cataloguetext: “Why don’t cats wear shoes?” 2020
Renewing Familiar Sceneries and Outlines of Memories
Nana Hirose and Kazuma Nagatani present visions that renew our recognitions and sensibilities by showing us familiar things with their perspectives on the situation ranging from their own living environment to social fields. Based in Germany since 2007, they have created sculptures and installations using various materials and techniques. Their works include: a series of porcelain objects that are molded everyday goods such as food items and food containers, intentionally deformed in the firing process; a huge number of pretzels hung on the wall like a garland; sculptures made from wrapping paper or postcards, folded in the shape of the artists’ living space. What lies at the heart of their work is losing the original function of an object by replacing its original material or its size, creating a new form by their own skilled handicraft, transforming the exhibition space itself by displaying their works in large scales and quantities, all leading to a silent chemical reaction of sensibilities or feelings when the artists’ vision and the viewers’ memories and experiences intersect.
I collaborated with the artists for a project in 2018, in a small village called Karekimata, one of the venues of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, which takes place every three years in Tokamachi, a city of the Niigata prefecture. The village, known as a heavy snowfall area, has a depopulation problem; there are only eight families in the village, who are mainly engaged in farming. I asked Hirose and Nagatani to participate in the Triennale when I was appointed to curate the project in an abandoned school, located at the center of the village, and the surrounding outdoor space.
For this large-scale exhibition in their native country, the artists covered the floors of three classrooms and corridors with silver words that had been cut from metallised polyester film. The words come from a children’s book, Buying Mittens (1933) by Nankichi Niimi, which has long been included in the third-grade language textbook at elementary schools in Japan. The story, describing an encounter between humans and a little fox who lives in deep-snow covered forests, overlaps with life and nature in Karekimata. The artists also created an installation by hanging from the ceiling some school equipment that had been used at the school such as balls, musical instruments, and instruments for scientific experiments. The installation, «Classroom» , made the snowy scenery of the story and the memories lying deep at the abandoned school, intertwine. The viewers go back and forth between the past and the future, into winter and summer, taking part in reality and fiction, while walking on the silver words on which the summer light and the greenery from outside reflected.
Walking into the third room, the words that the mother fox muttered at the end of the story emerge under the viewer’s feet: ‘I wonder if humans are truly a good thing, I really
Do’. Hirose and Nagatani would not only bring nostalgic memories through the abandoned school and the children’s story, but they also raise an essential question. Wear and tear of modern society glimpse at us at this peaceful and beautiful countryside. Viewers cannot help but think of the fact that thousands of contemporary art fans, like themselves, take over the almost abandoned village of Karekimata every three years.
«Classroom» (2018) and «Why don’t cats wear shoes?» (2019), which were unveiled at the solo exhibitions in Cuxhaven and Göttingen, show a new direction of the artists’ work. Firstly, both works have a tendency to make the space itself into a work of art rather than placing an art piece in the space. Secondly, rather than underlining the artiness of the objects created by their skilled handicraft, the text emerges as the most important element of the works. Thirdly, the contents of the texts are used as gimmick to encourage visitors to think or imagine through their physical experience.
«Why don‘t cats wear shoes?» shows children’s questions, such as ‘Why is water wet?’, ‘Why don’t stars fall from the sky?’, ‘How is one sure that the world is not a dream?’ by covering the whole exhibition floor with silver words cut out of polyester film. These questions that Hirose and Nagatani collected on the Internet range from everyday topics to grand themes. Sometimes, the innocence of children’s imagination makes one smile, and sometimes the dynamic scale freezes one’s thinking process. The visitors follow these questions, not only with their eyes, but also by moving their whole body to grasp and understand the questions, as the size of each letter is big and they are laid out without any space between them; the only hint to see where a text ends is the question mark ‘?’ at the end. As it was for the work displayed in Karekimata, physically engaged reading is also required here.
In «Why don’t cats wear shoes?», it is worth noting that a number of red apples are laid out on the texts; they remind us of the ‘fallen apple’, considered to be an inspiration for Isaac Newton to discover the law of universal gravitation. The presence of apples is a philosophical and aesthetic key for the installation. Coincidentally, the apple is also the point where an abstract idea and the real experience meet. There is a Japanese picture book, in which a boy develops his imagination by asking philosophical questions, like: ‘Is this really an apple?’ while looking at the apple on the table. At the end, he takes a bite from the apple to confirm its existence. The bite indicates a start to his new journey of questions. While the viewers of «Why don’t cats wear shoes?» tackle the children’s bold questions on the floor, they might think that apples are just apples by catching a glimpse at the apples on the questions. Contrary to the boy in the book, they might try to keep their connection to reality or common sense.
One is reminded of «Questions», the artwork by Swiss artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, where questions ranging from daily issues to philosophical concerns appear in front of the viewers. Beamed by more than 10 projectors, short questions like, ‘What is in my apartment when I’m not there?’, ‘Why is everybody so nice all of a sudden?’, ‘What percent of me is animal?’, appear and disappear on the exhibition walls. In a similar way to Fischli and Weiss, Hirose and Nagatani also try to show that everyday events and sceneries are full of deep thoughts, which could lead to opening a door to new sensibilities depending on the way of thinking.
It is interesting to note that «Still Life», a series comprised of a large number of objects made of white porcelain in the shape of everyday goods or food items, was displayed on a long table in the next room of «Why don‘t cats wear shoes?» installation at Hirose and Nagatani’s solo show in Cuxhaven. Although a plaster mold taken from an object makes it possible to reproduce the exact shape of the original, the white porcelain objects are unnaturally deformed and squashed. The texture, which is porcelain but looks rubbery, makes viewers feel bewildered. The viewers, who were guided into a thoughtful labyrinth in the previous room, experience here the space, where familiar objects are replaced with a strange version of themselves.
Now that object recognition/language analysis by AI or IoT for connecting things is developing and spreading so rapidly, the power of art seems even more essential today. Art creatively questions outlines and reasons of daily life or reality and memories, and also helps us forcefully form memories and imagination of ‘once and somewhere’ in addition to the physical sensibilities of ‘now and here’. Hirose and Nagatani have travelled between different cultures, creating works by using their hands, speculating the meanings of words, and looking at everyday items and the world before them. Their situation might influence the way I appreciate their creativity; their light and transboundary artworks, questioning the vagueness of existing values and meanings, attract me. I hope to see them further their journeys, where they create works in which memories and images go astray, make form of places, where you or others might have existed, and renewing familiar sceneries and memories.