At 10:55am on Monday, August 23rd, 1999, a car pulled into the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida. Not an unusual event you might think. But this automobile had just traveled 4,895 kilometers from Los Angeles in 26 days without consuming a single gallon of gasoline.1 Powered only by solar energy, the car established new standards of durability and endurance for vehicles using alternative energy sources. Most remarkable of all, the team that constructed and drove the car was not made up of automotive or solar engineers from Mercedes Benz, Ford, or Toyota, but of artists from the Solar Power Lab (SPL) at Kyoto City University of the Arts, lead by Hitoshi Nomura.2
Nomura, like the late Joseph Beuys, has interests in the fusion of science and art. Beuys remarked in 1958 that “the two terms, art and science, are diametrically opposed in the development of thought of the Occident, and because of this fact, a dissolution of this polarity of perception had to be looked for.”3 He documented his efforts in a bewildering array of theoretical power stations and batteries, recorded in conceptual drawings and bronze sculptures that make a case for the use of energy in a process of unification and healing that would transform matter and the spirit. Accepting that this polarity remains stubbornly in place in the West and that Beuys’s works never really emerged from their conceptual state, it seems to me that Nomura is the closest we have to an inheritor of this noble vision.
Harnessing the Sun: A Journey Across America by Solar Car was an art project that Nomura had worked toward for six years. He sought to create what might be best described as social sculpture or action, linking art with science and technology in an event and object that would renew humanity’s relationship with nature and the spiritual. Nomura and the SPL chose to do this by undertaking a record-breaking journey on public roads across America, using the quintessential symbol of modernity, the automobile. By bringing their artwork and performance into the public domain, they sought to broaden the audience and implications of their activities and demonstrate the existence of a place for art in the development of new technology.
In doing so, Nomura has radically reconceptualized the use of the automobile in art. Since its invention, the car has been a recurring source of inspiration in the visual arts. Whether crushed by John Chamberlain, dismembered by Robert Rauschenberg, or replicated in crashed form by Charles Ray, the car is ingrained in visual culture, its treatment reflecting changes in our collective psyche. However, with the exception of Buckminister Fuller’s Dymaxion Car (1933), the automobile has never been thought of as anything more than a visual source for or constitutive part of paintings, sculptures, or performances. The mechanics and engineering of cars have never really been addressed directly in art: their inclusion in museum collections is grounded on external appearance and purity of form. Nomura has moved away from the automobile as a visual prop by embracing its mechanical aspects and using it as a teaching and experiential device.
As a student of aesthetics at Kyoto University between 1993 and 1995, I had heard extraordinary stories about Nomura and his team—how they were hand-building solar cars and racing them against commercial manufacturers, occasionally beating them in the Solar Power Grand Prix at Formula One circuits like Suzuka. In early 1994, I finally got to see one of these early cars at an exhibition at the Sezon Museum of Art in Tokyo, “A Vision of Japan for the 21st century.” The car, Time Arrow, sat there like a visitor from a high-tech auto fair, surrounded by bubbling containers of liquid oxygen at minus 183 degrees centigrade. Close-up photographs of the moon, etched with lines for a musical score, hung from the walls, accompanied by a haunting melody reverberating in the background. I came across new words such as “stromatology” and concepts such as the secular retardation of the Earth’s rotation. This was my introduction to the world of Hitoshi Nomura. I had never seen artworks like this before, and I still have not come across anything comparable in contemporary art.
As Beuys stated, there is a deep chasm dividing art from science and technology in the West. Under the rubric of modernity we have seen repeated breakthroughs in visual form, but artist’s materials have remained overwhelmingly traditional. High technology often seemed too complicated for artists, including Beuys, to grasp, requiring new forms of knowledge and craft that are incompatible with the Western tradition of fine arts. Technology is most often seen as an alienating device and impediment that stands in the way of a full appreciation of nature. In this way, representations of nature, spirituality, and beauty in the arts are too often seen as incompatible with technology, which is anomalous considering that new media allow us to come closer to an understanding of these enduring themes.
Artwork using high technology sometimes looks amateurish and imperfectly realized compared to commercial work in the same media. More importantly, the vast majority of commercial technology is notable for lacking the “soul” or “spirit” present in many Japanese consumer products. In this regard, it is indicative that the solar car Sun Structure that crossed the United States is a visually stunning piece of work, in which material, form, and function are united in a flawless object of great beauty and grace that is both aerodynamically functional and visually seductive. One would be forgiven for expecting an object that looked like an early NASA probe crossed with a lawn mower.
In Japan, traditional culture and high technology exist concurrently. Due to the circumstances of Japan’s late entry into the modern world, an extraordinary period of economic development swept through the country that left little room for debates about the place of culture. While Natsuma Soseki and Jurachiro Tanizaki mourned the loss of so much tradition, others like the Kyoto School of philosophers created a philosophical framework that would allow for the coexistence of tradition and modernity.4 The extent to which the theories of the Kyoto School actually affected the evolution of Japanese culture is debatable, but they have a particular resonance in the field of contemporary Japanese art. This ease with science and technology is further underwritten by the uncanny relationship between the structure of matter that is revealed by modern physics and the teachings and practice of Buddhism and other Eastern religions.5
Perhaps, then, we can understand how Nomura works with solar panels, high-energy physics, and microbiology as easily as oil paint, fiberglass, or stone in producing work that seeks to “illuminate the ‘basis’ behind phenomena and out of which they emerge.”6 Since Leonardo’s designs for helicopters and flying machines, as well as investigations into human anatomy, few artists have used advanced materials and cutting-edge theories with such expertise or thought so broadly about the potential of technology in art and art in technology. Too many contemporary artists seem to spend their days obsessively trying to re-groove the worn-out 33s of modernity for one last rendition of a classic tune or seeking novelty by transferring that classic recording onto another low-tech medium and calling it high-tech art.
Nomura describes the experience of driving solar cars in poetic and spiritual terms. He remarks how the car, “running quietly through the desert area in the West and huge rocks of Monument Valley, was so beautiful that we could not believe that it was a machine. It seemed something with its own life…We thought that we were the ones who planned, made it together, and brought it to America. On the contrary, we started to think we were brought to America by the solar car.”7
Nomura has identified many other occasions when “the cosmos came this close to me,” and this has been the driving force behind the singularity and obsessiveness of his work. In 1992, while fulfilling a long-held wish to visit the Hamelin Pool on the West coast of Australia in order to photograph the stromatolites, Nomura remarked how he was “convinced that there must be something vital running through all matter, living and non-living alike.” This paralleled many earlier experiences. In 1967, while watching the transformation of his cardboard sculptures, he realized that “there were forms which had nothing to do with the human will, and I began to believe that if I watched closely enough I would be visited by something profound.” He adds that during the long exposures necessary to record the night sky for his “‘moon’ scores,” which he has photographed on every clear evening since 1975: “At some point as I take these pictures, this sense of the proximity of the cosmos comes to penetrate my entire body, firmly attaching itself to me.” This sense of being “enveloped in a feeling too strange for words” is experienced equally while examining meteors or “cutting through the wind in a solar car.”8
Nomura’s sense of the car as a living organism and one element in a greater wholeness needs to be understood against the background of the structure of matter that is reflected in both Buddhism and quantum physics. As the first-century Mahayana Buddhist teacher Ashvaghosha states in The Awakening of Faith, “What is meant by the soul as suchness, is the oneness of the totality of all things, the great all-inclusive whole.”9 The physicist Fritjof Capra describes the “whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance.”10
Capra’s point is clarified by another physicist, David Bohm: “If we can obtain an intuitive feeling of the whole world as constituting an implicit order that is enfolded in us, we will sense ourselves to be one with this world. We will no longer be satisfied merely to manipulate it technically to our supposed advantage, but we will feel genuine love for it…Because we are enfolded inseparably in the world, with no ultimate division between matter and consciousness, meaning and value are as much integral aspects of the world as they are of us.”11 Over the past 30-plus years, Nomura has become increasingly aware of the interconnected nature of matter at the sub-atomic level and the impossibility of differentiating between organic and inorganic forms. Initially this insight seems to have developed from a spiritual perspective; however, the revelations of his work are now firmly supported by quantum physics, and he has used this to broaden his parameters. After all, photography and solar power are related by the direct use of the sun’s light rays.
The implications of Nomura’s work are broad, and this article has only touched upon one of his projects.12 However, we can perhaps appreciate the profound sensations that Nomura experiences while driving a solar car, made from materials and powered by forces that are materially and spiritually no different than he. With this understanding we gain further proof of how we cannot divorce ourselves from the environment that surrounds us. Fergus McCaffrey is a freelance writer and curator based in New York