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Installation view of YUKIHISA ISOBE’s Where has the River Gone?, 2000/18, yellow flags and poles on what was the course of the Shinano River in Nakazato, dimensions variable, at Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, 2018. Photo by Osamu Nakamura. Courtesy the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale Executive Committee.

Every Day Earth

The ecological flows of Yukihisa Isobe

Also available in:  Chinese

Our blue planet has made more than 18,450 full rotations since the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, in major cities and on university campuses across the United States. Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, who was inspired by the anti-Vietnam War teach-in protests, had first proposed the idea in September 1969 at a small conference in Seattle in order “to shake up the political establishment” and force environmental issues “onto the national agenda.” From there it blossomed into a student-led nationwide campaign. For the commemoration in New York City, mayor John Lindsay sealed off Fifth Avenue from 59th Street down to 14th Street. Hollywood megastars Paul Newman and Allie McGraw gave speeches in Union Square. More than one million people turned out. A 35-year-old artist from Japan named Yukihisa Isobe designed the poster: two arrows, one blue, one green, orbit clockwise around a pair of semi-circles in green and blue. The tagline reads, “everyday is earthday.” 

The minimal logo wasn’t all that Isobe contributed to the first Earth Day. A member of the Environmental Action Coalition’s New York branch, he also designed an “air-structured dome” that the group called the “Earth People’s Park.” Inflated on the north side of Union Square Park, the pod measured more than 40 meters in length, and its curving walls were ten meters wide and more than three meters high at the apex. Inside, experts and advocates ran teach-ins on environmental awareness for the public. The structure itself was an enclosed environment where people and ideas circulated continuously like the air that kept it inflated. 

Just at the moment when humans were first breaching the atmosphere in spacecrafts and looking back down at the earth from above, modern developing societies in the 1960s were beginning to see Planet Earth as a closed system with finite resources. As Isobe recalled in a 2018 interview with New York’s Japan Society Gallery director Yukie Kamiya, inventor Buckminster Fuller’s architectural structures and book about global planning for humanity’s well-being, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968), had a “big effect” on him. After acquiring a work and residence permit in 1966, Isobe took a job at the New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation to help plan public events. And while living in New York, he immersed himself in the counter-cultures of the day, including jazz, modern dance, and pop art, as well as the hippie and commune movements. His enthusiasm for the ideas circulating through society at the time spilled into the interviews on environmental topics he conducted for a series called “Pioneers of America Tomorrow” in the Japanese magazine Kenchiku Bunka (Architectural Culture). 

One of the people whom Isobe interviewed for his magazine column was Ian McHarg, a Scottish-born landscape architect who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and whose ideas of regional planning were based on working with the land’s existing natural systems. McHarg’s book Design with Nature (1969) established the concept of “ecological planning” and is still widely read today. Inspired by McHarg, in 1971, Isobe, while still working for the city, enrolled as a graduate student at UPenn. His thesis was titled “Feasibility Study for the Development of the Therapeutic Community” and was based on his work for the city trying to establish creative and healthy lives for a community of recovering drug addicts at a facility called Phoenix House on Hart Island. In the summers of 1970 and 1971, Isobe created two more inflatable structures for Phoenix House’s annual August fundraisers called the Summer Happening, with singers and bands playing in front of hundreds inside giant domes. 

While Isobe was inflating lightweight, low-impact architectural structures for consciousness-raising events in New York, back in Japan, Expo ’70 was in full swing. The Senri Hills in Osaka had been dynamited to make way for the north-south, east-west axes of the festival’s rigid, rationalist master plan. The centerpiece was Taro Okamoto’s 70-meter-tall, three-faced figure, Tower of the Sun (1970), which burst through the brutalist “Big Roof” plaza designed by architect Kenzo Tange. The theme of Expo ’70 was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” As art critic Noi Sawaragi has noted, the Japanese government drew on the Metabolist manifesto of creating mega-architectural structures based on biological forms, and even used the event as a platform for “environmental art” including by members of the “Environment No Kai” group. But there was nothing ecological about this massive, international spectacle of modern technological triumphalism that rose from a paved-over tabula rasa of flattened earth. 

The concept of ecological planning didn’t exist in Japan at the time, although the public had grown concerned about air pollution and industrial chemicals after revelations about wastewater poisoning residents of Minamata City. A year after Isobe received his master’s degree from UPenn in 1972, McHarg passed along a request from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry for an environmental impact assessment for an industrial area in Yonezawa, in Yamagata prefecture. In order to work with the government, Isobe and his fellow student Harvey Shapiro formed the Regional Planning Team Associates (RPT) firm, and Isobe returned to Japan in 1974. What Isobe and Shapiro brought with them to Japan was McHarg’s principle of considering how the land’s properties offer “possibilities and limitations” for human activities. In the coming decades, Isobe went on to lecture at several universities, including the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and to conduct environmental impact studies for many infrastructure projects.  

While still in New York, Isobe had kept up his artistic practice in parallel to his early environmental advocacy projects. The inflatable structures that he designed for the first Earth Day and Phoenix House had in fact evolved from his sculptures, including the large, V-shaped inflatable Double-Skin Structure – 1 (1968) that he had created with artist and filmmaker Masanori Oe for the freewheeling exhibition “Some More Beginnings: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1968. After experimenting with the forms of parachutes filled with air—what he called “floating sculptures”—Isobe designed “Floating Theater events” with parachutes held aloft with fans and accompanied by film projections and musical performances. Wind, Isobe said in a 2018 interview, “is an ecological element but it was [also] the art medium that interested me the most.” 

Installation view of YUKIHISA ISOBE’s Wind Direction Undefinable, 1998, mixed media, 435 × 517 cm, at “Things Entangling,” Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2020. Photo by Kenji Takahashi. Courtesy the artist and Art Front Gallery, Tokyo.

After returning to Japan in 1974, however, Isobe put his artistic practice on hold so that he could focus on RPT’s projects and spreading the principles of ecological planning in Japan. When he did return to visual art in the 1990s, after an almost 20-year hiatus, his works drew explicitly from his ecological planning experience. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, in the 2020 exhibition “Things Entangling,” curators Kyongfa Che and Elodie Royer presented one of these works, a dense, rising mass of black swirling arrows, Wind Direction Undefinable (1998), alongside the color-coded maps of Osaka Bay that RPT produced for the Japan National Land Agency in 1976, putting his two practices alongside one another. He subsequently produced works that became increasingly abstract tangles of curving arrows, unmooring the symbols from their specific meanings to illustrate more broadly applicable natural phenomena. He would later use Fuller’s triangular rendering of the globe as the basis for the installation Ocean Current Resource: Dymaxion Map (2013), with water pumping through a network of tubes around a multicolored rendering of the continents overlaid with arrows representing the global flows of warm air and water. 

Isobe told Kamiya in their conversation that he doesn’t see a strong distinction between his work as an ecological planner and artist. The concurrence of his artistic interventions and the science behind ecological planning was perhaps most clearly realized when he was invited to do an environmental survey of the Echigo-Tsumari region in the late 1990s. This led to his project Where Has the River Gone? (2000) for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (ETAT) in 2000 that mapped the former meandering path of Shinano River—before dams and dikes were installed—using 600 yellow flags placed in the ground and rice fields over a 3.5-kilometer-long course. In the two decades since then, he has done several more projects at ETAT, including A Monument of Mudslide (2015), which traces with yellow flags the earth that spilled down a hillside and over a regional highway in Tasunokuchi after a 2011 earthquake. 

For Isobe, mapping the flows of the earth is neither as instrumentalist nor as techno-positivist as Fuller’s idea from Spaceship Earth of using our “intellection” to “intercept and redirect local energy patternings and thus to reorganize and shunt those flow patterns . . . to increase humanity’s capabilities.” Instead, Isobe’s aim has been to portray the fundamental reality of “the reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment.” And in that way his works have remained about inculcating awareness—raising consciousness, in the parlance of the ’60s—that might lead to humans maintaining the cycles, currents, and flows of nature, so that every day ahead will also remain an earth day.

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