Category Archives: Text

Claus Mewes: Opening speech delikatelinie Ermkeilkaserne Bonn

Naho Kawabe was born in 1976 in the southwest Japanese port city, Fukuoka and grew up there. The city of 1.5 million inhabitants is located on the southern main island of Japan directly across the sea from South Korea. This border area has become famous through several historical sea battles, in particular the victory of a small Japanese fleet against the numerically superior Russian naval forces in the so-called Korean Strait near Tsushima in 1905. This event is still regarded by the non-European countries today as the impetus for a new self-confidence with which the countries of Asia and Africa freed themselves from the colonial fetters of the Western powers in the course of the 20th century (cf. Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of the Empire, 2013). Fukuoka came back into the historical spotlight in 1945 during the Second World War as a target for the Americans, whose plan to drop their second atomic bomb on the city in August. It only prevented bad weather. Today, Fukuoka is a popular shopping spot for Korean and Chinese tourists coming by ferry and airplane across the sea. Kawabe lived in Tokyo from 1996 to 1999, where she studied fine arts and media art at Musashino Art University. When she moved to Germany in 2001, first to Bremen, then to Hamburg, she began studying at the Hochschule für bildende Künste under the Fluxus artist and Professor Claus Böhmler, supported by a DAAD scholarship, and graduated in 2006. Since then, she has been working as an independent artist in Hamburg with increasing exhibition activities in Germany and Japan.

The experience of oscillating between Asian and European culture is an aspect of the artistic work of Naho Kawabe. The works she presents here in seven rooms are exemplary of an aesthetic program that refers on the one hand to the abstract aesthetics of Japanese culture, which are set in black and white, and on the other to the narrative tradition of European art and its newer forms ranging from installation to photography and video. In this field, Kawabe uses the qualities of certain self-selected materials such as coal and its antithetic counterpart: light.

The material charcoal has been a trademark of Kawabe’s installations for years, between minimalist strictness and figuration. At the same time, the charcoal itself already carries meaning with special aesthetic qualities and social implications. Charcoal is a raw material that has a long history – from its traditional artistic use as a drawing pencil to its use for objects by Arte Povera artists such as Jannis Kounellis (cf. Monika Wagner: Das Material der Kunst, 2001, p. 244ff). Historically, coal is the essential energy on which, on the one hand, the wealth of the industrial bourgeoisie is based and with which social and ecological tragedies were triggered. The range of these tragedies extends from the events in the mining districts of Colorado, written by Upton Sinclair in 1913/17 in his famous novel “King Coal”, in which the inhumane exploitation of fossil fuels becomes a symbol of exploitation and racism, to the coal colonialism of our time or the current debates about CO2 emissions at various climate conferences. When Naho Kawabe was born and went to school in Fukuoka, at the end of the seventies, the coal industry in Japan and Europe fell into crisis. Since then, the Japanese government has relied exclusively on nuclear energy, with all the consequences up to the catastrophe in Fukushima in 2011, which Kawabe experienced directly, as she was in Tokyo at the time. Later she visited the disaster area twice, shot videos and took photos.

In addition to the use of coal, the topic of energy has been a focus of Kawabe’s artistic work since then. Her coal installations are temporary, because the work consisting of black dust are swept together after the end of the exhibition and disappear, existing only on photographic documentation. The charcoal powder, which the artist prepares using a coffee mill, is scattered through the meshes of lace curtains and not fixed. The figures, ornaments, signs and lines that form on the floor are the negative of the curtains used like a stencil.

Charcoal is a “primordial substance” that lay under the ground for thousands of years and was created by pressing trees and plants whose source of life was light. Coal is lightless, is a matt and seems almost dead proof of formerly vegetation. The forms scattered to the ground by Kawabe often in turn represent plants, as if the artist wanted to give the coal back its original appearance for a moment. The coal installations are also site-specific and refer to the construction and lighting conditions of the exhibition space. By the way, a biographical background plays a role in the choice of coal as a material; it should be mentioned that Kawabe’s grandfather was an engineer in mining.

With the other artworks with coal shown here, in which the black dust is fixed to glass and forms a continuous horizontal line in individual frames hung at an incline, the artist also makes reference to her own history: the experience of travelling between cultures brings the horizon as a metaphor of boundaries and their transgressions into focus in Kawabe’s work as an interface, as restriction and possibility. Behind the horizon the journey continues – behind it lies the danger. The line between land and water or sky symbolises the dangerous as well as it awakens desires (cf. Waltraud Brodersen, in: Naho Kawabe. Observer Effect, Berlin 2013). This represents the first visual link to the exhibition title “delikatelinien” (delicatelines), because the delicate is not only something appetizing, fine, but also something fragile, sensitive, possibly failing – in diplomacy the expression exists “being on the way in a delicate mission”.

The experience of different cultures has also sharpened Kawabe’s interest in the issue of restrictive boundaries and transcending movement – on several layers: The artist cuts out flight routes of various migratory bird species from the “poor material” coloured carton and hangs this outlines together on a needle, creating a complex weave of colourful lines that evoke no direction or priority. Another similar work traces the boundaries of all country borders on the African continent in coloured silhouettes. The bird flight routes with their playfully circular lines suggest the boundlessness of flight and any kind of footprint as utopia, but the silhouettes of the African states often appear sharp-edged – in accordance with their historically often arbitrarily defined boundaries on the drawing board. In the consciously provisional presentation on a needle placed lightly in the wall, the flight and boundary lines made of cardboard remain interchangeable and appear extremely fragile in each case.

Africa was already the focus of Kawabe’s artistic-philosophical reflection in 2011: using an original fetish figure of the Mbete tribe from Gabon, which is probably to be understood as the artist’s alter ego, she formulated in an interview about her search for a definition of being in the world: “I searched for the figure shown in the installation ‘Why am I here’and found it in ‘Harry’s Hamburg Hafen Bazaar’. The situation there is very strange: fetish figures from various microcosmic cultural areas with specific functions related to the respective location are unrelated to each other (…). This city and this bazaar were not their original destination. What are they doing there? Where do they come from? Where are they going? (…) The figure comes from Africa at a certain point, travels by ship to Hamburg and now stands lost, virtually aimless, on the Reeperbahn (…). There, too, it now stands around in another cultural area in a way that cannot be explained at first, becoming an uncategorised object. Travel and the crossing of boundaries is dealt with on a first layer (…). Where are we ultimately in space and time – or: does’t the issue of placelessness transport the question of existence across all present? (Elena Winkel: Interview with Naho Kawabe, in: Index 11, Hamburg 2011, p. 48f)

A combination of the issues of horizon and border is shown in the graphic that has just come out of the silkscreen press, on which a colourful cloud – again formed by some outlines of African countries – floats above the photo of Kawabe from the westernmost point of Europe. From the “Cabo da Roca”, located near Lisbon, the view of the Atlantic’s infinite expanse reaches out to America and Africa, in other words, to where the world power Portugal once sucked its wealth from. The colourful cloud on the silkscreen, which at first seems cheerful, appears above the horizon like a warning sign. According to biblical tradition, mysterious words were projected onto the wall of the Babylonian king Belshazzar during a wonderful feast, warning of the end of his life and the breakdown of his kingdom. Rembrandt created a famous painting from this tale in 1635: In the work “The Belshazzar’s feast” (National Gallery, London) the astonished king sees the evil message shining in a beam of light. Kawabe takes up the image of the warning sign and turns it simultaneously: Her light installation in the “cryptoroom” of the Ermekeilkaserne (it became the first location of the Federal Republic’s Ministry of National Defence after 1948), which was once used to hide and protect secrets, throws the shadows of the illuminated balls hanging on threads on the wall. The sentence is – here as an ironic reference very fitting – “someone must be awake”, which refers to a parable by Franz Kafka. With “Nachts”, ten years after the beginning of the First World War in 1924, the Jewish writer had described the social situation of the Weimar Republic in a concisely short eight sentences: While people lie down in their homes or outdoors in the evening to rest and feel safe, someone has to stay awake to protect the peace. The last five sentences of Kafka’s text read: “And you awake. If you are one of the guards, find the next one by swinging the burning wood from the heap of brushwood beside you. Why do you awake? Someone must be awake, they say. Someone must be there.” (Kafka, The Work, Novels and Tales, Frankfurt a. M. 2004, p. 906)

In another work, “Wandermüde”, recently shown at the Marstall in Ahrensburg, Kawabe has dealt with the odyssey of the monument for the Jewish-German writer Heinrich Heine, which was transported, mostly by ship, from Rome to Corfu, to Hamburg, to Marseille and finally to Toulon. The starting point of Naho Kawabe’s engagement with German literature and the destinies of the authors was seminars at the university in Japan and a story about Walter Benjamin and his missing black briefcase. The video shown here, “Der Weg I” from 2008, deals with the so-called “Chemin Benjamin” (cf. Waltraud Brodersen, in: Naho Kawabe. Observer Effect, Berlin 2013). The media theorist and philosopher fled from the Nazis in 1940 from Banyuls to Port Bou, taking a smuggler’s trail across the Pyrenees, which is even today the border between France and Spain. Benjamin and many other refugees were smuggled by Hans and Lisa Fittko along this old route through the vineyards of the eastern Pyrenees on the Mediterranean coast, in order to reach Lisbon across Franco’s Spain. There the exiles boarded ships and saved themselves to Casablanca, Shanghai, Havana or New York. Walter Benjamin, however, committed suicide when he arrived in Port Bou and was informed that his transit visa was not accepted. The half-hour video shows the hard climb up the mountains from the perspective of the walker, who is constantly looking down at the stony obstacles, and from the height of the black briefcase that Benjamin was carrying, which probably carried a last extensive manuscript. Kawabe held the camera in her hand searching for balance, just as Benjamin held his weighty luggage. At the same time, texts by Lisa Fittko and Benjamin, which deal with the street and walking, are underlaid with the restless shots.

In summary, at the end, a paragraph from the book “Ein Zeitalter wird besichtigt” by Heinrich Mann should be quoted, who at the age of sixty had to take the same route across the Pyrenees as Walter Benjamin. Mann’s ‘memories’ of the early 20th century make Kawabe’s bird flight lines, the worldwide boundless distribution of European bird populations and the metaphor of the horizon appear as vivid visions of human coexistence, often presented with humour and ironic distance, from which we are far removed today. The writer’s admonition from 1944 could not be more topical: “The age of crime has long failed to suspect itself. It was well-behaved, it considered the protection of each individual, not its excess tension and danger, as the right thing to do. It found it normal to trust people instead of regarding them as suspicious. It sounds strange and unbelievable, but one traveled through Europe without a passport. You didn’t need a ID to charge money. People who lived in several countries and had no permanent home never noticed any authorities, especially those who asked for their taxes” (Heinrich Mann, Ein Zeitalter wird besichtigt, Frankfurt a. M. 1988, p. 190).

Needless to say, the idea of “moving locations”, a show of Naho Kawabe’s works in this spaces in Bonn, military barrack converted into a reception centre for refugees from Syria, Iraq and Africa, was a brilliant one. I wish the exhibition many visitors.

Sachiko Shoji: Text from the exhibition catalogue “In Search of Critical Imagination”

Video can tell any number of lies. And it can also unexpectedly capture the truth. Understanding this exposes the degree of uncertainty in what we see as well as the ambiguous nature of our perceptions and memories. In the work of Kawabe Naho, an artist who got his start in video, we are at times left with the sense that there is no boundary between truth and lies.

For example, in Kawabe’s 2004 video work Sugarhouse, the first thing we see is a completely white screen that does not seem to contain anything. But after red water is poured into the space, the forms that are actually there gradually become distinct. Just as we are beginning to grasp the complete picture, a house, made of sugar cubes, instantly dissolves into the red water. According to Kawabe, “Changing something invisible into something visible is a kind of vandalism and our gaze is fraught with the danger of altering the subject.” Here, Kawabe hints at the violent nature of a gaze, but when we consider why the things that collapsed were there in the first place, we realize that the work also casts doubt on the Japanese family system. Wash Your Blues (2007) is a four-minute video work depicting a polar bear at the zoo engaged in stereotypical animal behavior. Echoing the catchphrase for the American anti-depressant Prozac, “Wash Your Blues Away,” the work shows the bear constantly moving up and down as the surrounding pool of water is gradually bleached from blue to white. To the bear, the scene might resemble a fondly-remembered landscape. While the work suggests the dark side of a life-long education facility like a zoo, if we put ourselves in the bear’s place, the world might on the one hand seem dazzling after the blues (depression) have disappeared, but on the other hand, it might also seem empty and monotonous.

Kawabe’s works contain a mechanism that disturbs our sight and memory. This is not simply a trap that leaves us feeling bewildered, but something that is necessary in order to confront us and make us notice the bustling sensations that are concealed within ordinary life. Kawabe has skillfully employed this trick throughout her career, in her videos, installations, and art objects. For example, in the installation Cosmic But Unfair #2, shown at Shiseido Gallery in 2011, a device that deceives our eyes causes us to move back and forth between the invisible and visible. The approach is the same in both Kawabe’s works with and without a light source. For the 2012 work We Are the Strangers!, the artist cut out numerous mentions of the first-person pronoun “I” from an English edition of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger and connected them together with string. Detached from context, all of these “I”s float freely. Though most of them probably refer to the novel’s protagonist Meursault, they inspire us to ponder the “I” and “we” as they relate to society with its occasionally changing aspects.

Glasses Shop, displayed in the museum’s poured-concrete storehouse, developed out of Kawabe’s use of spheres, which began in 2011. Various colors of small hanging orbs are lit with two spotlights. The orbs recall clouds, atomic structures, celestial bodies in space, or perhaps even human beings, and from only one direction, their shadows look like letters projected on the wall. Die Neige des Menschen (The Lees of the Person) refers to a phrase from Walter Benjamin’s One-way Street in which the writer compares gazes to human remains. This suggests our own experience of looking at the work as well as a cynical view of the human gaze, which can never be neutral in apprehending letters or perceiving shadows. Even when a person sees a language they do not know, they can identify the series of dots as writing. This raises questions about what distinguishes writing from non-writing. Though invisible, we recognize the existence of this “border” or “line,” which exists of its own accord. Kawabe shot his only video work in this exhibition, Pendule des Pyrénées (Pendulum of the Pyrenees), by setting up his camera near the border between Spanish and French Pyrenees, the mountains that Benjamin attempted to climb in order to cross the border into Spain at the end of his life. While there is no visible division or change in scenery between the two countries, the line had the power to obstruct people and completely change their lives. Other works such as Horizon Never Lurches, modeled on the form of a lace curtain and made with crushed charcoal dust, and Flowers and Borders also raise questions about borderlines.

Finally, Expurgation is a work made up of pages removed from various books in which letters and diagrams have been covered with tin tape. In light of recent events related to the threat of concealed information, which seems like a throwback to a previous era, Kawabe uses a physical technique to ask why writing that should exist has become invisible. The thin paper beneath the writing, sealed in metal, creates an added sense of weight and portent. Shining brightly in the strong light, the work pierces our eyes, asking what we can and cannot see, and who we are.

in: In Search of Critical Imagination, Fukuoka Art Museum, 2014

Ludwig Seyfarth: Like Leaves in the Wind. Ruins in the works of Naho Kawabe


As is generally known, the latest major natural disaster that took place in Japan was a tsunami, which even a nuclear power plant was unable to withstand. In March of 2012, Naho Kawabe photographed many damaged or extensively demolished single-unit houses in the prefecture Miyagi, which had been affected by the tsunami. Contrary to the classical viewer of ruins, without knowing how the buildings had fallen into this state, one would immediately ask for the reason for the destruction. Followed by the question regarding their fate: will these houses be repaired or torn down and replaced by new ones? The photos served for the preparation of a video film in which the camera positioned in a moving car slowly and steadily captures the remains of an almost totally destroyed small harbor town. Only a few solitary houses remain standing. The remnants of other houses have already been completely cleared away. Here, on the abandoned areas located between these, where beforehand the photographs had only depicted dust, sand, and litter lying around, a few months later numerous sprouting plants are visible. Water penetrates from the depths to the surface of the ground. Nature is retrieving the terrain that has become available again.

Naho Kawabe is interested in the partially subtle processes, the gradual changes that both physically and also temporally pose a contrast to the massive force of the catastrophe. And Kawabe captures that, which in only a few years might have entirely disappeared. Furthermore, with reference to the buildings, she does not place her focus upon representative, monumental constructions, but upon simple single-family houses and multi-dwelling units. For many architects, a vacant lot that can be newly cultivated has much fascination. (…)

But a new construction can also come across in such a manner that nothing remains recognizably visible of the past. In 2008, when celebrations of the 50th anniversary of its reconstruction were underway, Naho Kawabe visited the French beach resort Royan, which had been almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. The ambience of Royan, reminiscent of a kind of Disneyland, inspired Jacques Tati to create the movie Mon Oncle (1958), a satire on architectural Modernism and the absurdity of a technically totally engineered form of everyday life. The residential houses and hotels, which Naho Kawabe depicts in her photo series The Palms of Royan, indeed create the impression as if they were part of a gigantic film set. Furthermore, the absence of human beings creates the impression that the houses in question might not be true to size, but rather scaled-down models. This bears reference to the houses of Miyagi, which have also been photographed in such a manner that just from looking at them we are unable to discern whether they are showing authentic destruction or only the model of a simulation of tsunami damage.

Naho Kawabe shows us the world quasi in another aggregate state: not in its physical solidness, but rather in a transitory, ephemeral state, which also finds expression in her penchant for materials such as, for instance, coal dust. The ruin is not only an occasion to meditate about the past or transience as such, but rather an expression of transitoriness, of the transition from one state to another. It is not what remains in the eternal cycle of evanescence, but in itself something ephemeral that will disappear. Thus, Naho Kawabe continues to realize the motif of the house and the ruin time and again in ephemeral materials, such as, for example, in a panoramic coal drawing created in 2006 or in the short video Sugarhouse from 2004. Here, the house dissolves in a time span of four minutes. If the classical European ruin is a silhouette that stands out against the sky like a memorial, then the ruin, as it takes shape in the work of Naho Kawabe, is a fleeting trace, a calligraphic sign, which briefly appears and then disappears again, borne away like leaves in the wind.

in: Naho Kawabe. Observer Effect, Berlin 2013

Belinda Grace Gardner: The Play of Light and Shadow. Giving shape to the ephemeral: Naho Kawabe’s visualization of the invisible

„When rays of sunshine fall obliquely onto the pattern of a lace curtain, the perforations of the fabric are condensed into a graceful shadow image for a moment, its delicate structure gaining visual substance. Stylized blossoms stand out against surfaces, walls, or the floor as dark negative inversions: a brief reflex of light that manifests itself on the margin between presence and absence, substantiation and dissolution. This phenomenon has inspired the Hamburg-based Japanese artist Naho Kawabe to begin an open series of fragile floor pieces that is still in progress. In her reinterpretations of the evanescent play of shadows, she renders the ornamental structures of curtains through the no less ephemeral medium of coal dust. Permeable drapes from second-hand shops, which Naho Kawabe has collected over the years and through which she gently sifts the coal dust, serve as stencils for these works. Like black snow or pollen, the powdery material collects in the fabric’s interstices, leaving scrolling floral contours on the underlying surface. The slightest breeze would instantly obliterate the image and make it vanish. Yet, for the duration of an exhibition or in the photographic document, in which the artist additionally captures it, it has permanence(…).

In principle, Naho Kawabe uses mass produced draperies ‚that tend to be ugly, kitschy, and of lower quality‘ (Kawabe) as templates for her delicate coal prints, which, however, through aesthetic translation, transformation, and sublimation — the artist speaks here aptly of a ‘metabolic shift’ — permutate into mysterious (dream) visions: an effect that is still enhanced by the specific illumination of the works through natural or indirect artificial light, which at times lets the motifs glow as if by means of an autonomous internal source. The immaterial phenomenon of light is concretized, as it were, without which the perception and recognition of the visual, object-related reality is impossible, and simultaneously addressed in its intangibility (…).

Indeed, the coal works’ ethereal, black-and-white negative images also reveal visual parallels to the media film or rather photography. Naho Kawabe’s diaphanous adaptations of the incidental shadow play of a curtain pattern on the wall are like snapshots of briefly appearing ‚traces of the encounter with light‘ (Sadovsky 2005). Roland Barthes has defined photography as ‚an image that has been revealed, has ‘emerged’, ‘arisen’, been ‘squeezed out’ (like the juice of a lemon) through the effect of light’ and gives that, which is effervescent and has long been absent, duration as an “emanation of a bygone reality.“ The ephemeral is thus inscribed in the photograph, which according to Barthes represents “an image that has been rubbed off of reality,’ (Barthes 1980) in an essential manner. In her shadow images that bear witness to light, Kawabe subtly gives palpable shape to the idea of an image ‚rubbed off of reality.’ However, in doing so, she also implicitly questions the stability and reliability of this reality. In her potentially ephemeral coal prints, in which the gaps in the texture of the ornamental fabric become perceptible, her objective is not least the ‚visualization of the invisible’ (Kawabe): an aesthetic leitmotif pervading her work oscillating between light and shadow.“

in: Naho Kawabe. Observer Effect, Berlin 2013, p 15-24.