It would be easy to believe that the gravel pathway you must traverse on your way to the Furnace Room is part of Sachiko Abe’s art installation “Cut Papers”, conveying as it does a sense of pilgrimage or ceremony. The shifting stones slow you down making you aware of each step you take and preparing your mind for the contemplative space you are about you enter. Once through the small doorway you encounter a vast empty chamber and your eyes are instantly drawn to a delicate white structure rising up in the centre of this former industrial space. On closer inspection it becomes evident that this fragile entity is composed of fine filaments of white paper precariously clinging to each other for strength and substance. As the form stretches upwards to the ceiling it narrows until it appears to be hanging by a slender thread. A pathway of this finely shredded paper trails along the concrete floor from the base of this curious object, leading the eye away to the furthest end of the room where it pulls your attention to a live ghostly figure, Japanese artist Sachiko Abe. Precariously perched on a ledge high above our heads and elegantly clothed in a pure white dress Sachiko is meticulously cutting A4 pieces of paper into minute slivers by following the edge of each sheet, turning it clockwise then cutting again and again until she has reduced it into a continuous one millimetre wide thread. The sound of this process is amplified and transmitted live around this immense industrial venue.
There is an obvious fairy-tale perspective to this work, its stillness and strange theatrical performance make it a beautiful yet haunting spectacle which the viewer experiences in reverential silence. Part performance, part installation it is difficult to stop your mind from being captivated by Sachiko’s presence and her undeniably beautiful creation. Unfortunately this means that our attention is diverted away from the obsessive nature of the very act by which the work is produced. It is at this point that we must confess to having seen Sachiko carrying out the same paper cutting exercise before, but in a completely different context and presented in an entirely distinctive manner. This was back in 2004 when she occupied the Concert Hall space of the Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool, but there all similarity ends. At the Bluecoat, Sachiko provided the viewer with a text which partially explained her actions and how she came to spend up to 6 hours a day cutting paper. This included a description of time spent in a mental institution following a breakdown. It was here she discovered that using scissors to cut paper in this meticulous way actually calmed her nerves rather like a form of meditation. When the doctors witnessed the soothing effect of this otherwise potentially dangerous occupation they allowed her to continue. With this story in mind you entered the darkened, intimate space of the concert hall to discover Sachiko acting out her “controlled madness” behind a curtained area at the centre of the room. You could only glimpse her obsessively, though calmly, carrying out her incessant paper cutting through the gaps in the curtains which functioned in the same way as hospital screens. This impression was reinforced by the inclusion of a hospital bed and Sachiko’s garment, a standard hospital gown. The sound of the scissor cutting was again amplified and relayed through speakers placed on the floor around the room but in this more enclosed arena the noise was much more powerful and emphasised the drama of the setting for the piece.
There appears to be a significant shift in our role as a viewer once we are denied the “back story” to Sachiko’s performance. At the A Foundation, with no visitor information other than a press release to explain the work, one cannot help but interpret the piece entirely at face value and via the aesthetically beautiful presentation. In raising Sachiko above our heads we now see her transformed into a celestial being whilst we mere mortals occupy a more lowly status on the ground. She is out of reach and unattainable, a beautiful fairy princess who is unaware of our presence, deep in the contemplation of her futile actions and waiting for release. In the Bluecoat presentation we at least occupied the same space as her and could easily empathise with her tragic story. Her performance at the A Foundation is equally compelling and effective but lends itself to a totally different interpretation.
Below Sachiko Abe is a small house-like structure, an abandoned office complete with doors and windows. The space is entirely white and to a certain extent resembles a g process. Above, and touching your head and shoulders, are thousands of the fine cut strands. You are given the opportunity to get close and touch this shredded paper which you have witnessed outside. - allmycolours.wordpress.com All My Colours' is Arthur Roberts and Barbara Jones, artists reviewing Liverpool International Biennial.