollow. The sound alerted us to the cold air and the grey, afternoon light. The space cracked open.
As the artist explains in the exhibition notes, ha ru ka lies – by a “strange coincidence” – along the same line of latitude with Mount Takaten in Amino-cho, Tango. Tango is not only Suzuki and Miyakita’s hometown, but also where “Space in the Sun” once stood. “Space in the Sun” is consisted of two walls of sun-dried blocks that Suzuki created for spending time in nature in 1988. He finds the stone wall in the gallery resembling it.  The act of acknowledging bonding but also distance in the present moment of the performance at once holds up and liberates memories.
no zo mi gradually unfolded. This newly commissioned iteration of otodate relates to the idea of hope, as Suzuki explains, but not the kind coined by a Shinkansen slogan in Japan that promises speed to attain technological progress. Suzuki proposes the hope of slowing down with cleansed ears to live the moment: no zo mi encourages dawdling. I find no zo mi acting also as counter points to the architecture: they give rhythm to the outer walls and staircase of the museum building. This is especially felt when Suzuki hit a bamboo stalk on the ground, sending out waves that bounced off the walls. It was as if the stones were freed from the wall to get back their individuated voices. Meanwhile, Miyakita directed her body around one set of no zo mi with the curiosity of a cat, inspecting, engaging. Suzuki blew into the bamboo stalks to make longer trails of sound. I chose to stand on a higher otodate facing the museum wall to practice listening. A crow called on my left. I could trace its flight path from left to right in an invisible trajectory. I wondered if the bodily orientation of being just slightly elevated had given me the possibility of safekeeping my own private space while affording an openness to the not-yet.
One part of the performance was in the entrance plaza. The two artists drew long lines with their bodies across the open space, keeping a distance from each other. But there was also a unique instance when the artists came together: Suzuki was sitting on the bench where an otodate was. Miyakita sat down by him. But instead of stepping onto the otodate, she bowed her head to gaze at it. It was as if the artists were sitting by a pond, looking at the otodate as their reflection. Suzuki sounded out two small stones in his palms. Their crackling sounds varied as he changed the shape of the pocket of air in his palms – one could be hearing rain. The artists’ listening and moving bodies were all the while close to nature. The female body was a blade of grass caught in an occasional breeze. The male body was a small pond, an atoll. They may even want us to be birds! Both were elegant and always reborn into the moment.
The artists then led us through the outdoor paths into the Water and Stone Promenade at the basement of the museum. There was a pond and the walkway, partially covered by a low, grey ceiling. It was a cave-like shelter. Suzuki sounded out the stones once again, while Hiromi gestured for listening and lingering. The multiple refractions of the sound came into dialogues with the slowly changing natural light and its reflections in the water. I recalled a common notion about how listening is the sharpest when in the dark, when sight is suspended. In Suzuki’s work, isolation of the senses was out of the question. To listen is not to work with darkness; it is to learn to discern textures of light, to be in the light when listening. “The wonder of light,” as Cathryn Vasseleu describes, “is the absolute coincidence of something other – an undefinable being – with self, an instance of intelligibility, momentarily suspending the anonymity of materiality in the apparition of presence.”  In the way Suzuki encourages listening, one also recognizes how sound is in light, and light, in sound.
The last act was in the elevated courtyard: irregularly shaped, a sitting area, but enclosed, and opening up to the sky. On the one side is the common area outside the museum shop. On the other side is a floor-to-building-top speaker wall, stretching up to three-storeys high of a building. One otodate is at the corner. This was the only time during the performance that Suzuki, the maker, would stand on the otodate. He looked up to the speaker wall. One started to notice small sounds – the cracking of small things here and there, mostly discrete, but distinctively different. Sometimes they sounded out between long intervals of silence, rather than continuously. They are recordings from Suzuki’s past site-specific performances. The artist has nothing to show but the act of listening, but in showing this alone, he shows everything – listening to himself, to us, with us, and everything else.
The day after the performance, I went back to see one of the museum’s main exhibitions: “MOT Collection: Pleased to meet you. New Acquisitions in recent years”. It shows works created mostly in the 2010s. They are chosen from the newly acquired pieces during the museum’s closure.
I find Jung Yeondoo''s soot drawings, the way light shimmers in them, resonating with the sensibility of otodate. I also find affinities between concerns in Pavilion for a Mask by Simon Fujiwara and otodate. Fujiwara made a white mask of the face of Stalin, and presented it as an architectural model of a pavilion. Miniaturized human figures stand underneath. It is a quiet, and subdued rebellion against the senselessness of power. While otodate does not address politics in this sense, it affirms the importance of freedom and hope as bulwarks against authoritarianism. I also relate the transitive state otodate puts one in to Mark Manders’ “unfinished” sculpture of a girl in clay, wrapped around wood. It presents at once serenity and vulnerability. In relation to the artists’ multiple visions in the galleries, the otodate around and within the museum are their stems and shoots, at once independent and drawing connections, giving rise to each other. The museum has opened not only its galleries, but it has opened itself up to the potential of listening to nest the art within.
 The title of the work oto-date comes from no-date, meaning outdoor tea parties in Japanese. Suzuki deliberately employed the idea of ‘date’ as an activity denoted by its verb form, to address the self-study event as a way of activating the sound (oto) of a place. Visually, oto-date is an ear- and footprint in white made on the ground. It is good for one person to stand on at one time to focus and listen. I have written elsewhere that I understand oto-date not as a visual sign, because its meaning and content are not fixed by any established referent – it is not a representation of something fixed but of what is admitted to it at any given time, by any given person and all that he/she would bring into the event. Listening becomes an activity of composing, enabled by chance, which is another source of inspiration for Suzuki. He shared John Cage’s interest in chance operation, and had made a drawing of Cage’s left ear. Suzuki also compares oto-date to a common sign in Amino-cho, Tango drawn in the shape of a pair of footsteps on the ground, to caution residents to stop and watch for traffic before crossing the road. Since its first iteration in Berlin in 1996, more than one hundred oto-date have been made in multiple cities in the world, often as a series of multiple echo points.
 In 2017, “Space in the Sun” was demolished after the safety of the wall was in question. See for instance this report from The Wire Magazine: https://www.thewire.co.uk/news/49047/akio-suzuki-s-space-in-the-sun-has-been-demolished
 Cathryn Vasseleu, Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty. New York: Routledge. 1998:86.
First published at COBO Social online, June 2019.