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We are sit­ting in­side Oki Sato’s mind. Kind of.

All around us are sim­ple lit­tle houses, neatly ar­ranged into lines. Each has only two walls, and some of the pitched roofs are open. Weather isn’t a prob­lem, how­ever – this sur­real vil­lage is com­pletely in­doors. It’s two days be­fore the ex­hi­bi­tion will be open to the pub­lic and the fin­ish­ing touches are still be­ing made. Work­ers rush around, clutch­ing cof­fees and tin­ker­ing with light fit­tings. In one room a man fid­dles with a pro­jec­tion that to me looks com­pletely fine, but to his trained eye needs im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion.

About a me­tre from where we’re sit­ting is a rare M.C. Escher print. The Dutch artist is known for his im­pos­si­ble shapes, his metic­u­lously math­e­mat­i­cal tes­sel­la­tions, his de­signs for physics-de­fy­ing build­ings – but this print is si­mul­ta­ne­ously fa­mil­iar and un­usual. In it, an­i­mals, myth­i­cal beasts and even a guitar fit around each other with pre­ci­sion, and yet no two char­ac­ters are re­peated. The neg­a­tive space be­tween an ele­phant’s trunk and front leg be­comes the head of a camel; a fish nib­bles on the ear of a rab­bit; a de­mon ca­resses a frog. It’s a pic­ture of things that, on the sur­face, do not be­long to­gether but some­how be­come one to make some­thing weird and per­fect.

Mel­bourne’s NGV has been work­ing on an ex­hi­bi­tion of Escher’s work for the past three-anda-half years, but Sato and his award-win­ning de­sign stu­dio, Nendo, only came on board as equally billed col­lab­o­ra­tors at the be­gin­ning of the year.

This means that the ex­hi­bi­tion has been liv­ing and evolv­ing in Sato’s mind for an in­tense 11 months. “We had to work on ev­ery sin­gle as­pect,” he tells me. They de­signed the ex­hi­bi­tion fur­ni­ture, the lay­out of rooms and even the sound­scape. This, on top of cre­at­ing large-scale, in­tri­cate and am­bi­tious orig­i­nal art­works to com­ple­ment Escher’s. “It’s all about de­tails.”

In some ways to see his de­sign made real, to be sit­ting in the mid­dle of it, is like hav­ing his mind turned in­side out, his in­ner world flipped. When I ask him what it’s like to see his art re­alised in this way he can’t put it into words. “I’m still try­ing to un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know. I think it hap­pened the way we wanted it to hap­pen. Yes.” He pauses, and the gap in our con­ver­sa­tion is filled by Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions – a favourite of Escher’s and the only mu­sic not cre­ated by Nendo to fea­ture in this ex­hi­bi­tion. “I think I need a bit more time to di­gest what I’ve made.”

Most of the time when Sato re­sponds to a ques­tion, he an­swers then pauses to re­flect and as­sess. If he’s happy with what he’s said, he adds a quiet but de­fin­i­tive “yes”. Ev­ery­thing is care­fully con­sid­ered, from the small­est de­tail of his work to his speech.

Nendo trans­lates to “clay”, but when I ask Sato about this he smiles. “It is clay but it’s more like Play­Doh in a way. It’s some­thing very flex­i­ble and it changes shapes and sizes and colours.” A pause. “Yes. That’s the kind of flex­i­bil­ity that we want to have in our work.”

This is re­flected not just in the di­verse projects Nendo takes on – from fur­ni­ture to de­sign­ing new trains ahead of the Paris Olympics – but in how they ap­proach these projects. Escher’s body of work is fixed and fi­nite, there­fore it fell to Nendo to adapt and re­spond, to fit around the other artist like Play-Doh.

Nendo and Escher share much com­mon ground, not least in at­ten­tion to de­tail and an eye for op­ti­cal il­lu­sion. But Sato says this made things more dif­fi­cult. “In col­lab­o­ra­tion, it’s much eas­ier when the two are very dif­fer­ent. We try to find some­thing in com­mon and that be­comes the link be­tween the two. It cre­ates a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion.” He looks up at the mez­za­nine level on the other side of the room. “But when two artists are too sim­i­lar, we need to do the op­po­site. It’s about try­ing to find what we do not have in com­mon.”

He tells me how Escher used two-di­men­sional im­ages to try to rep­re­sent three-di­men­sional con­cepts. Shapes that seem to burst out of the page. A print of a dragon try­ing to es­cape his pa­per pri­son, but end­ing up coiled around and through him­self. Nendo came at this from the op­po­site di­rec­tion, by “work­ing on three-di­men­sional ob­jects in space which feel twodi­men­sional in a way”.

The room we’re in is a per­fect ex­am­ple. Viewed from the mez­za­nine level, the lit­tle black-and-white houses look al­most like a print. But when you come down the ramp, grad­u­ally you feel the scale shift, more and more, un­til you’re walk­ing among the struc­tures them­selves, the art­work come to life.

Sato is par­tic­u­larly en­am­oured with the ex­hi­bi­tion’s fi­nal room, con­tain­ing Escher’s fi­nal piece – a de­tailed print of a snake. The room it­self echoes the prin­ci­ples of the work it is ded­i­cated to – from the snake-shaped path, to the mu­sic and light­ing. “I feel that ev­ery­thing was per­fectly match­ing,” Sato says. “Yes. I

• think that is one of my favourite rooms.”

EL­IZ­A­BETH FLUX is a Mel­bournebased writer and ed­i­tor.

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