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