Aï Kitahara, between charm and bait

Jean-Charles Agboton-Jumeau

0.0 All of Aï Kitahara’s works are traps or decoys, words that are both synonymous of artifice or even falsehood. This is to say that they are physical or visual devices intended to catch the spectator red-handed in the act of committing curiosity, in every sense of the term. These devices are what one usually calls installations or distributed sculpture.

0.1 In Latin, curiositas is first of all the care or concern one has for something: in French, this curative and even curial vein is eclipsed by the tendency to learn, to inform oneself, to know new things – an inclination that, as it becomes more pronounced, can veer towards indiscretion or even voyeurism. Finally, a curious thing is also an object coveted by those sometimes dubbed the curious of art, or art amateurs. The semantic spectrum of the word includes a negative or pejorative aspect as well as a laudatory or positive one; it is thus ambiguous or ambivalent. To different degrees, Aï Kitahara’s works kindle curiosity as much as they are themselves curiosities.

1.0 Aï Kitahara’s primary concern is for ordinary objects or situations that are banal and, so to speak, without quality; in short, common objects of consumption, or objects from highly domestic contexts, such as cookies, ice cream cones, thumbtacks, sandpaper, trash cans, lipstick, glasses, etc., or private or public spaces that are more or less confidential. Upon these objects she casts an ingenuous glance susceptible of arousing or awakening something – either in them or between them – that is, if not primitive or primal, at least archetypal, or better, inaugural: a certain strangeness, a kind of wonderful that their abundance as well as their banality tends to dull or repress. It is in this way that for the artist, the least of these objects is a falsehood in the sense that its anonymity automatically conceals a latent and fabulous truth, fairy-like or surreal. From this point of view, every object is consequently a decoy or a trap.

1.1 If, according to La Rochefoucault, «There are disguised falsehoods that represent the truth so well that it would be poor judgement not to let oneself be fooled by them,»[1] for Aï Kitahara there is a disguised truth that so assuredly lies dormant in stereotypical objects and common places that it would be wrongdoing to let oneself be taken in by it. For in fact, every artifact tells her a story in its own way: that of the emotional charge it dons under the wondrous gaze of childhood, whether humanity’s or the individual’s, but that it casts off in time. In so doing, she invokes this era without past or future, when things are not yet truthful or false, when good and evil exist as the inverse of each other. An incredible era, certainly, but one that therefore reveals itself to be precisely the most ambivalent, for surprise and marvel are inseparable from fright and terror, transgression from the forbidden, contemplation from voyeurism, and curiosity from cruelty. Herein lies the key to the fabulous inspiration of Aï Kitahara’s installations; a key which, like the prelude or the beginning of a fable — once upon a time – opens «without further ado, onto another space and time. It can announce falsehood, ingenuous name for the imaginary and fiction: ‘one must lie, because it is the truth’ one bard used to say.»[2]

1.1.2 Can it be a coincidence that the first citations illustrating the French words piège (trap) and leurre (decoy) in the Littré are in fact taken from La Fontaine’s fables?

2.0 In the enchanted space of fairy tales or of popular, if not universal, tale-telling, if falsehood equals truth, then everything becomes reversible, just as time becomes cyclical. Ambivalence thus gives license to the reversibility or to the generalized permutation of objects and places that henceforth can be turned inside out like a glove.

2.1 To do this, to set her trap, the artist first takes objects out of their context. She lays them out or distributes them, diverting them from their ordinary use or function. Thus Ogre Inside [ 5 ], featuring a series of ice cream cones that obscures an entire window, or the urban trash can exhibited right in the middle of a gallery [ 21-23 ]. Even better is the instrument, unknown in our latitudes [ 12-13 ], designed specifically to preserve the completely auditory modesty of Japanese people in places of leisure.

2.2 In fact, in a lipstick emptied of then coated with its contents, fatal and fecal rhyme, becoming nothing more than two aspects of the same object, as verified by Little Red Riding Hood [ 20 ]. Ordinarily meant to underline one of the feminine charms, the so-called rouge reveals itself to be a bait, in the double sense of the term. Inversely, the immaculate veil extending out of an urban trash can [ 22-23 ] will in some sense play the role of The Bride Stripped Bare (if not trampled) by her Bachelors, even… Indeed, the visitor hesitates outright to trample, in other words, to maculate, the arachnoid veil lounging extravagantly right there on the ground; in short, in one way or another, the visitor dreads falling into the trap, in the almost literal sense of the term –indeed, the French word piège derives from the Latin pedica, or «link to the foot.»

2.3 «We find repulsive objects to be charming,» said Baudelaire. Thus there are just as many pieces to be found in Aï Kitahara’s works as there are traps. And if «like the dream, what a fable must conceal is its infantile sources,»[3] her installations often conceal from us a fantasy or a hidden face of our conscious perception; as such it is proper to venture to see them twice or – literally – to return in order to see what they give back. On the other side of Ogre Inside [ 5 ], which at first presents itself only as hollow, one sees in fact the pattern in relief of a multitude of ice cream cones that render a window opaque, whether or not it is transparent by definition. In other words, they appear certainly as so many cones, but also as so many phalluses that one ordinarily consumes from the opposite end… At the limit of visibility the artist will also resuscitate the thorns of some roses decorating a piece of wallpaper by affixing thumbtacks on them backwards [ 6 ]. In the same way, The other interior [ 16-17 ] plays on the reversibility of a three dimensional puzzle, thanks to which the artist establishes a relationship of equivalence between, on one hand, the kitsch or realistic «rustic» quality of a house, and on the other hand, the dull greyness of an architectural sketch or a minimalist sculpture. But, if the interior equals the exterior and vice versa, she must then try, using an Armor of pocket mirrors [ 26-27 ], to finally confound – without ever quite succeeding – the visible and the invisible. For in fact, «to those who seek desperately and childishly to pass through the mirror, I will deliver the secret […]: coat yourselves in silvering and stand watch before the mirror.»[4]

2.4 If the mirror must be feigned in order for the visible and the invisible to be superimposed, the artist must then employ a damaged structure: folding screens lit with the effigies of generic human silhouettes

[ 28-32 ], disposed in a maze of thresholds or passages through which the visitor transits trying not to trip, without ever being able to distinguish the entry from the exit, one side from the other, within from without, or the stage from the backstage of a silent play in which the visitor is either, depending on the case, the passive actor or the active spectator.

2.4.1 But if the invisible is never quite visible to the naked eye, one can nevertheless experience it by soliciting the curiosity of the other senses. Thus, in Amphibians [ 7 ], empty glasses «contain,» albeit «outside,» alcohol that is identifiable by its odor without the visitor having to visualize it as such. One can, on the contrary, squeeze it like a sponge. If he were to be modest, a Japanese would allow himself to be seen, or at least glimpsed, in the bathroom via the sense of hearing, that is to say by the hearing of the sound of artificial water distilled by Ray of Water [ 12-13 ].[5] This presupposes an auditory voyeurism, unless we are in a sauna, as suggested by the duckboard we are walking on… It is in this way that touch takes over for sight in the House of Glass [ 11 ], exhibited in the kind of white cube one finds in an art center in which there is strictly nothing to see except the sandpaper covering the walls and which its whiteness forbids… But beyond or beneath the architectural metaphor of the work’s title, we should note that a surreptitious food metaphor superimposes itself on the tactile perception of these walls that irresistibly evoke sugar. The sense of taste is solicited here as well as in works such as the model of a house built with cookies, or at least, what passes for cookies, since they are made of plastic [ 14-15 ] and look enough like cookies to fool the eye.

2.4.2 «To tell is to nourish. It is orality in all its plenitude,» says one storyteller. «It is to nourish with words, absorbed by the ears and not by the mouth, while the storyteller reverses the alimentary mechanism, making the words come from the inside to the outside,» adds N. Belmont.[6] As for Aï Kitahara, she has switched the positions of the story’s heroine and the fate that awaits her; a story about a princess whose only remaining trace in the exhibition space is the vestiges of her captivity –- an armchair adorned with a chain in which the visitor, a latecomer as it were, is invited to sit in order to tell whatever story this deserted prison inspires [ 10 ], starting with the episode that generally ends princess stories, her liberation. Yet, if in the time of fables, the dawn of time coincides with the end of time, the points of departure and arrival pass within one another as is shown, moreover, by the work entitled Six Boxes in their Time [ 25 ], that is to say letter-boxes to read, or if one prefers, letters on boxes to read. The words written on them pass from inside to outside. In Paradise at the Bottom of the Ocean [ 3 ], an alarm clock turns precisely sixty times faster under a thousand fish-hooks hung two meters from the ground which is taken for the bottom of a waterway. In fact they launch a hovering, silent menace, probably that of the virtual enucleation of the spectator, as suggested by the absence of bait. The Trilogy known as Antigone [ 24 ] also disturbs the conventional perception of time which a video loop demonstrates by way of, on one hand, a turnstyle filmed at the entrance of a supermarket and, on the other, the maritime traffic registered in the port of Antwerpen. To deregulate time, to attempt to become unhinged, to display –- inter alia –-the consumption of food, such is the effect this installation aims to convey. At its center, a monitor shows a downpour of cathodal snow, sending the spectator towards the timelessness of childhood enchantment.[7]

2.4.3 Here, to tell is to put one over on the visitor by incorporating words into things, or the chatter of the world into the more or less dumbfounding silence of objects. It is to nourish the visitor’s gaze with illusions, as is shown in particular by the shadow theater that displays the work process behind the creation of children’s books, which open to display a blind image in three dimensions inspired by fables [ 33 & 35 to 38 ]. Aï Kitahara reduces them however to a many-layered screen by erasing all figuration. She then projects a transparent view of a transitory place, a picture in which the spectator becomes a ghost who is both doubled and dressed in shadow, as if Dibutade were both his own model and lover. In short, fugit velut ombra;[8] the visitor figures as an apparition or ghost, incorporated into a vanity, in the pictoral sense of the term: vanitas vanitatis, all is but illusion.

3.0 In Open Everything, Go Everywhere, But For This Little Office, I Forbid You To Enter [ 18 ], visitors are not simply trapped — by a scenographic device made up of heterogeneous, patched-together elements, whose final visual seduction doubles systematically as a metaphorical revulsion. Their space, the work’s «public» space, confounds itself with the «private» space of Eriko Momotani’s former studio. Further, the printed invitation to the exhibition, despite its administrative or utilitarian character, plays an integral role in the staging. Visitors survey this particular «office» not according to a more or less central[9], peripheral, or adjacent[10] work that deliberately occupies the exhibition space, but in confusion with the exhibition itself. Similarly, the paths of visitors who enter the studio with the key given to them by the artist and who cross the threshold, groping about in the half-light as their retinas adjust, correspond to the stories they tell themselves – the ones about ambivalent conjectures that encourage visits to art exhibitions. They are living these stories, so to speak, in a direct way. The time needed for the narrative or for its exposition corresponds precisely to the unfolding of the action. Authors and actors of the exhibition, it is the visitors themselves who designate its end (stamping, on the same printed invitation, the exhibition’s title whose letters then peel off backwards) that is, unless as soon as they leave the building they start recounting their experience to anybody who wishes to listen.[11] With a remarkable economy of means, Aï Kitahara thus gives credit in her own way to the idea M. Fried held dear, according to which «Theater is what exists between the arts,» even though Fried saw in this combination of visual and linguistic codes the origin of the theatricality of anti- or post-modern art.[12]

3.1 In any case, all of Aï Kitahara’s works constitute so many more or less pertinent conjectures regarding the reversibility of both space and time, the mystery of which she would seek to penetrate. This mystery could only be that of the unconscious, which since Lacan we know to be structured like a language. But is the structure of language the language of structure? We will leave the question in suspense, setting the trap, so to speak, that all questions set – that of closing in on themselves. We will do this in particular by invoking the ma, from a Japanese term that designates space, not in terms of unilateral or exclusive distance between objects, but in terms of an interval that is “a fundamental constructive element of the Japanese experience of space. Not only is it employed in flower arranging, but it constitutes the secret factor in the organization of all other types of space.»[13] In referring to this term, we do not mean to unilaterally reduce Aï Kitahara to her Japanese origins. For, if the Western, statistically speaking «perceives the objects, but not the spaces that separate them» while in Japan, «on the contrary, these spaces are perceived, named, and revered under the term ma, or the dividing space,» [14] it nonetheless remains that the ma is only intelligible as such – as Edward Hall and Aï Kitahara attest to each in their own way – precisely according to the differences or the cultural and historical crevices it is able to dig as much as it is difference itself, whether unseen or invisible as such; in other words, the ma is that which comes in between or intervenes without ever identifying itself with any of the terms of the antitheses East/West, visible/invisible, conscious/unconscious, painting/sculpture, or even discourse/figure to adopt M. Fried’s terms, and consequently preventing any culture or discipline from unilaterally claiming filiation with that which produces the interval or differs.


[1] Maxime 282.
[2] Nicole Belmont, Poétique du conte, Paris, 1999, p. 62.
[3] Ibid., p. 63.
[4] A. Bonnier, «Le Tainsouverre,» Revue d’esthétique, 1980, no. 1 & 2, p. 62.
[5] Also see the work entitled Show me white paw, or I will not open [ 34 ], in which hearing takes over for sight: on a recorded soundtrack, there is a knock on the door, while the visitor contemplates 300 doorways without hinges inside the exhibition space.
[6] Op. Cit., pp. 89-90.
[7] As such «The fable has nothing to do with the present, but is not therefore anachronistic, and its charm depends not on being outdated. It is timeless because it treats the psychic at its most profound. ‘Of the erroneous and superstitious beliefs that humanity pretends to have overcome, there is not one whose remainders do not survive in us today […] All that comes one day into life hangs on obstinately. One could sometimes doubt that the dragons of primitive times are really dead (Freud)’»; Cf. N. Belmont, op. Cit., p. 233.
[8] According to the Book of Job, XIV, 1: Quasi flos egreditur et conteritur et fulgit velut ombra (‘like the flower, man blooms and fades and then disappears like a shadow’). In the Vanities, in fact, flowers symbolize this flight of time.
[9] Such as Curiosity Despite All its Attractions Often Causes Many Regrets [ 8 ].
[10] Like in Sinner’s Ring [ 9 ] spread between two rooms.
[11] A story that can only be a variation on the old Arabic proverb: «Do not enter in an uninhabited paradise, for it is hell,» cited by Edward T. Hall in La dimension cachée, Paris, 1971, p. 195.
[12] Cited by W.J.T. Mitchell, «Ut pictura theoria: la peinture abstraite et la répression du langage,» Les Cahiers du MNAM, Fall 1990, no. 33, p. 81.
[13] Edward T. Hall, op. Cit., p. 188.
[14] Ibid., p. 99.