Catalogtext in: “Why don’t cats wear shoes?”, 2020
Sometimes Words Are Enough
There is a shimmering of letters. They are arranged next to each other without any gaps. Fine lines frame each individual letter and create a lattice of squares. Is it a conventional crossword puzzle? Not by a long shot. The flat letter fields are part of a spatial work by the Japanese artist duo Nana Hirose and Kazuma Nagatani. The two of them have drawn a silver capital letter in serif script on each floor tile of the Göttinger Künstlerhaus. Every now and again there’s a red apple on one of the fields. The reflections of the mirror foil dance on the walls and ceiling of the room. In order to understand the meaning of the string of letters, you have to move about the room and focus your attention on stringing characters together, until your mind and body have understood the message line by line. Little by little, individual words, even sentences, are unlocked, and it becomes clear that the coded text is a series of questions.
Why is the sky blue? Why is there war? What does the wind do when it’s not blowing? But wait: “The sky is not blue at all,” – is a retort that might form in your mind. And an immediate explanation for the meaning of war is not easy to find. The questions with which Hirose and Nagatani confront visitors may seem childlike at first glance, but they often carry profound meaning, such as when addressing topics such as the finite nature of life or the social inequality of rich and poor.
In fact, the questions originate from children. The two artists researched them on the Internet, compiled their own catalogue of questions, and then arranged the final selection in the exhibition space. They placed each letter made of reflecting foil on one of the previously existing tiles and dispensed with spaces. By choosing this setting, the two succeeded in restructuring the exhibition space and the reception in a special way. Instead of arranging so-called flatware on the walls or objects in the room, their work extends across the floor. The gaze of contemplation is directed downwards and constantly wanders from one character to the next. The layout of the text forces visitors to move through the room. Thus the physical activity of the recipients becomes a constituent part of the work. The fact, however, that there is no coherent text and that readers are instead confronted with questions evokes a special kind of dialogue. The questions invite viewers to deal with their content in a very personal way. Some of the apparently banal or uncomfortable themes are ignored by some, while they might entice others to linger and let them sink in. Some questions will be on a visitor’s mind longer, and they might even take them home and carry them into their everyday life, where there is generally precious little time for devoting oneself to these small and big themes of existence. In this sense, individual readings are created – on the one hand through the selection of questions, and on the other hand by subjectively complementing phrases or completions in the shape of answers – either in the mind or in discussions with others.
It becomes clear that Hirose and Nagatani, who compiled this text collage using other people’s words, emphasize the role of the viewer in the reception of their work, while at the same time marginalizing their own role, even though they are the authors. This impression is reinforced by the fact that it is necessary to step into the work in order to fully grasp it. While this mode of reception can be regarded as an established tradition in the art world, it still remains an ‘irritating’ one. In this context, a group of floor works created by the American minimalist artist Carl Andre has attained an almost iconic status. When he began to create extremely flat sculptures from walkable rectangular slabs of various metals starting in the mid-1960s, his aim was to enable a new experience of space and sculpture. In contrast to Hirose and Nagatani’s work, the focus was less on intellectual self-reflection, but rather on sensitizing the viewer to space, materials, light and the influence of one’s own body on the ensemble. The latter concept is clearly cited in the work of the artist duo, which chose to use reflective mirror foil as the base material.
Ever since Andre’s first floor works, artists have repeatedly addressed the question of accessibility or touchability of their art. The idea that art has a special aura and is therefore ‘untouchable’ runs counter to Andre’s installations, and yet today it would be unthinkable to step on an original exhibit created by the artist. In her work Sea Sick Passenger (2014), Rosa Barba, Professor of Fine Arts at the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen, where Hirose and Nagatani studied, has emphasized this conflict and expanded upon it by including a textual level. A monumental square area of 450 x 450 cm rests on the ground. It is perfectly illuminated from above, such that only the rectangular object stands out brightly in the otherwise dark room. It is made of dark felt and is decorated from top to bottom with an embossed continuous text. The intense lighting endows it with a sublime aura that prevents visitors from entering it. However, this would be necessary in order to read the text line by line. Thus, the recipient has no choice but to wander around the large text field, all the while trying to extract meaning from the object. This becomes an almost impossible task and provokes skipping lines and skimming passages that are located in the center of the square – making the task of reading very difficult, which may cause many spectators to give up at some point. The narrative text is broken down into individual parts and becomes a unique fragment in the reception of each individual onlooker. Similar to Nagatani and Hirose, individual perceptions of the text, which are further encouraged by the movement and reflection of the reader, are at the core of the observer’s experience.
Unlike Andre or Barba, however, the artist duo has included another object level in their installation. As is a common theme in their works, the two artists integrated food or images of food from our everyday lives into the installation. The apples, which are positioned here and there on the typeface, create an additional thematic dimension. They serve as a reference to the astronomer and physicist Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who, according to the famous anecdote, was inspired to explore gravity after observing an apple falling from a tree. Why does the apple fall vertically, rather than sideways or upwards?
Questions about the curvature of a banana or the origin of ocean waves allow us to briefly depart from the habitual, worn tracks of everyday life. Experiencing everything again for the first time, seeing it afresh with the eyes of a child – these are romantic desires that arise in some people when they reflect on their own routines. Hirose and Nagatani offer us a space for experiencing this without resorting to big images or elaborate effects. Sometimes words are enough.