Drue Kataoka

by Shana Nys Dambrot

I Can Feel Your Palm on My Forehead All the Way From Ec1

“In a question of logic there is an answer which can be found and the inquiry exhausted; in questions of art there are infinite answers and it is never done.”

—Drue Kataoka

The multimedia artwork of Silicon Valley-based, intercontinentally peripatetic artist Drue Kataoka—like the woman herself—defies easy categorization. She engages with digital tech and fallen trees, pianos and paper, human brainwaves, time travel, mirrored glass, and global socio-economic policy. A conceptualist dedicated to exploring and expressing the fundamental patterns and forces that manifest at every level of visible and invisible existence, Kataoka is also a skilled formalist.

“I work on many things at once,” says Kataoka. “The whole creative process is informed by its own many aspects.” Operating along a continuum of idea-based interconnectivity, in its most reductive form, her process can be expressed as mapping the relationship of universal laws of the fourth dimension to human experiences in the second and third.

For example, her 2008 piece, “UP!” was created for the first zero-gravity art exhibition at the International Space Station. She listed her materials as “special relativity effects (time dilation) and Sumi ink on rice paper,” a very telling combination. In effect, she created a two-part painting simultaneously on Earth, and then sent half of it into outer space. Because of how relativity works, when that half came back, it was “younger” than its mate. From the temporal point of view of the half that stayed behind, the drawing that returned came from the future. They were born together, but are now different ages. “The question,” as Kataoka sees it, “is not what is it, or where is it, but rather, when is it?” Like so much of her work, this functions on many levels at once: it’s a beautiful image; it’s a literal and allegorical narrative of odyssey and reunion; it’s a mind-fuck; it’s a conversational common ground between art and science.

In “After the Celestial Axe,” (2013) she applies this formal and conceptual approach to treatment of an enormous, moss-covered fallen oak in a vast, 600-acre semi-private sculpture park. Reaching the site requires a bit of a trek, so your immersion in the environment is profound by the time you arrive. Its craggy, picturesque, undeniably anthropomorphic body is augmented on 27 of its surfaces with arrangements of mirrored glass shards, which collect and reflect the ambient light according to shifting temporal and meteorological conditions. Yourself, the sky, the surrounding landscape—all of this is contained and activated in the glass—erasing boundaries of direction and depth. The setting of this work sustains a more spiritual/esoteric, aspect: being full of delight and magic it is its own engaging reward. “After the Celestial Axe,” is also ripe for meditating on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or a Zen-like contemplation of physical space and linear time as fundamental illusions. Kataoka thinks about those things a lot.

Increasingly, she thinks about technology’s potential role in all this. Her most high-profile project is the ongoing web-based “TouchOurFuture.org,” where 3-D graphics, digital image processing, mobile technology, interactivity and celebrity combine to create a zeitgeisty Trojan Horse in which participants are offered a pure art experience but come away having taken direct action and added their voice to a global humanitarian cause: ending infant mortality. “Touch Our Future” had its first in-person public debut at the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders conference this year (Kataoka is herself a YGL), but the website has been explosively active for many months, garnering a host of celebrity supporters from Chelsea Clinton to the Dalai Lama. Participants generate shareable digital artworks through the free app platform, combining handprints and photographs that serve to enlighten and raise awareness of this important issue through the merging of technology and perhaps the world’s oldest symbol of individuality and creativity: the human hand.

Kataoka is continually fascinated by how artists confront new technologies and are inspired with so many more kinds of uses, audiences, and applications than even the designers might have anticipated. Her seminal work, “Tree of Pascal,” (2013)—materials including brainwaves, digital signal processing, electrochromic glass, living tree, Sumi ink, mounted rice paper, and mirror—brings together all her favorite materials and mechanisms into a magical work with a moral dimension. A small, living tree is kept in a box made of the kind of glass that becomes opaque or transparent according to the input or withholding of electric current. The tree needs light to live. Viewers hooked up to EEG sensors provide the current that clears the glass. Without their attention, the tree will die inside its elegant cabinet. Aside from introducing an unusual dynamic of marvel into an art gallery setting, and expanding the understanding of interactivity in sculpture, once the wonder subsides a host of unanticipated ethical, spiritual, and cosmological issues present themselves. Is the tree a child? An idea? A startup? A patient? Or the whole world? “What,” Kataoka seems to ask, “is your responsibility now?”