A walk through the mind of MC Escher with Oki Sato, from Japanese design studio Nendo. By Elizabeth Flux.

Artist Oki Sato

We are sitting inside Oki Sato’s mind. Kind of.

All around us are simple little houses, neatly arranged into lines. Each has only two walls, and some of the pitched roofs are open. Weather isn’t a problem, however – this surreal village is completely indoors. It’s two days before the exhibition will be open to the public and the finishing touches are still being made. Workers rush around, clutching coffees and tinkering with light fittings. In one room a man fiddles with a projection that to me looks completely fine, but to his trained eye needs immediate attention.

About a metre from where we’re sitting is a rare M. C. Escher print. The Dutch artist is known for his impossible shapes, his meticulously mathematical tessellations, his designs for physics-defying buildings – but this print is simultaneously familiar and unusual. In it, animals, mythical beasts and even a guitar fit around each other with precision, and yet no two characters are repeated. The negative space between an elephant’s trunk and front leg becomes the head of a camel; a fish nibbles on the ear of a rabbit; a demon caresses a frog. It’s a picture of things that, on the surface, do not belong together but somehow become one to make something weird and perfect.

Melbourne’s NGV has been working on an exhibition of Escher’s work for the past three-and-a-half years, but Sato and his award-winning design studio, Nendo, only came on board as equally billed collaborators at the beginning of the year.

This means that the exhibition has been living and evolving in Sato’s mind for an intense 11 months. “We had to work on every single aspect,” he tells me. They designed the exhibition furniture, the layout of rooms and even the soundscape. This, on top of creating large-scale, intricate and ambitious original artworks to complement Escher’s. “It’s all about details.” 

In some ways to see his design made real, to be sitting in the middle of it, is like having his mind turned inside out, his inner world flipped. When I ask him what it’s like to see his art realised in this way he can’t put it into words. “I’m still trying to understand what’s happening,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know. I think it happened the way we wanted it to happen. Yes.” He pauses, and the gap in our conversation is filled by Bach’s Goldberg Variations – a favourite of Escher’s and the only music not created by Nendo to feature in this exhibition. “I think I need a bit more time to digest what I’ve made.”

Most of the time when Sato responds to a question, he answers then pauses to reflect and assess. If he’s happy with what he’s said, he adds a quiet but definitive “yes”. Everything is carefully considered, from the smallest detail of his work to his speech.

Nendo translates to “clay”, but when I ask Sato about this he smiles. “It is clay but it’s more like Play-Doh in a way. It’s something very flexible and it changes shapes and sizes and colours.” A pause. “Yes. That’s the kind of flexibility that we want to have in our work.”

This is reflected not just in the diverse projects Nendo takes on – from furniture to designing new trains ahead of the Paris Olympics – but in how they approach these projects. Escher’s body of work is fixed and finite, therefore it fell to Nendo to adapt and respond, to fit around the other artist like Play-Doh.

Nendo and Escher share much common ground, not least in attention to detail and an eye for optical illusion. But Sato says this made things more difficult. “In collaboration, it’s much easier when the two are very different. We try to find something in common and that becomes the link between the two. It creates a chemical reaction.” He looks up at the mezzanine level on the other side of the room. “But when two artists are too similar, we need to do the opposite. It’s about trying to find what we do not have in common.”

He tells me how Escher used two-dimensional images to try to represent three-dimensional concepts. Shapes that seem to burst out of the page. A print of a dragon trying to escape his paper prison, but ending up coiled around and through himself. Nendo came at this from the opposite direction, by “working on three-dimensional objects in space which feel two-dimensional in a way”.

The room we’re in is a perfect example. Viewed from the mezzanine level, the little black-and-white houses look almost like a print. But when you come down the ramp, gradually you feel the scale shift, more and more, until you’re walking among the structures themselves, the artwork come to life.

Sato is particularly enamoured with the exhibition’s final room, containing Escher’s final piece – a detailed print of a snake. The room itself echoes the principles of the work it is dedicated to – from the snake-shaped path, to the music and lighting. “I feel that everything was perfectly matching,” Sato says. “Yes. I think that is one of my favourite rooms.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "House of non-representatives".

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Elizabeth Flux is a writer, editor and critic.

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