Last summer, Tokyo’s Kiba Park witnessed an art performance on a laborious scale. A huge plywood container (5.8 metre x 6.7 metre x 2.7 metre) was laid out in the middle of an open court. Using dozens of ropes attached to the top and bottom of the object, artist Tsubasa Kato gathered friends and strangers to help him erect the heavy object and then pull it back down again.
It took quite a few attempts before the object became upright. In the meantime, more passersby decided to join in on the effort. Some watched from the sidelines—cries of ‘ooh’ and ‘aaaah!’ accompanied each attempt. Finally, the job was done, and participants congratulated each other with claps and cries of ‘Yatta! (We did it!)’. Everyone was sweating and suffering in the typical August heat—all in the name of art.
Fukugawa.Future.Humanity takes its title from the Tokyo neighbourhood of Fukugawa, in which Kiba Park is located. The second word, ‘future’, is to do with the Tohoku disasters of March 2011 and the artist’s thoughts about the rebuilding efforts. ‘Humanity’ indicates the artist’s broader vision concerning the origins of civilisation and his exploration of this theme through art. In order to raise the structure, participants had to use a kind of brute strength that is no longer a part of everyday life (outside of a gym or sports ground). The performance reminded me of pre-industrial times or Amish folk, and romantic images of villagers working together to raise a barn. In pre-industrial ages, shared labour was a good reason for people to stay close and get along with each other. In Japan, Shinto festivals also bring people together in order to transport the heavy omikoshi, or portable shrines, from one place to another. Even though it is hard work, these events are seen primarily as celebrations.
Kato is an artist searching for ways to make his work socially relevant and community-minded. He sees physical teamwork as positive social interaction, which can be even more important than the resulting documentation and exhibition. Teamwork is something that most people have a first-hand experience with. It is a concept introduced early on in schools, in sports and then later in most workplaces. The earliest research on the value of teamwork was conducted by Max Ringelmann, a French engineer, in 1913. In what was possibly a very similar scene to Kato’s performance, Ringelmann tested a group of agricultural students as they pulled on ropes attached to a dynamometer. Ironically, he found that individuals gave more pulling strength when left to do the work on their own, compared to those same individuals placed in groups.1
Is Kato aware of the resemblance his art work shares with this famous experiment? Many studies have replicated Ringelmann’s rope-pulling experiment in order to find a solution to this apparent failure of the teamwork system, a problem often described as ‘social loafing’. In 1987, one researcher recorded better group results than individual efforts alone when he chose social groups with a ‘strong sense of group identity’.2 When the group matters to the individual, it seems people are more willing to give as much effort as possible. If Kato is purposely making his own Ringelmann-like experiment, perhaps he was counting on everybody having the sense that ‘we’re in this together’.
After a successful day at Kiba Park, participants went away with good memories and a sense of accomplishment. They probably also felt some kind of ownership over the work. After all, it certainly wasn’t a feat the artist could pull off by himself! Tsubasa’s work is placed in the hands of others, literally, in order to produce art that can genuinely extend out into the community.
A video of the performance (along with some past performances in Osaka, Niigata and France) showed for two weeks after the event at SNAC gallery, just a short walk from the site. The container used in Kiba Park was also on display, but it was shown from a completely new angle. The object was actually built to the exact negative dimensions of the SNAC space, so visitors to the gallery had to step inside the container to enter the exhibition. The gallery show complemented the live event by providing a new way of seeing the art.
Kato’s artwork acquires particular implications and new dimensions in 2011. Universally, it is in the most vulnerable of times that teamwork is a priceless commodity. This theme cuts to the essence of human civilisation and, as included in the title, our humanity.
1. Michael A. West & Julie A. Slater, Institute of Work Psychology, ‘Teamwork: myths, realities and research’, The Occupational Psychologist, April 1995 pp.24-29.
2. Ibid, p.26.