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Chemistry meets Arts
HHU chemist collaborates with Japanese artist

Art and science meet at the Aichi Triennale in Japan. Chemist Dr. Bernd M. Schmidt from Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHU) has collaborated with Japanese artist Yuki Okumura to help produce an element for a work of art for the Triennale: A reinterpretation of a historical work by the late British artist John Latham, in which chewed-up book pages were fermented into alcohol.

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Japanese artist Yuki Okumura (left) and HHU chemist Dr. Bernd M. Schmidt in the laboratory of Schmidt's research group. (Photo: HHU / Bernd M. Schmidt)

For his mixed-media installation “7,502,733" (2021-2022), Okumura selected 30 works from the 1969 Seattle Art Museum Pavilion exhibition "557,087". In contrast to traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture, the selected, so-called "conceptual" works were all executed according to a set of simple rules that the artists at the time began to refer to as "instructions".

Okumura reactivated the 30 processes almost entirely on his own as an attempt to connect the 30 artists through "my living body here and now as a common agent", according to Okumura. Of these, John Latham's (1921-2006) 1966-1969 work "Art and Culture" was reworked by the artist together with HHU junior research group leader Dr. Bernd M. Schmidt from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Macromolecular Chemistry in the Düsseldorf chemistry labs.

Dr. Schmidt says: "When I met Yuki Okumura through a common friend, he told me about his project idea. It quickly became clear to me that chemical expertise would be necessary for the reinterpretation of the Latham work to succeed safely. Since the project fascinated me, I offered Okumura a collaboration. He travelled to Düsseldorf several times for it.

In the original work, Latham and others chewed up selected pages of the 1961 book “Art and Culture” by the American art critic Clement Greenberg. In his reinterpretation produced in agreement with John Latham Estate, Okumura selected some books about John Latham's practice, tore out pages that related to the original work and chewed them up.

He travelled to Düsseldorf with this raw material. In Schmidt's laboratory, the chewed book pages - which consist largely of cellulose - were digested in concentrated sulphuric acid, which was then neutralised again with sodium bicarbonate. The resulting single and double sugars were then fermented through fermentation yeasts for several weeks. Finally, the alcohol produced by the yeasts digesting the book pages was distilled.

The end result was a laboratory vessel with a clear alcoholic liquid that smells bread-like and yeasty. Okumura is exhibiting this vessel together with a detailed lab report with HHU logo and photos of the creation process in a showcase at the Triennale. It stands in an ensemble with other elements that have also emerged from the artist's reinterpretations of other works from the 1969 exhibition.

Bernd Schmidt: "It was fascinating to be involved in an art project as a chemist and to be able to contribute scientific expertise there. Thanks to this collaboration and transfer between the disciplines, HHU is also becoming more well-known in the international art context.

About the artist

Yuki Okumura (born 1979 in Aomori, Japan) is a Japanese artist. His works have been exhibited in the past by many galleries and museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and WIELS in Brussels. Okumura's projects primarily take the form of performative actions through which he redefines identity beyond the notion of individuality usually based on the physical demarcation of our bodies, using art history as a testing ground for human society in general. Okumura is represented by MISAKO & ROSEN, Tokyo.

Further Information

Aichi Triennale

The three-yearly Aichi Triennale is one of the largest international art festivals in Japan. Numerous artists from Japan and abroad present innovative art there, spanning various genres such as contemporary art, performing arts and learning programmes.

The current edition is directed by Mami Kataoka, Yuki Okumura's exhibit is curated by Fumiko Nakamura. The installation in question can be seen on the 10th floor of the Aichi Arts Center (Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art) in Nagoya until 10 October 2022.

Further Information

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Kategorie/n: Schlagzeilen, Pressemeldungen, Auch in Englisch, Chemie Aktuelles, Alumni-News
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Dr. Schmidt reacting the chewed book pages with sulfuric acid. (Foto: Yuki Okumura)

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The finished product: a laboratory vial containing the alcoholic liquid created by fermenting chewed book pages. (Photo: Yuki Okumura)

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The presentation of the element created in Düsseldorf at the Achi Triennale 2022 in Nagoya, Japan. (Photo: Yuki Okumura)

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