There's a screaming in the galleries at Seattle Asian Art Museum. It's an alarm, bleeding panic through the rooms from a video that's screening in the back. Inside that dark room one afternoon last month, people sat, astounded.
The video, a world premiere, depicts a tsunami slamming into a city, knocking down towers. It is a digital animation crawling with drawn detail: a byzantine cartoon. There is no way to take in all of it in a single viewing of the seven-minute loop, or maybe there is no way to take in all of it, ever.
The projection is a panorama 64 feet long, about the length of 10 king-size beds end-to-end. Every inch is alive.
We viewers talked to each other in the theater. Was that a cat passing by in those bushes? I only caught the tail; I turned my head to see the fleeting appearance of a glowing decapitated head, upside down, in a lantern in the nearby cemetery. At least I think it was a head.
Did you see that peninsula shaped like a woman lift her eyes briefly to watch the tsunami hit? Are those mountains with cute, round faces newly reborn along with the reborn cute-faced skyscrapers—or were they already there? I don't know; I was watching the dancing sprites and carpenter giraffes.
Must watch again.
A single cycle is seven minutes long, but I didn't see anybody leave after watching just once. This can't fairly be called a "short" film, despite its short running time. It demands that you spend the same time you would on a feature film to feel you have seen it once. All the puzzle pieces are not in place, but you have the outline and some of the bits.
Artist Chiho Aoshima made the video with New Zealand animator Bruce Ferguson, and it's called Takaamanohara, a Shinto word for heaven. As maximal as the video's surface is—comparable to the densest Indian paintings, art nouveau tangles, or Hieronymus Bosch dystopias—the plot, if you can call it that, is a simple life cycle, more a rhythm than a story.
It begins with a long-haired girl arising from the center of a volcano. She stands on top, bends over, and farts out noxious gas that poisons the sky and sets the mountain ablaze with lava that spills down and powers the waves.
That happens in the heavenly realm on the right third of the screen. The tsunami gathers in the center of the screen, which is a body of water interrupted by a peninsula (the one in the shape of a prone woman) and a small island. On the left of the screen, the earthly city waits to be destroyed.
The city teeters and falls, but it slowly rises again. Everything has a life force, and most things have faces. The alarm system is a red creature with two heads. The skyscrapers are glowworms that squirm up like weeds. Searchlights on the roofs blaze up and spin while shades dance in the city's cemetery, as if it were the height of a party empire. Before long, the girl arises from the volcano, and disaster returns. The story plays three times before the screen goes black, the title appears in giant white letters, and the loop starts over.
In technical terms, Takaamanohara is a projection delivered via a media server that sends a part of the image to each of five projectors to make up the whole. The 3-D sound plays over 12 speakers around the room.
The action happens laterally, from side to side in both directions. If it were made for a circular room, it would be like a never-ending scroll to be read. Takaamanohara is as much a painting as a film, but its depth is built in layers of detail on the surface, not depicted as recession in space the way it is in post-Renaissance European painting. The view is static and aerial; there are no close-ups and no shifts in perspective.
This is not Aoshima and Ferguson's first detailed looping animation depicting a life-and-death cycle. They created one in 2005 called City Glow (it was acquired by LA MOCA), but that one located the viewer low and close. Objects in the foreground were large and obstructive. The greater detail and distance in Takaamanohara makes viewing it more work, and more emotionally involving.
Japanese neo-pop gets boring. Aoshima's work has felt handsome, accomplished, and cryptic to me, but Takaamanohara pulls me way in. It seems to represent the melancholy of a situation she described in a 2006 interview, when she said, "I represented these two souls that cannot understand each other through the images of buildings and mountains." If given natural disasters like tsunamis and mass deaths, we find ourselves at a bewildering impasse with the rest of nature, then what to do? Research. Study. Frantic looking, searching. That is what you do in Takaamanohara.
Viewers probably can't help thinking of the March 2011 Japanese tsunami. One man, the guard told me, sat watching and saying, "I was on the 11th floor."
In the 1990s, Aoshima was a graphic designer when she was cherry-picked by Takashi Murakami to work at Kaikai Kiki, his neo-pop art factory in Tokyo. Her group created that multicolored logo on Louis Vuitton bags; later, her invitation to an Issey Miyake fashion show became a gigantic mural depicting a phalanx of wraithlike women with demonic red eyes but winsome faces and hair that flows like vines. That mural showed in Seattle at the Henry Art Gallery when Murakami's group show, Superflat, visited in 2001. A smaller version is now at SAAM as part of this summer exhibition, which the museum says is her first solo survey, and the first time her hand-drawn soft analog watercolors on paper are being exhibited.
The main event is the world premiere of Takaamanohara, and you can feel it when you're in there, in the dark, moving around to try to absorb what is ultimately the bewildering disconnect between people and the forces that direct our worlds.
The guard stopped me before I left. "People just watch it," she said, "and go, 'What is happening? What is happening? Oh my god, what is happening?'"