Standing in front of ‘ulo.ulo.ulo’ (2017), presented for the first time in London at Parafin’s exhibition ‘Hiraki Sawa: Fantasmagoria, I couldn’t help but feel like I was witnessing some secret, ancient ritual. The two-channel film opens with lingering shots of a small blue flame in an anonymous interior, flickering fire casting a strange light onto concrete walls. It is cool, cold even, setting the scene for the ambitious magic-like quality that follows. Abruptly, we are taken outside into a remote, snowy landscape. The only movement comes from two figures – Sawa himself and the artist Tetsuya Umeda. They struggle through the deep snow, dragging supplies.
We watch as they arrive at the centre of a frozen lake, and Umeda begins to bore a hole into the ice and then lower a light into it. Light spills into the darkness, refracting and spreading through the water. The actions that follow are strange, ambiguous, and utterly captivating. My thoughts veered wildly, one moment associating the scene with some kind of potions cauldron and the next, with an alien invasion. At the end of the film, we are left with a lingering shot of their illuminated footprints, a record of their actions dotted and glowing in the darkness.
For all that ‘ulo.ulo.ulo’, with its relatively straightforward sequencing and focus on landscape, marks a departure in Sawa’s work, it also carries all of the hallmarks of his practice. Drawing on his background as a sculptor, his films are a physical presence in the gallery. They are at once strange and familiar, showing us known things that have been rendered mysterious. Standing before one feels like remembering a dream, physiological, introspective and unknowable. They reflect on the process of memory, how we experience things and how we are able to recall them.
This dreamy quality is evident in the other two pieces on display at Parafin. If ‘ulo.ulo.ulo’ feels like a ritual, however, then ‘fantasmagoria’ (2017) and ‘fish story’ (2017) feel like myths. The two short films are full of images of journey and light, struggle and uncertainty. In one shot, an animated, sketched lighthouse stands on a cement outcrop in the ocean, a white pillar stark but unreal in the overwhelming blue. In another, a solitary figure drags a block of ice down a narrow, curving road. On the second screen, a group of people in identical Japanese dress shuffle along a deserted beach, the sand wet and gleaming.
These images do not come together to form any sense of narrative or offer any sense of resolution. Instead, they are symbolic, full of elements that through their relationships build into something more. They give a sense of history, of a tale told time and time again. They give a sense of the half remembered, of a story that almost slips away before something in the world brings it back. The three films shown at Parafin are beautiful pieces that demand time, attention, and presence. And if you are willing to give them that, they deliver.