Thoughts range as far afield as John Ruskin, Robert Moses, ancient Greece and modern Bloomingdale’s when pondering Japanese artist Yutaka Sone’s two-and-a-half ton rendering of Manhattan in snow-white marble now at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea.
As monumental as the solid block appears—it’s 21 ¾ inches by 104 3/8 inches by 33 ½ inches—the dozens of piers and bridges around Little Manhattan (2007- 2009) carved as softly undulating folds render the whole thing eerily buoyant and fleshy—an infrastructural nude. But it is not the resemblance to classical sculpture that invokes Ruskin. The Victorian art critic was zealous about craft and the ennobling power of the mason at work. And so is Sone.
The Los Angeles-based artist has often involved performance in his work as when he tumbled gigantic dice down the steps of the Sydney Opera House in 2002. As something of a Situationist, he is a believer in interaction and the role of process and evolution, even in a melting snowflake. For Sone, form is formation, as much verb as object.
Originally trained as an architect and with a natural bent toward obsessing over details, Sone started working in marble and twelve years ago discovered the traditional stone carvers in the tiny Chinese village of Chongwu. The carvers were mostly engaged in making stone dragons, lanterns, and Buddhas using age-old craft techniques. He asked a group to work with him on carving more dynamic shapes such as machinery and urban landscapes: a Ferris wheel and the highway interchange near his home in LA. For Sone, the carvers’ involvement was as much a part of the work as the final product. So, too, was his witnessing the gradual transformation of Chongwu into a factory town and the diverging roles of the carvers themselves. The carvers with whom he worked became increasingly engaged with art, while the ones he did not went from making crafts to banging out the kind of mass design exotica sold by U.S. department stores. (The show also includes Sone’s synthetic banana trees, an example of meticulous workmanship, here in rattan and steel.)
But it is not necessary to know the process behind Little Manhattan to marvel at all its miniaturized detail and to think about the inevitable questions of permanence, beauty redefined, and how it is no wonder Moses couldn’t stop building highways. Surely they are the muscle, the veins, and the pulmonary valves of the man-made world. It took Sone—who has also scrutinized Hong Kong in stone—ten months to carve Manhattan using photos and Google maps. The paths of Central Park and setbacks on the Chrysler building are all there along with the organic slice of Broadway invigorating the mathematical precision of the grid. The World Trade Center here is still and forever a stone void. Little Manhattan lays bare our striving urban landscape in an especially seductive light. Through October 29 at David Zwirner gallery, 525 West 19th Street.