Architecture as a Model for Art

Rahma Khazam, 2009

In his book Anywhere or Not At All, Peter Osborne argues that just as in the nineteenth century ‘painting’ was the name for art, so in the 1960s did something like ‘architecture’ become, if not the new name for art, then its model – a model where ‘architecture’ is no longer just the practice of designing and constructing buildings. Instead it has become a form of artistic spatiality, where an idea is no longer tied to a particular object but realized – or spatialized – in multiple materials and forms[1]. The idea that architecture can be a model and frame of reference for art doubly pervades the works of the Franco-Japanese artist Ai Kitahara. On one level, she practices this very kind of artistic spatiality, insofar as she produces series of interrelated works in different materials and forms. On the other, she references, reformulates – and trenchantly critiques – key architectural postulates and tropes.

Consider Maison aérienne (Levitating House, 2017), a nod to the flying house in The Wizard of Oz. Contesting the assumption that a building cannot be weightless, it literally rises into the air. Then consider Ville aérienne (Levitating City, 2018), a model of an imaginary city based on different neighbourhoods of Yokohama. Unconstrained by gravity’s shackles, it too suggests new forms of social interaction and exchange, such as those pervading Constant’s New Babylon project – whose linked structures perched above ground promoted a new culture based on a nomadic lifestyle of creative play[2].

If architecture is a model for artists, not all of them interpret it in the same way. Peter Osborne distinguishes between conservative and forward-looking bodies of work: whereas Rachel Whiteread’s casts of interiors of London homes may be regarded as revivals of modernist sculpture in which received forms coexist with each other, Gordon Matta-Clark’s radically transcategorial work critiques conventional forms, generating productive tensions[3]. In Conical Intersect (1975), he created large openings in the walls of an apartment building slated for demolition, offering a new way of looking at the city that exposed the tensions and resistances in existing architectural norms. Ai Kitahara’s levitating works likewise expose such resistances – echoing not the work of Whiteread but that of Matta-Clark.

More than just engaging with the end products of architecture, whether houses or cities, Ai Kitahara also addresses its most emblematic component, the wall. Apesanteur (Weightlessness, 2019) consists of the letters of the word ‘apesanteur’ half-buried in a wall: only segments of the letters protrude, highlighting the separation between outside and inside, private and public, and insofar as they are letters, between meaning and nonsense, legibility and illegibility. Here, the wall is no longer a mere partition but becomes a site of debate and opposition[4].

Other works explore the socio-political significance of partitions, frontiers or walls. Take Untitled (Sans titre, 2019) a shell-like structure composed of superimposed outlines of the frontiers of the Japanese department from which Ai Kitahara originates: here, the frontier no longer separates but has become a depoliticized, purely ornamental device. In the same series, the model of Frontière blanche (White Frontier, 2016) consists of crumbling white brick walls that retrace the confluence of two rivers, suggesting that man-made frontiers are far less durable than the natural ones formed by rivers. Meanwhile, an unrealized project in the same series features transparent glass bricks that deprive the wall of its power to conceal – and allow those behind it to elude the gaze of others – while pointing to its egalitarian potential, once it has been freed from its repressive task. As Osborne points out, architecture’s contribution to the critique of contemporary art is not a simple space, but is more akin to Deleuze’s ‘any-space-whatever’ (un espace quelconque), a locus of the possible where linkages are made in an infinite number of ways.

Ai Kitahara’s crusade against architectural norms can also take more oblique forms. Evaporation (Evaporation, 2016-2017), a collection of porcelain drops that drip upwards, transposes the theme of anti-gravity into non-architectural terms, while her series of unfolded origami models (2013-2014) questions the durability of yet another architectural keyword, form: although the folds of the original shapes are still visible in the unfolded models, it is impossible to ascertain what these shapes were. Finally, Architecture pour une personne II (One-Person Architecture II, 2010), is a minimal spherical structure that reiterates in yet another form and material a number of the issues traversing Ai Kitahara’s works: how to challenge architecture’s fundamental distinction between material/immaterial, public/private, interior/exterior, and open it up to freedom and unconstraint.

[1] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, London and New York, Verso, 2013, p. 141-142.
[2] See
[3] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, op. cit., p. 145.
[4] Ibid., p. 149.

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.

Text by Jean-Charles Agboton-Jumeau in the monographic catalog “Aï Kitahara 1992-2005”, 2006

Border, Edge, Map: A Topology of the Invisible, and the Objects it Produces

Isabelle Hersant
Translated from French by Sarah Froning

Take a map of France with its meandering roads winding through the green on blue background that forms the forests and mountains. One can see the villages on each side of the French-Belgian border as well as the zigzag line that separates them.
The yellow dots that represent the villages render them so distinct from one another that passing through them in reality reveals both the uniqueness of each and the similarities between them. First comes the road that links one village to the next, then the sign showing the village name, brick houses, a central square, streets….until once again, the road continues among the trees to the next village where the houses, the square, and the streets are even closer to the border with the other country. That is, unless the border has already been crossed somewhere before or beyond one of the villages, or on the road that links the two.
The real border between France and Belgium is crossed in the mind. The act of crossing nullifies the border’s visibility as a line, rendering it wholly unlike the red mark that indicates its presence on a map, transforming it instead into a zone that is thus invisible. It is in this way that crossing through the space of a limit that is never met can suggest the notion of “non-place” as a figure of atopia. Such a path evokes a topology of the invisible, the idea of which suddenly becomes visible through the simple – if one can call it simple – untangling of arresting images unfolding before our eyes.
The landscape exhibited on the monitor screen appears as if filmed from a bus that follows a daily route along the few kilometers separating the last French village from the first Belgian village. Standing in front of this screen, it is as if we were looking out the bus window, seeing the landscape through the same eyes as the fictive camera’s operator. The images have a hypnotic effect that is exacerbated by the endless repetition of a few notes of music from a merry-go-round.
This ritornello was recorded in one of the public parks in Paris, where it had accompanied a carousel that carried children on wooden horses. Here, it repeats itself endlessly along with the images of the landscape. The circularity of the strident and melancholy notes responds in almost geometric fashion to the linearity of the path, which no act of border-crossing can arrest, articulate, or punctuate; the music precisely emphasizes and gives rhythm to this inability to stop in the space-time of a voyage that lacks exchange or dialog.
Carousel-border (Manège-frontière), with its sequences describing a passage that has neither words nor face, is the latest of three videos realized by the artist. The video renders the approach to an art of volume and surface even more precise. Whether via environmental installations or architectural models, reproducible artifacts or unique drawings, the work of Aï Kitahara reflects on a topology of the in-between, with here as elsewhere always deployed between inside and out.

(Frontal) Kiss and (Physical) Constraint

Just as an architect’s plan comprises the invisible because it represents that which remains to be built, the devices Kitahara realizes formally constitute a world perceived via the non-place that is the interval or edge, extremity or border. In other words, the non-place that is the point of passage for the body living in the physical world.
This was the case for the open-air labyrinth she erected on an agricultural site in the East of France in 2002. Constructed according to the principle that the trellises or fences would ensure that the inside could be seen from outside, the structure of the labyrinth makes visible to all the experience of confinement that it imposes on the body. Whoever ventures into Kissing Gate Labyrinth is greeted by the ordeal of limit as constraint – in the sense of a coercive space of incarceration where the limit is first the physical barrier rather than the topological frontier – and the knowledge that such an ordeal can prove to be doubled.
Indeed, not only will the visitor be trapped by barriers that bear no indication of whether or not they lead to the exit, but also, if ever another were to venture in similar fashion into this work in situ, he would have to endure the face to face and inescapable confrontation with his alter ego. The visitor who thought himself a carefree wanderer is suddenly deprived of distance from a face-body, one that blocks his way. Just as his gaze embraces the landscape offered up to him, he is led without choice or intention to “embrace” his fellow creature who is, like himself, caught in the trap where one reveals to the other the surrounding view along with its meditative perspective.
Thus alter ego is the true name of the other as self – as will become any other person who has also penetrated this enclosure — that is, penetrated the single logic of transparence that Kissing Gate Labyrinth presents in the first instance. The fact that the “internal mechanism” of the maze remains invisible makes it that much more transparent. So simple is the play of fixed or mobile barriers that creates the maze as a trap, yet so complex is the trap itself in that it operates as an exterior place of interior confinement.
Open to the light of day, we are nonetheless obliged to grope about as if we were immersed in blind obscurity. Two steps forward, three steps back — the wandering of the visitor who believed himself simply out for a stroll constrains his body to repeat this single movement. Restrained by the narrow limits that the barriers provide, such movement forces the visitor to confront the realization of how inane it is to face life feeling powerful. Instead, it takes him back to the invalidity of any action in the face of a power that subdues him, rendering him servile from the moment he enters this space in which he becomes nothing more than a cog.
Such is, in the end, the experience that the exiguity of Kissing Gate Labyrinth compels us to live through. Derisory compared to the bucolic immensity of the area it occupies, the space of the Labyrinth is constructed via the repetition of a unit of space that reproduces a livestock pen, a narrow enclosure designed to immobilize an animal for its vaccination. Inspired to multiply this minimal cattle pen into many “isolation cells,” each placed under the control of the other, Kitahara has developed here, as elsewhere in her work, the very Foucaldian figure of the panoptical structure – or the architectural device, basis of the modern prison, that has generated contemporary society under a kind of “archi-structure” of surveillance.[1]
Perhaps in a more unexpected fashion that is nonetheless more in line with Foucault’s epistemological analysis, Kitahara’s work also evokes the literary approach of Kafka. “The world of The Trial is a world of misleading appearances,” writes the translator of this great novel. “Yet there is this in particular — when an appearance is revealed as such and crumbles, it does not necessarily unveil a truth that it had been hiding: it reveals only another appearance, just as ‘natural’ and as ‘credible’ as the previous one, and just as improbable.”[2]

The Letter K, or the Game of a Liaison

The world of Kafka evokes a condition equivalent to that of damnation, in which one passes through doors and enclosures only to come upon more doors and enclosures. In the same way that the linearity of a landscape can be linked to the circularity of music, the immobility of the Japanese artist’s “archi-sculptures” can be linked to the narrative movement of the Czech writer. The opposition between the two allows for a convergence around a common dialectic, one of human beings’ own alienation from the structures they build as architectures for their own capture.
Upside-down staircase or border-column, blueprint for a foundation, or vestiges of a penitentiary fortress…is it not always this same question about unlivable spaces that Kitahara poses, here on a thread of drawings hung with clips from a wall? Highlighted with watercolor, these digital printouts are sketches of previous works, some of which remain unfinished. Just as fragments are a contingency of creation, the precariousness of the sheet of paper, medium for an unfinished work, becomes another figure of the non-space.
This work serves only to amplify the gesture of creating as a whole what the precariousness of existence would perhaps have left as a mere part. The designation of monuments or architectural elements is essential in the work of Kafka, even when they are not part of the title. In the unfinished story The Great Wall of China, which deals with military defense understood as the edification of an imperial totalitarianism that isolates, even “incarcerates” those it pretends to protect, such are the stairs that evoke an in-between place for definitive wandering. Similarly, in the masterpiece that is The Castle — that citadel of nobility that has lost both name and power, but yet does not fall due to the efforts of a man who possesses neither of the two – we have the cathedral that serves as a place of rupture with the world.
Through the paradigm of Joseph K., caught in the trap of a dehumanizing administrative system exploited by the submissive obedience of civil servants who are thus rendered all-powerful, Kafka’s characters evolve in the solitude of an interior maze. Just as for Kitahara, this passageway without an exit reproduces the imaginary form of the real world. Are our limits not first and foremost constructed against the fear we have of the world and then imposed on us by that same world? Built by and for us, the world as “archi-exterior” to a human “archi-interior” is a factual response to this paradox: because of our terror, this world lulls us, assured as we are to recognize it even as we reject it, because we built it in our image.
Built according to the limits that we establish in ourselves in order to interiorize the world as belonging to us, the world is thus always destined to destruction at our hands, we who will always rebuild it according to the sole and unique blueprint of our interior fears and constraints. In so doing, do we not speak the world inasmuch as it informs what we are, at once subjects of power and objects of servility?
Half-way between a “neither blue nor green” that appears as extinguished as death itself, universal is the grey of administrative spaces, wherein waiting suspends life in the form of a number, name, or stamp that is missing, or comes too quickly on a sheet of paper lost in the labyrinth of a stack of files. As anonymous as the flat color of these non-spaces is the blue-green of a solitary two-seated chair, by which Kitahara breaks with the chromatic game that she uses to punctuate the white on grey background of her work.

Zone (of passage) and Line (of partition)

In spite of its title, seuil-fauteuil (border-chair) is first and foremost a door. Its exhibition in Tokyo on a custom-built wall gave it the character of a door that communicated between two interior spaces. Since the artist created it as a functional, in situ object, in Paris, the work has become the door that separates her studio from the corridor.
Emptied of its center by a perfectly cut rectangle, the object is made up of a board that forms the seat of a chair replete with armrests. It is designed to allow one to sit just as easily on one side as the other of the door, alone facing the dark and closed space of the corridor, a place of circulation from inside to out that gleans together the sparse elements of daily life. Or, alone, facing the open and luminous space of the studio, the interior space that hosts the elements of creation gathered together.
The viewer who thought himself a visitor is thus still alone. Following the ordeal of being face to face with his alter ego in the Kissing Gate Labyrinth, it is now via a back to back separation that he encounters the alter ego who is, like himself, sitting on the other side of the “door-chair” as a result of having wanted to feel the physical experience of a threshold as a non-space. Yesterday in the maze or today on the edge, the encounter with his fellow creature is impossible, just as it is impossible to occupy this “interior object” with the body whose presence it nonetheless requires. In the same way that one cannot remain on the threshold without nullifying its function as a passageway, one cannot sit on the chair without invalidating its function as a door.
As a mobile object whose transformation into a fixed object renders it absurd, the door that allows the passage from one space to another, hidden, space has become a chair that, while it is open to both spaces, cuts off access to them. Instead of encouraging the passage from one to the other, this temporary altar compels one to stop in the in-between, as one stops without lingering on a bridge, that place which serves as an interval or liaison between two otherwise delimited, outside spaces, rather than as an interior installation of limits that separates each one. This shows just how much the door of border-chair is no longer a door, as its title indicates. For, to open it would be to displace the threshold rather than to cross it.
And because to displace it is to transform a line or stroke into a zone or surface, it is thus that to slide the threshold beyond or underneath its limit is to create a space that did not exist heretofore; the same holds true for the geographic border that is traversed by the a-topical zone of manège-frontière. What this zone itself traverses is the line of separation, traced in red on the map, which disappears in the imaginary of its invisible crossing.

The Hyphen or the Loop Effect

Visible in itself, the relationship to the name that gives meaning offers itself as a given with the work. Between the frequency of the hyphen by which Kitahara joins two words of a title, and the prevalence of the limit as “line of separation” that she captures as spatiality, the link is as subtle as it is solid. The six sculptures that transpose the topographical surfaces of the six borders of territorial France are designed to be “crossed on foot.” “Fifteen square meters of border” (Quinze mètres carrés de frontière) is the generic part of their title that then becomes specific. From Franco-Belgian to Franco-Spanish, each one has its own ending that provides it with distinction in the form of repetition.
Apart from Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain are thus represented by their adjacent borders. All are spaces of a limit that is never encountered — forested or mountainous, identical from North to South — in that they organize the continental countries in an indivisible whole despite the borders that, in fact, fail to mark the landscape that geopolitics separates using a line on a map. From this comes the undifferentiated aspect of the square or rectangular sculptures laid on the floor, similar by their rounded surfaces but unique by their right-angled areas, each having been realized by Kitahara according to geological maps.
No longer real lines on a map but rather imaginary discourses under our feet, the six frontier spaces that these sculptures take us to appear in the image of villages adjoining two countries. Unique yet similar, they present the same kind of truncated pattern that leads the spectator-wanderer to zigzag on an area that is not a line, or a border that is not visible. The visitor who considered himself to be a surveyor is now crossing the space of these six demarcations as he would a bridge cluttered with rocks. Or, he approaches them as zones of separation in union, seemingly issued from a single folding terrain cut up into six fragments; six fragments of space as a simple, if one can call it simple, declension of the non-space.

[1] This analysis is developed in my article “Aï Kitahara, Scènes de surveillance au pays des merveilles,” Hors Champ (Montréal), April 2002. Hors Champ is an online journal dealing with social issues, media, and cinema: see
[2] Bernard Lortholary, introduction to Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Le procès). Paris, GF Flammarion, 2006, p. 15.

Text by Isabelle Hersant in the monographic catalog “How we divide the world,” 2007

Ai Kitahara

Aurérien Vernant

Through a series of mixed media works such as installations, miniature models and drawings Ai Kitahara is exploring the idea of frontier.
By stating that the limits of a defined space entrap and protect at the same time, the artist tries to represent the « in between inside and outside ». She tries to define this visible or invisible line that is physical as much as psychological and symbolic.
Often, her works (doors, walls, doorknobs,…) look like familiar elements from day to day furniture.
However, as she removes them from their original context, Ai Kitahara creates new mental spaces. By « deterritorializing » these objects, she reflects on the opposition of exclusion and inclusion. Poignee 2009 (handle), is an isolated doorknob fixed in the middle of a wall. Its continuous rotating movement does not suggest the idea of opening a door but rather the impossibility to access whatever is behind the wall.
Confident / Confider (2008) is also the fruit of a dialectical encounter between two contradictory elements. The curved wall symbolizes separation and isolation. The chair is the confider. It was also called “vis à vis” in the 19th century because it allowed two people to have a discussion without turning their heads.
This tension is once again present in Seuil – Fauteuil / Doorstep-Chair (2006). In this case the doorstep rather that creating a separation, becomes an opening. By sitting in the chair, one experiences the feeling of sitting on a boundary.
Kitahara’s most recent works show a reflection on the relationship between art and architecture, especially on how art is presented in architectural spaces.
In Démolir – Reconstruire / Demolish – Reconstruct III (2009) or Sur le Rempart / On the fortification or Banc de correlation / Correlation Bench, the artist reuses strong elements from a site such as fortifications, buildings, structures and turns them into street furniture or architectural models. These works are created in situ and create a dialogue with the space they are presented in by redefining and remodeling its architecture.