O: A multi-channel video & sound installation


For those who have travelled in the Northern Territory and witnessed the central Australian landscape, the experience is often described as transformative. There is little to compare to the silence and vastness — the ragged beauty and an overwhelming sense of archaic time.

For Japanese-born and, since 1996, London-based artist Hiraki Sawa, ten days spent camping in the desert around Alice Springs in 2009 was a unique and catalysing event, which fed directly into the creation of his multi-channel video and sound installation O.

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Following a series of multi-screen video installations begun around 2006 by the artist, O is a more complex work in its combination of large- and small-screen formats, sound and light. It is an immersive piece comprising ten short films displayed on small screens; a triptych of larger videos projected onto floor-standing, angled screens; and a series of rotating speakers, which disperse an evocative and subtle soundscape throughout the installation.

Hiraki Sawa ‘O’ 2009

Hiraki Sawa, Japan b.1977 / Installation view O 2009 / Multi-channel video installation: 3-channel video projection exhibited from hard drive, HD video, 16:9, colour and black and white, 5-channel sound, 8:00 minutes; 10 channel video installation exhibited on customised LCD monitors, HD video transferred to DVD, 16:9, black and white, silent, 00:60 seconds; 5- channel sound by Organ Octet (edited by Dale Berning) exhibited on customised spinning speakers; customised metal light frames and light-bulb fixtures / Purchased 2010. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Hiraki Sawa / Photographs: N Harth © QAGOMA
Hiraki Sawa, Japan b.1977 / O (still) 2009

Sawa has described his experience of the Australian desert as ‘extreme’,1 and it took some time for the video footage from the trip to coalesce and find its place in this work. The extremity of this episode was most acutely felt in terms of its dramatic contrast with Sawa’s urban-based life. The footage — of reflections, horizons, trees, sky, water, ancient eroded landforms, a luminescent moon and black cockatoos in flight — plays a major signifying role as it is poetically edited, fused and integrated into the overall moving-image montage of the installation. The accompanying ten small monitors display black-and-white footage of domestic objects, such as cups, jugs, a brass bell, a light bulb — spinning like tops and generating their own peculiar acoustic soundtrack as they endlessly pirouette. Though the footage is predominately black and white, muted colour is introduced through the inclusion of interior scenes of an abandoned, centuries-old house in the south of France. These images of dilapidated walls, accumulated detritus and domestic objects, such as clocks, books and candelabra, are mysteriously animated with shadowy miniature images of a Ferris wheel, the moon, a flock of birds and a ship sailing in a porcelain sink.

Hiraki Sawa, Japan b.1977 / O (still) 2009

The accumulated effect of this montage of stillness and subtle movement evokes a tangible sense of time passing. The vast cosmic cycle of the earth and moon is brought into poetic play with a domestic human register, imbued with memory, melancholy and temporality.

The artist’s emblematic title, O, provides a key to engaging with the work. The installation is roughly circular and the revolving speakers, spinning objects and cycles of imagery echo across the three large screens and the synchronised eight‑minute loop of the entire work. In O, Hiraki Sawa begins at the end, invoking the circle as a visual metaphor together with cycles of time and movement as defining conditions for human action, memory and imagination.

Hiraki Sawa installing the revolving speakers for ‘O

Hiraki Sawa installing the revolving speakers for O in 2009, commissioned for ‘The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT6)

Watch | Hiraki Sawa discusses his art practice & ‘O

First exhibited in APT6 (5 December 2009 – 5 April 2010)

Edited extract from the QAGOMA publication ‘We Can Make Another Future: Japanese Art After 1989’

1 See ‘APT6: Hiraki Sawa Artist Talk’, 15 December 2009, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5GnwjOcBlw>

‘O’ is on display at the Gallery of Modern, Gallery 2.1 from 9 September 2023 – 17 March 2024