An extremely dicey proposition |

An extremely dicey proposition

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Snow doesn’t fall in Japan in quite the manner it does in the western U.S. (For one thing, parts of Japan received record amounts of snow, as much as 8 feet over a few days in late December, making Aspen’s recent bounty look puny by comparison.) Being a chain of islands, Japan is in the middle of a number of weather systems that bump and battle and fight for influence. Unpredictability is the essence of the country’s weather.”Nobody can say snow’s coming or not. In California, I’m surprised. Forecast snow, is always exactly,” said Japanese-born artist Yutaka Sone, who moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles some six years ago. “Japan is island, weather connecting from everywhere. Anything can happen, anytime. Climate changing all the minutes. Always changing, changing, changing.”That sort of dynamic environment seems to have had a maximum effect on Sone. The 41-year-old was raised around Shizuoka, a ski town on Japan’s south-central coast, some 90 miles from Tokyo. At 5, Sone began skiing. In his college years, he was a mediocre but enthusiastic ski racer. Skiing, and snow itself, as well as environmental extremes, remain passionate subjects for Sone. His current exhibit in Chicago, at the Renaissance Society, for instance, features pine trees with fake snow at their bottoms and snow paintings at their tops.

Sone’s current project uses real snow. On Sunday, Feb. 19, at 3:30 p.m., “Mt. 66,” is set to launch. The performance involves snow, mountains and the Buttermilk halfpipe, as well as a pair of 8-foot dice that Sone and his team have created over the last several months at the Aspen Art Museum. The plan – weather permitting, of course – is for a helicopter to pick up the dice from the museum grounds and transport them to the lower slopes of Buttermilk. A snowcat will then toss the dice down the halfpipe. Where the dice land – as it was with the X Games competitors who flipped and twisted their his way down the same halfpipe a few weeks ago – nobody knows.Sone has tossed enormously oversized dice before: in Hannover, Germany, at the 2000 World Exposition; in Texas; in Sydney, Australia. But that doesn’t mean he has any idea how the dice will land – or even how, or if, they will roll – this time.The first dice toss was in Hannover as part of the opening ceremonies for the 2000 World Exposition. Sone was dubious about the first World Expo to be held in Germany, so tossing the dice seemed a most appropriate project.”I decided, I don’t know about this,” said Sone, in his sometimes broken, always animated English. “I had weird feelings, big exposition. So I figured I’d toss the dice, see how it goes.”

The dice were picked up by a crew of 20 people, and thrown down the massive staircase – Sone says it was the biggest in Europe – that led down from the main Exposition building. The dice landed on 5 and 4.The next roll was in the Texas desert, outside of San Antonio, where a helicopter released the dice for a few handfuls of witnesses. (The dice landed on 6 and 6.) The most recent toss was down a flight of stairs again, this time the ones that lead to Australia’s famous Sydney Opera House, during the 2002 Sydney Biennale.In all this crapshooting, Sone reveals something about the nature of chance and risk in art. “Control – try to control, you lose,” said Sone in an interview at the Aspen Art Museum last fall, when he began working on the “Mt. 66” project. “But chance – I love standing on chance.” That element of risk may become an overly big factor on Sunday. Sone is worried that the dice are too light, and, though covered with Ptex – the same substance that gives skis maximum gliding power – might not schuss down the halfpipe as planned. Even the helicopter ride is dicey, but a backup plan has the dice being carted to Buttermilk by a more prosaic mode of transportation in the event of snow. On the sweeter side of fortune, the “Mt. 66” project coincides with the 50th birthday of Hans Hohl, the Buttermilk mountain manager.

But with the dice projects, Sone seems more interested in exploring environment than chance. Sone holds a master’s degree in architecture from Tokyo Geijutsu University and, as the son of an architect, grew up around various building sites in Japan. Built into his creative makeup is an architect’s concern with how the elements, both natural and man-made, are going to interact with his designs. The Hannover and Sydney rolls, then, were for big events, witnessed by huge crowds in urban settings. The Texas toss was a rural affair, with virtually no one invited. “I wanted to see it myself,” he said.”All the environments give me ideas,” continued Sone. “I like thinking the shape of the life, how they connect to the land. People are very located to the environment, the weather. Lifestyle comes from those – we can’t change that. We cannot escape to think of environment. Dice toss is changeable things.”Los Angeles is easy to make a sculpture – the weather is warm and dry and I can work outside. In Tokyo, in winter, activity goes like this,” and he makes a full-body gesture of going into hiding.

Sone doesn’t intend to conclude his dice projects on the Buttermilk halfpipe. Though he wants to limit himself to one roll a year, he already is cooking up his next dice episode.”My idea is Southern dice. Beach dice. Southern culture,” he said. “I want to make dice out of bamboo net.” He then mimes using palm trees as a tool to catapult the dice.Varying environments even have an impact on Sone’s temperament. “Basically, I’m a very difficult artist,” he said. “But I love the snow,” he concluded with a smile, indicating the ski mountains surrounding Aspen have tamed him some.Sone’s imprint on the local environment actually began with the opening of the ski season. His painting “Ski Madonna” graces all Aspen Skiing Co. lift tickets this year. The image came from a photograph Sone took of Christy Sauer, the Aspen Art Museum’s annual fund manager, last winter on Aspen Mountain’s Trainor Ridge.

Sone’s work will last beyond the rolling of the dice down the halfpipe. X-Art, an exhibit of Sone’s snow- and skiing-related art, including dice paintings, Ski Madonna paintings, an X Games site model painting and the “Mt. 66” dice, is now open until April 16 in the Lower Gallery of the Aspen Art Museum. The exhibit currently features “Perfect Island,” a performance video that includes footage from the dice projects in Germany and Texas. Next week, “Perfect Island” will be replaced by a new video by Sone and his frequent collaborator, Damon McCarthy, built around “Mt. 66” and Sone’s run down Highland Bowl last week.Sone’s weekend kicks off Saturday, Feb. 18, with the Snow Cactus Sculpture Festival. The artist will be present from 1 to 5 p.m. to lead children and families in building snow cactus sculptures on the Art Museum grounds. No reservations are necessary, and snacks and warm beverages will be provided.Sunday’s festivities begin at 1:30 p.m. at the museum, with Sone directing an improvisational jam session by the Aspen Powder Cactus Band before the dice are airlifted to Buttermilk.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is