A prolific architect and a committed theoretician, Arata Isozaki participated actively in the process of postwar reconstruction in Japan, contributing to his country’s radical modernization. As an independent voice and a forerunner of new trends, Isozaki has created a varied body of architecture, characterized by a number of different phases, ranging from extreme experimentation to historicizing quotations. Active in international circles, Isozaki makes use in his work of a fertile exchange between Eastern and Western discourse.
One constant throughout his career has been a dialogue with various proponents of the visual arts, in keeping with his markedly interdisciplinary outlook. Electric Labyrinth, 2002 (1968), originally created for the Fourteenth Milan Triennale, was produced within this context and constitutes a key work in the history of experimental installations and exhibitions from the 1960s. In 1968 Isozaki approached some of the leading figures in Japanese avant-garde art of the period, including graphic designer Kōhei Sugiura, photographer Shōmei Tōmatzu, and composer Toshi Itchiyanagi, and invited them to collaborate with him on this project. The work is organized as a series of undulating panels, with reflective surfaces that feature silk-screened images. Arranged on a regular grid and connected to motors, the panels rotate in relation to the passage of visitors, continually modifying the viewers’ perception and experience of the space. Evoking wars and tragedies, the silk screens include monstrous creatures and phantasms reproduced as traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints (images of the floating world), which were created in the nineteenth century and reflected a time when, with the beginning of increased contact with other nations, Japanese culture was experiencing a sense of dislocation. Isozaki juxtaposes the silk screens with documentary images of the destruction brought by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Among these images is a well-known photograph of a shadow frozen permanently on a wall at the moment of atomic explosion. The alternation between monsters of the past and contemporary dramas culminates in a disquieting representation of the future, projected on one of the walls outside the labyrinth. Entitled The City of the Future Is the Ruins, the image is a collage related to the remains of Hiroshima. A vision of an apocalyptic future, within which destruction continues to be a tragic agent of transformation, it includes a number of mega-structures and elements that clarify the origins of some of the forms developed by Isozaki in his architectural projects. The strong impact of the gigantic ruins and the cascade of images within the mutable labyrinthine environment fits with Isozaki’s investigations into the multiplication of the possibilities of vision, developed from the Japanese principle of ma, which can be defined as the space that lies between images. Further amplified by the acoustic effects of the sound component of the installation, the vision of the effects of violence, and of never-ending transformations, thus assails viewers at every step, involving numerous senses.
The original 1968 installation no longer exists, but in 2002 a version, now in the collection of the Castello di Rivoli, was reconstructed in agreement with Isozaki for the exhibition Iconoclash, presented at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, the institution with which the Castello and Fundação Serralves, Porto, share ownership of the work. Despite its anti-war message, the original installation was the object of iconoclastic violence. In May 1968, amid the student revolts, a group of protesters occupied the Triennale building in Milan. As a result, like other works by architects exhibited at the Triennale that year, the first version of Electric Labyrinth was destroyed on the opening day of the exhibition.