Looking back, I am amazed that I was attracted to them at all; my tastes skew towards the insanely complicated and these pieces were really just simple line drawings. But it was that straightforward, clumsy mark that gave the works such an alluring composition. One continuous red line snaking back and forth against the rectangular surface of an etched plate, always concentrating near the edge, looking for a way out. There was an energy there. The long, uninterrupted mark had a life. The print had been pulled on paper significantly larger than the plate itself and it was this large white border that gave it a sense of possibility. There was potential for an escape; the line just hadn’t found an out yet.
Many years ago, I stood in front of five etchings from the series Wandering Position by Yukinori Yanagi at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA. They were small, 20”x24”, and (I later learned) part of a larger series that includes significant sized drawings made directly on the floor.
Standing in front of the prints, my eyes began wandering along with the mark; it was unbroken and didn’t seem to have a beginning or end. My eye traveled across this foreign arena looking for some reasoning behind these lines. Later, reading the wall text, I learned the artist had placed an ant in a box of the same dimensions as the plate’s surface, and used a red crayon to follow and replicate the ant’s journey across the plate, treading the edges, looking for an escape. Of course there was a little ant scurrying around trying to make sense of this new territory, this confusing new space. That’s exactly what I had done. It is this parallel between the experience of the subject and the viewer that makes these images so satisfying.
This piece opened up (for my young self) new possibilities of where ideas can come from. Yanagi had given control over the mark making to an ant, who was clearly unaware of any intention to make lines; it just wanted to escape. Shifting the onus of creative direction onto the subject and allowing the artist to be a stenographer who documents its journey was a powerful new idea for me. The prints also explore the idea of framing and edge, where the dimensions of the plate are defined only by activity that has taken place inside.
Another reason these etchings have stuck with me for so long is their embodiment of one of the characteristics I find so valuable in great art; the work required no explanation to pull me in. Although discovering the framework for Wandering Position added new layers of meaning to the work, the image itself is intriguing enough to warrant spending time with the piece.
Looking back, the work’s existence as a print is significant as well. It brings about questions I don’t have answers to, which I love. One of printing’s primary intentions is quick, easy dissemination. What does it mean to make copies of this singular ant’s irreproducible struggle and how does that refer back to the mark making itself and, in a broader sense, all marks made by artists? Does multiplying this experience elevate and imbue it with meaning it lacked as a singular entity, cheapen its uniqueness and individuality, or leave it somewhere in between?
Speaking of appropriately weighted layers, Yanagi has undertaken work from this series in many locations, and considers the meaning to shift with each staging. The artist writes that the pieces have referenced his own struggle to define himself as Japanese while working in North America. The work has also spoken to confinement and incarceration when executed on Alcatraz Island. These themes are provocative, rich in connotations and readings. But, for the most part, when viewing Wandering Position, I am caught in some weird world between artist and ant, on a terrifying, ecstatic journey to discover a place just beyond limitations.