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SACHIKO KODAMA:

FERROFLUID ART

Stephen Nomura
Art History 381
November 18, 2008
SACHIKO KODAMA: FERROFLUID ART

Introduction

Sachiko Kodama is the poster child of ferrofluid art, which uses magnetic liquids as a

sculptural medium. By its self, ferrofluid resembles crude oil - cold, dead, and static. However,

in the presence of a magnet, it silently springs to life. Although computer controlled

electromagnets are used, the ferrofluid’s behavior is anything but cold and digital.1 The fluid acts

with emotion - sometimes calm and peaceful, other times aggressive and agitated, sometimes

even violent. When the magnet is deactivated, the liquid silently crumbles back into lifelessness.

Kodama’s art is fascinating because it draws ideas and concepts from a wide variety of sources,

the most important of which are the Monoha movement, Expressionism, and Digital Art.

In brief, Kodama’s associations with the Monoha movement are most explicit concerning

her rejection of traditional image and her usage of relationships between everyday objects and

settings. However, Kodama also embraces ideas from the western sphere of art, particularly

Expressionism. This is most evident in her intention to provoke primal emotions and in the

dreamlike installations she creates. The third section will explore Kodama’s similarities with two

contemporary Digital Art trends, interactivity and digital image. The interactive art of Victoria

Vesna and the digital image art of Yoichiro Kawaguchi will be compared with Kodama’s art. In

conclusion, modern technology and the questions her art poses with regard to the crumbling

dichotomy of the living world and the machine world will be explored.

1 Sachiko Kodama, “Dynamic ferrofluid sculpture: organic shape-changing art forms,” Communications of

the ACM 51, 6 (2008): 80, http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1349026.1349042

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Monoha

The Monoha movement of the late 60s and 70s was all about viewing the everyday world

as it is, directly and unfiltered.2 Their goal was to reduce the role of the artist and emphasize the

relationships between materials and environment.3 They accomplished this through the

placement of common materials and objects in everyday local settings. Monoha artists

manipulated the relationship between object and environment, both spatial and conceptual; not

the materiality of the objects themselves.4 They rejected the traditional arts, such as painting,

with the argument that only through the simple and mundane could one transcend illusions.5

Furthermore, they believed “the artist should not make things, but merely show them as they

are.”6

Kodama embraces the Monoha idea that image representation is flawed. She operates

under the pretense that ferrofluid more accurately represents reality than images; that materials

and real forms are inherently more powerful than images. She states that “many artists have

created surreal illusions in pictures or moving images. But those were imaginary.”7 The

fundamental difference between representation through image and through ferrofluid, or through

any other physical material, is that ferrofluid can take on three dimensional form and true surface

textures; images only provide two dimensional representations of forms and textures. In terms of

2Thomas R.H. Havens, Radicals and realists in the Japanese nonverbal arts: the avant-garde
rejection of modernism (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006), 190.
3 Havens, 189.

4 Havens, 190.

5 Janet Koplos, "Extensions of the Ordinary," Art in America 88, 4 (2000): 141.

6 Havens, 194.

7 Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno, “Protrude, Flow,” Ars Electronica Festival Catalog,

(2003): 422, http://www.aec.at/en/archiv_files/20031/FE_2003_kodama_en.pdf


Pulsate - Melting Time, Dissolving Time (2004)

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flexibility, since ferrofluid is both three dimensional and

animated, it is like a cross between sculpture and film.

In Pulsate, a common dinner table setting is juxtaposed

with the ferrofluid. This stark and minimalist relationship

between everyday object and environment is very Monoha.

Kodama makes us think about the dinner table setting by adding a

plate of ferrofluid. We see a similar technique used by Takamasa


Fig. 1 Sachiko Kodama,
Pulsate, mixed media, 2001.
Kuniyasu, a post-Monoha artist famous for his usage of bricks

and lumber.8 In Kuniyasu’s The Spiral of Midou, a spiraling mass

of bricks and lumber appear to have overgrown a portion of the

building’s exterior. The common setting is the building, and the

spiraling mass is juxtaposed with this. Another similarity,

although not specific to Monoha, is that in both works the

“foreign element” reminds us of lifeforms. Kodama’s ferrofluid

responds to speech and creates organic porcupine-like shapes;

Kuniyasu’s spiral has overgrown a portion of the building, like a


Fig. 2 Takamasa Kuniyasu, The
Spiral of Midou, bricks and logs,
1997. vine on a tree.

German Expressionism

Expressionism is a twentieth century art movement and artistic method in which

representations of reality are distorted to provoke an emotional response in the viewer. This can

range from very subtle, such as slightly skewing linear perspective, to very blunt, like using

8Jean M. Ippolito, “From the Avant-Garde: Re-Conceptualizing Cultural Origins in the Digital
Media Art of Japan,” Leonardo 40, no. 2 (2007): 145.
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images of demons, aliens, and other nonexistent creatures. It encompassed many arts, including

painting, literature, and film. The film flavor is generally called German Expressionism.

Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s 1923 vampire horror film, is

a great example of German Expressionism.9 Although

expressionism penetrates nearly all aspects of the film, we will

concentrate on mise-en-scène, as this is most relevant to visual

art. The most famous example is likely Murnau’s usage of


Fig. 3 F.W. Murnau, scene from
extremely dramatic lighting to create heavily shadowed Nosferatu, 1923.

environments. The vampire is often only seen as a shadow, eerily sliding along surfaces; it’s as if

the shadow itself is the vampire. This distortion is legendary in its ability to provoke anxiety and

horror in the viewer.

A comparison can be made with Seven Questions, a

collaborative piece by Kodama and writer Hiromi Kawakami.

The piece consists of an eerily lit bathroom counter with only

a mirror, lights, and sink. The sink is filled with ferrofluid. In

Kawakami’s voice, the mirror asks viewers simple yet

probing questions, such as “Let me know one thing which

you don't like others to do to you.”10 If they respond, the

ferrofluid silently ripples and shudders in the sink. The piece


Fig. 4 Sachiko Kodama and Hiromi
is rather eerie; it feels like it was plucked from a bizarre dream. Kawakami, Seven Questions,
2007.

9 "F.W. Murnau," Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2008, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/


topic/398163/F-W-Murnau
10 Sachiko Kodama, “Seven Questions,” http://www.kodama.hc.uec.ac.jp/sevenquestions/index-

e.html
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This feeling is enhanced by the ferrofluid’s alien behavior. Kodama’s ferrofluid is like Murnau’s

vampire, an otherworldly lifeform.

However, while Kodama states that her objective is to “stimulate and inspire man's most

primitive emotions,”11 she uses expressionism in a slightly different way. She takes the

expressionist idea a step further by presenting a reality that feels like it shouldn’t exist, but does.

It feels like it should be a distorted representation, like a Hollywood special effect. But it’s not a

special effect; it’s real. Viewers are forced to wrestle with the reality of the ferrofluid, and this is

quite provocative.

Digital Art Connections

Digital Art is a broad term that generally encompasses any and all art whose creation is in

some way connected with digital technology. The invention of computers unlocked many doors

for artists; both new media and new ways to use media are now available. In terms of form,

Digital Art may be a computer file, such as a digital image, or it may resemble non-digital art,

such as a print of a digital image or an image drawn in pen using a robotic arm. However, most

Digital Art seems to fall into one of two flavors, visual or interactive.12

Interactive art, simply put, is art that utilizes audience participation. Unlike television and

radio, which are limited to one-way communication, the internet supports interaction between

viewer and media at literally the speed of light.13 It is a relatively new vein of art and contests the

traditional notion that the viewer should be a passive receptacle for ideas transmitted by the

artist.14 “The traditional museum and gallery etiquette of ‘Look, don’t touch’ cannot be applied

11Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno, “Video Description of Project ʻProtrude, Flow,ʼ” http://
www.kodama.hc.uec.ac.jp/protrudeflow/movies/wmv/profloD.wmv
12 Frank Popper, Art of the Electronic Age (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 120.

13 Bruce Wands, Art of the Digital Age (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 8.

14 Eleanor Heartney, Art & Today (London; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008), 392.
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to interactive art.”15 In Roland Barthes’s 1968 essay The Death

of the Author, he argued that “the real ‘author’ of any piece of

writing was in fact the reader who brought it to life.”16

One of Kodama’s contemporaries in the interactive art

sphere is Victoria Vesna, an American artist and professor.

Kodama’s Waves and Sea Urchins and Vesna’s Nano both allow

audience members to interact with the art through body Fig. 5 Sachiko Kodama, Waves
and Sea Urchins, 2003.
movement. In Waves and Sea Urchins, the ferrofluid’s behavior

responds to hand movements above the surface of the liquid. For

instance, a closed fist held above the ferrofluid will not provoke

a response. But, if the fist is opened, as if dropping something

into the fluid, it comes to life. In Nano, participants can deform

and move the projected ball images using the shadow of their

body. Kodama’s work may be the more user friendly of the two

because it doesn’t require shadow puppetry, an awkward

translation of three dimensional movements into two


Fig. 6 Victoria Vesna, Nano,
2002. dimensional shape. One interacts with Kodama’s work more

naturally by using simple hand motions or sounds.

In the visual sphere of digital art, Yoichiro Kawaguchi appears extremely influential in

Kodama’s work. Most of Yoichiro’s art is based on the organic growth algorithm GROWTH, a

15 Wands, 10.
16 Heartney, 392.
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recursive mathematical formula he began producing in

1975.17 Both Yoichiro and Kodama have stated that their

exposure to colorful ocean scenery in their childhood

plays a powerful influence in their art. 18, 19 Notice the

similarity in visual texture between Kodama’s Waves and

Sea Urchins, and Yoichiro’s Topolon. Both are the result

of computer processing. Yoichiro creates mathematical

abstractions of the way lifeforms appear, grow, and

evolve. In Protrude, Flow, Kodama creates mathematical


Fig. 7 Yoichiro Kawaguchi, Topolon,
2001.
abstractions of the way nearby lifeforms sound, which

become the choreography for the ferrofluid. The

“imaginary surreal illusions” that Kodama claims to

surpass likely includes Yoichiro’s work.20 Not only is

Yoichiro widely recognized in the Digital Art world, but

he and Kodama are both from Japan, and the shapes and
Fig. 8 Sachiko Kodama, Waves and Sea
textures of Kodama’s work closely resemble Yoichiro’s. Urchines, 2003.

Body and Machine

I think a fascinating suggestion of Kodama’s art relates to the blurring lines between

mechanical machine and living body, between computer and brain. The traditional idea that the

living world and machine world are separate is crumbling due to modern technology. Drivers

17 Wands, 152.
18 Popper, 134.
19 Sachiko Kodama, “Artistʼs Website,” http://www.kodama.hc.uec.ac.jp/
20 Kodama and Takeno, “Protrude, Flow,” 422.
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begin to think of their car as an extension of their body.21 Many people, especially those who

grew up with cellphones, feel naked without it on their persons; a piece of them is missing. 22 And

people with artificial hearts are quite literally human-machine hybrids.23

In Morpho Tower, the ferrofluid resists gravity

and climbs the magnetic cone like something alive.24 I

cannot think of anything besides lifeforms and

mountains (especially volcanoes) that naturally appear to

resist gravity. Might the central cone in Kodama’s

Morpho Tower, suggest a mountain or volcano?

However, the way ferrofluid spirals up the cone seems

extremely mechanical; it reminds me of a gearbox the


Fig. 8 Sachiko Kodama, Morpho Tower,
way the fluid spins around the cone. Yet, since it is a 2006.

liquid and individual spikes of ferrofluid are unique and volatile in both shape and behavior,

sometimes merging with nearby spikes; it appears organic. It’s both mechanical and organic.

What’s more, the ferrofluid is presented in a capsule, like a precious flower being preserved from

the elements, or an alien lifeform captured for observation and study.

Conclusion

In summary, Kodama’s art shows many interesting artistic connections, both historical

and modern, Japanese and Western, stylistic and conceptual. Connections with the mid twentieth

century Monoha movement include a rejection of traditional representation and the usage of

21 Peter Lunenfeld, editor, The digital dialectic : new essays on new media, (Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press, 2000), 64.
22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Kodama and Takeno, “Protrude, Flow,” 422.


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everyday settings. From the Western sphere, twentieth century German Expressionist ideas and

methods surface in Kodama’s art in the bizarre and surreal nature of ferrofluid and her stated

objective to provoke primal emotions. Kodama is a Digital artist, and is connected to both

interactive artists like the Victoria Vesna, from America, and digital image artists like Yoichiro

Kawaguchi, from Japan. Her art contests the traditional idea that body and machine are separate

by presenting forms that are both organic and mechanical. It will be exciting to see how

Kodama’s work evolves because she is just getting used to ferrofluid. She has only been working

with it about ten years and has yet to unlock its true artistic potential.
WORKS CITED

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