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Toshio Iwai: Breaking Down `The Tyranny' of a Single Image

EVEN in the newest of art media, young artists often feel that something newer is needed. Toshio Iwai is a 30-year-old Japanese artist whose earliest work was in video and computer animation, art forms that did not exist before the 1970s.

In explaining his work, Iwai told me he had become uncomfortable about the passivity imposed upon a person viewing films or video. Typically one sees a film while sitting in a theater seat, facing in a single direction and seeing the entire screen. The video viewer has more freedom to move, at home or in a public place, but has no control over the image displayed on the video monitor.

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Iwai asked himself if he could devise artworks in which the artist and the viewer would act in partnership. The result of his yearning for responsive art has been a series of high-tech sculptures widely exhibited in Japan and other countries. During a recent visit to San Francisco, he made "Well of Lights," a sculpture that offers viewers a chance to vary the experience of looking at art.

"Well of Lights" resembles a tub for planting flowers, 29 inches high and 58 inches across. Images generated by computer and laser technology are projected downward from the ceiling into the well, where they are reflected by three rotating sheets of plastic that act like movie screens. The projected images suggest the outlines of birds or fish, and "Well of Lights" may be perceived as a high-tech artist's vision of an aquarium or a bird-filled sky.

Looking down into the well, a viewer can see several groups of Iwai's computer-generated forms, each group swimming or flying in a pattern independent of the others. The complexity of the patterns invites each viewer to select one or another part of the well's surface to watch at any given moment, instead of trying to apprehend the work as a whole.

To further expand the possibilities, Iwai has cut a window into the side of his "well," making it possible to look at the three plastic disks from the side rather than the top. And viewers - one at a time, or several in collaboration - can interpose their hands and arms between the projector and the reflective surfaces below, creating shadows of their own design.

The complex, multiple imagery in "Well of Lights" is only one way to break down what Iwai sees as the tyranny of the single image. He has made other computer-aided sculptures in which the viewer can vary the image by using hand-operated controls.

As Iwai perceives modern society, people feel overwhelmed by events and images imposed on them by vast, impersonal processes. Artists alone cannot hope to give us a sense of control over the machinery of politics and economics. Toshio Iwai and a growing number of young people are developing artworks which the audience is invited to help create. In this small area of freedom, art can suggest alternatives to passivity in the face of power.

"Well of Lights" is permanently installed at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco.

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