John Ravenal is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This is the last in a series.
John Ravenal: Yukinori Yanagi’s USA & USSR is one of my favorite works of art dealing with the American flag. It consists of two shallow plastic boxes filled with colored sand to make images of the two superpowers’ flags. Clear tubes lead to a third box in the center. Hundreds of ants have tunneled through the flags and carried grains of sand into the center box, making an abstract heap of blue and red striations that only vaguely recalls its sources. The piece was made in 1994, several years after the USSR had dissolved into Russia and other separate nations. But the continued tensions with the US over military, economic, and social issues — despite significant post-cold-war thawing in relations — made the message of this piece still pertinent, then and now.
Yanagi first worked with ants in the mid 1980s, welcoming them as an unpredictable and disruptive force that could introduce new possibilities into his art. His ongoing concern with social and political boundaries led to his first major ant farm piece in 1990, the World Flag Ant Farm (Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum, Japan). This work consists of individual sand paintings of the flags of all 170 members of the United Nations, through which the ants dug a vast network of visible channels and carried sand from flag to flag. In Asian culture, ants are traditionally considered “righteous insects” for their orderliness and subordination of individuality to the group. In contrast, Yanagi uses them for their total disregard of the sanctity of fixed symbols of national identity, and thus as a way to address the illusion of national separateness, which, he notes, is continually eroded by international trade and mass migration. In another work, part of his Studies in American Art series, Yanagi took on the American flag via another iconic image, Jasper Johns‘s Three Flags. [Images courtesy of the artist. Full caption here.]
USA & USSR, 1994
Ants, colored sand, plastic boxes, plastic tubes, and plastic pipes
17 x 32 inches (each flag); 17 x 17 inches (center box)
Studies in American Art: Three Flags, 2000
Ants, colored sand, plastic boxes
32 x 47.5 inches