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YUKINORI YANAGI - b.1959 Japan. Lives and works in Japan and the USA.

World Flag Ant Farm - 1990. Ants, coloured sand, plastic boxes and tubing. (2)

Yukinori Yanagi's work explores themes relating to his position as a Japanese artist living and working in an international context, as well as broader issues about identity within social or national constructs.

World Flag Ant Farm
In The World Flag Ant Farm, he created a series of interconnecting boxes,each filled with coloured sand in the pattern of a national flag - representing the nations of the world - and linked by plastic tubes. He then released ants into this system who were able to travel between all the networked flags, transporting food and sand. These 'border crossings' eventually resulted in an intermingling of colour throughout the system, each flag's integrity being slowly degraded, creating in a sort of 'cross-cultural' multinational network.

In a Japanese context the idea that the nation state might have this sort of cultural permeability goes against the traditionally held view that Japan has its own very distinct and isolated culture. But in fact Japan has historically been influenced by several other Asian countries - particularly China - and America currently has a strong impact on Japanese popular culture.

This piece was originally made in 1990 and shown at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Yanagi has subsequently re-created or made new versions in a number of sites around the world.(See Union Jack Ant Farm 1994, below)

Yanagi has said that he frequently played with ants and other insects as a child growing up in rural Japan. Now he uses them in his art as a symbol of work, order and collective activity.

Yanagi, 'Union Jack Ant Farm (detail), 1994 (3)

Union Jack Ant Farm
A collection of boxed 'flags' bearing the British design which breaks down as the ants go about their business. "...it simultaneously depicts the spread of a tribe and the decline of an empire."
"If the travels of the ant show us anything, it is that he wanders to resume the task he has been programmed to perform, not to aquire freedom." Yukinori Yanagi

"Wandering Position" (edge detail) 1998. Ant, crayon, steel video.(4)

Wandering Position
In order to make this piece, Yanagi placed himself and an ant in a five metre square enclosure. For several hours each day the artist crawled around tracing the paths made by the ant with a red crayon. The artist and animal share their confinement but the ant's worker status is enforced, it's meanderings around the enclosure at the service of Yanagi's art.

The piece "Wandering Position" has also been made by Yanagi in several different locations and each time its meaning changes.It was initally created at Alcatraz, the ex-prison island in San Fransico bay. When the piece was created in his studio in North America he said it reflected "...the borders I have had to cross or barriers I have confronted in trying to define myself as Japanese." The piece alludes to the state of confinement in a literal sense but also in a social sense.

Yanagi is interested in the way people frame themeselves and are framed by social systems like class and gender as well as by ethnic or national identities. He is also interested in fundamental philosophical questions such as why we are here.

"We feel that the incarcerated lack liberty, and that all of their activity is controlled and watched and we assume that this is completely opposite to the way we live our daily life, but I ask myself... Is what I watch, what I watch by my will? Is the direction I am walking determined by me? Is what I am thinking really thought by me? What drives our journeys through life?" Yukinori Yanagi

BREAKING OUT OF THE FRAME...Yanagi's work uses the frame as both a physical device to enclose his work, reflecting a formal tradition, and a metaphor for borders or partitions. He refers to framed spaces as 'ghettos'. He very often uses materials such as steel or glass to encase or enclose the image (and sometimes the ant.)

  • What would you make, inspired by this artist's work?
  • Play with framing to explore how images are displayed or how objects are encased. Examine how different materials give different meanings to your framed piece (metal versus string etc.).
  • Changing the shape of your frame or breaking out of it can also create new meanings. The frame determines what is in the image and what is not, just like borders they can enclose but they can also exclude things.
  • You could explore the idea of framing as a social construction using objects and space as metaphors for people and places. Play with different categories or groupings. How is 'the self' defined within the community?