Features/What to SEE/Visual Art

Sending a message to the universe

2 March 2023

Takeshi Tanabe explores some big questions through his art. He tells Greg McFerran the meaning behind the first light-dependent installation at Sculpture by the Sea.

A large cylinder sits at the edge of the groyne, creating a striking beacon over the Indian Ocean as the sun dips below the horizon. Suddenly it turns off, along with all the lights along the Cottesloe beachfront. It’s pitch black.

The seconds tick by, then white light torpedoes into the night sky, almost alien in its contrasting luminescence. It travels up 2km in a flash, piercing the darkness.

This towering manifestation of the speed of light is an existential questioning and the work of Tourism Western Australia’s Invited International Artist for Sculpture by the Sea 2023. 

Takeshi Tanabe has been part of the annual exhibition, both at Cottesloe and Bondi, more than a dozen times but this year’s work is rather special. The first light-dependent sculpture at Cottesloe, Between Sky and Earth (Exchanging Messages) will shoot light into the sky at three set times each night until 20 March.  

Artist Takeshi Tanabe wears a cap and warm dark clothes. He is standing behind a vibrant red sculpture that is a blend of ridges and curves. He is outside, grey skies behind him.
Takeshi Tanabe with Locus of Time 18-1 at a NSW exhibition. Photo supplied

It is part of Tanabe’s Big Bang Symphony, a collection of works exploring time and space. And his work asks people to ponder some big questions, questions about harmony, symbiosis and the sustainability of mankind. 

Between Sky and Earth (Exchanging Messages) is inspired by an energy conversion device. It absorbs energy from the universe and releases it at night into the dark universe, representing the beginning of the Big Bang.  

“The energy released from the Big Bang continues to expand and form the universe,” Tanabe explains. “The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago and became a water planet, life was born and continued to evolve, and then mankind was born and culture was nurtured.

“This work represents the idea of remembering the birth of the Earth and the birth of mankind. And I wanted to ask people to question our way of being for the distant future. Looking up at the stars at night, I imagine an exchange of messages to the universe.” 

The sculpture is just the latest in a long list of celebrated creations from one of Japan’s most highly regarded artists. 

Born in 1945 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Tanabe was raised in a 250-year-old building and is strongly achored in Japanese culture. But his exposure to Western architecture in his mid-teens opened his eyes to a world of possibilities. 

“I was amazed by the completely different spaces, which sparked my interest in architecture. This led me to an interest in sculpture, in which I project my ideas into space,” he says. 

Waterdalls cascade from huge granite structures anchored in a pool of green water. This is Takeshi Tanabe's work dedicated to Handel's Water Music.
Crafted from white granite, ‘A scene: dedicated to Handel’s Water Music’ was commissioned in 1980. Photo supplied

Tanabe was also strongly influenced by the open-air sculpture movements of the 1960s, including one in Antwerp, Belgium and the International Sculpture Symposium in St. Margarethen, Austria.  

“I participated in two different open-air sculpture movements in 1973, the Ube Biennale (Japan) and the Lindabrunn International Sculpture Symposium (Austria),” he says. 

“Since then, I have conducted city planning through sculpture, international sculpture symposiums, and sculpture projects, inviting many sculptors from Japan and abroad.” 

Tanabe has also exhibited works around the world in solo and group collections, including the Tokyo Biennale, NordArt and Ube International Sculpture Biennale.  

His work questions both where we come from and where we are going, searching for answers through different lenses. 

A scene: dedicated to Handel’s Water Music explores space in the form of water, reflecting upon the nature of water as it shifts endlessly, drawing reference to the evolution of the Earth.  

A beam of light shoots straight up into the sky, set against a fiery sunset. This is an artist impression of Between Sky and Earth (Exchanging Messages) by Takeshi Tanabe.
An artist’s impression of the art installation.

Locus of Time 18-1, which nested under the pines at Cottesloe for 2019’s event,  invites you to think about time in all its forms: the times of day and night, the seasons, how time repeats, the way it circles. And how it flies by.  

Now Tanabe is seeking to ignite our imaginations and make us think with his enlightened message to the universe. 

The Town of Cottesloe will work with Sculpture by the Sea to turn off Tanabe’s beacon and all surrounding lights simultaneously at 7.45pm, 8.15pm and 8.45pm each night. The sculpture will be turned back on after 30 seconds, sending the white beam into the night sky with a message bound for who knows where. The beacon will be turned off at 11pm each night.

Between Sky and Earth (Exchanging Messages) is the realisation of a shared dream between Tanabe and Sculpture by the Sea founding director David Handley to bring one of the artist’s light creations – permanent fixtures in Japan and Taiwan – to the Cottesloe groyne.  The pair have been talking about it for years and Handley says he can’t wait to follow the light’s trajectory into the night sky. 

The State Government, through Tourism WA, has supported the Invited International Artist program since 2016, enabling artists such as England’s Tony Cragg and China’s Li Wei to exhibit in one of Western Australia’s most iconic locations – and raising international interest in the State as a tourist destination. 

Sea-green sculptures, some shaped like bullets, others like pods, dot the sand. In the background, a dusky pink  sky glows over the ocean and groyne.
Plastic Paradise by Kathy Allam, one of the artists returning to Sculpture by the Sea. Photo: Hugh Sando

Tanabe is one of many overseas sculptors taking part in the event, which draws more than 200,000 visitors to Cottesloe’s shores each year. Countryman Wataru Hamasaka, whose 2022 exhibit was snapped up by Tasmania’s MONA gallery, returns, while American Peter Lundberg and Japan’s Takahiro Hirata join the Decade Club – for those artists who have exhibited at Cottesloe 10 times or more. 

There is a swathe of sculptors from around Australia in the 70-plus field, including Greg Johns (who also joins the Decade Club) and Richard Goodwin. Western Australia is also well represented, with 28 Sandgropers showing off their skills to their home state. Ron Gomboc, Denise Pepper and Kathy Allam are familiar names along the sands and under the Norfolk pines, while 10 local artists are making their debut. 

As for why Tanabe keeps coming back to Sculpture by the Sea, the artist says it’s about much more than the art itself:  “I believe that being in contact with the magnificent natural environment and the friendly people who live there opens my mind and shows its influence on my work.” 

Sculpture by the Sea is at Cottesloe Beach, 3-20 March 2023

Pictured top: An artist’s impression of the light shooting from Between Sky and Earth (Exchanging Messages) over the Cottesloe beachfront. Image supplied

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Greg McFerran

Greg McFerran is a postgraduate journalism student at Curtin University studying journalism. He completed an undergraduate degree in Electronic Music and Sound Design (Hons) at UWA. As a child, he enjoyed the playground monkey bars the most, mainly because he preferred to walk upon them instead of swinging underneath them — much to his mother’s displeasure.

Past Articles

  • Sky show fans embers of ancient stories

    First Lights has illuminated skies over Perth and Darwin, sharing ancient stories in modern ways. As the Fremantle Biennale project embarks on a regional tour, Greg McFerran speaks to two of its creative forces.

  • Electric dream lights new fire

    Jonathan Fitzgerald was a self-confessed snob when it came to electric guitar. Until he fell down a visual rabbit hole. The UWA Chair of Guitar tells Greg McFerran how he saw the light that led to his new album.

Read Next

  • Reading time • 10 minutesFringe World Festival
  • Carina Roberts and Gakuro Matsui in The Nutcracker How to watch ballet

    How to watch ballet

    16 November 2023

    If you’ve booked tickets to Christmas favourite The Nutcracker and you’re not sure what to expect, look no further! Rita Clarke has you covered.

    Reading time • 10 minutesDance
  • Reading time • 7 minutesMulti-arts

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio