Hiraki Sawa: did i? by Coline Milliard


'The film is a collage of daydreams that appears to display the lack of overarching logic inherent to all things oneiric.'


It was only towards the end of my first conversation with Hiraki Sawa that the artist mentioned Swiss psychotherapist Dora M. Kalff. In retrospect, this was perhaps the most direct insight into his working method. Kalff is the brain behind sandplay therapy, a technique allowing patients to exteriorise their mental states through the construction of imaginary landscapes using figurines in a sandbox. ‘I really wanted to try and see what would come out’, Sawa told me at the time, ‘but instead of sand, I used video’. The resulting piece Hako (2006) – box in Japanese – was a poetic mapping of Sawa’s inner territory, soon expanded onto six screens for a second, enhanced version in 2007.

With Figment: did i? (2011) the artist continues the exploration of his psyche’s most intimate corners. The film is a patchwork of narrative fragments, a collage of daydreams that appears to display the lack of overarching logic inherent to all things oneiric. Shot in black and white, did i? escapes ordinary temporalities. It isn’t necessarily set in the past, but it clearly belongs to an elsewhen freed from the down-to-earth now. A man (the artist?) seats at a desk floating above a Magrittian sea of clouds. On the tabletop, an ordinary glass bottle sparkles as if set alight.

Night comes. ‘Please erase the moon’s me’, murmurs the moon. ‘Whose is it?’ answers a mute voice in subtitles. One is tempted to reply: ‘the moon’s, she said’. The man starts rubbing a circular shape (another planet?) off the wall; he is diligently deleting himself. Like in an early Luis Buñuel film, an eye peeks through the window. It’s gigantic and thus belittles everything else: the man is now minuscule, trapped in a dollhouse. But he carries on, undisturbed, his task of auto-erasure.

Echoing the moon’s shape, concentric circles permeate the picture with the slow motion of disc on a turntable. LPs are neatly lined up on a shelf. Later a drawn hand caresses microgrooves. No noise comes out though; the soundtrack remains muffled like the empty beat created by a needle idling at the end of a record, in its epicentre of nothingness. The weak drumming persists throughout the film like a robotic heartbeat or, we imagine, Man Ray’s eye-adorned metronome. It is the last trace of a memory at once preserved and out of reach.

Looking closely at the record, one can see the asperities capturing the sound it contains. The camera hovers above this domestic micro-landscape as it would above a cityscape. Each of the regular rectangles could be a minute morsel of music or a tower block looked at from so high that its silenced inhabitants would be impossible to make out. Fully abstract, the image is still rife with presences that the viewer can only sense. Invented lives seem to crop up and fade as the needle goes on its course as implacable as time itself.

Erasures and recordings; oblivion and remembrance. did i? plays with the two sides of the memory coin. As always in Sawa’s work what seemed at first devoid of logic turns out to be precisely assembled. The artist has planned his own navigation back, forth and through his own mind. In did i?’s last shot, a delicate dune starts to grow one of the discs’ shelves. The sandbox is about to be raked afresh.


Coline Milliard is an art writer based in London. She is UK Editor for Modern Painters and ARTINFO, Managing Editor for ibraaz.org and London correspondent for art press. She is a regular contributor to Art Monthly and has also written for Frieze, Art Review, The International Herald Tribune, Afterall Online, MAP, Artnet Magazine, Contemporary, Flash Art International, Untitled, Metropolis M, Numéro and Art in America.

Coline is a member of AICA, the International Association of Art Critics. She holds MAs in Curating Contemporary Art (Royal College of Art, London) and Art History (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne).

She is founding co-editor of Catalogue, the first contemporary art magazine designed to act as a platform for interaction between the English and French-speaking art worlds. Read online at cataloguemagazine.com.