Where I am when I am not here: Ayaka Nishi, Carsten Rabe and Jessica Leinen (Galerie Speckstraße, Hamburg)

Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber.’

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life)


‘He cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present.’

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)


In his The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes about the modes of social behaviour and how both the visible (walking, talking, eating) and the hidden practices of the everyday life (sleeping, dreaming, thinking) are responsible for the production of the city/place.[i] Somewhere in-between the perceptible and the hidden dwell multiple urban narratives and they come up to the surface when the city’s residents (permanent and temporary) unravel their readings of memory, gaze, time and places.

Expressed through different mediums, such as photography, sculptural assemblages and found objects, the exhibition Where I am when I am not here in Galerie Speckstraße in Hamburg captures the idea of distance, expressed through accidental connections and fleeting time that meet in a shared space, which is formed of many places. Crossing the boundaries of temporality, the exhibition displays a conversation between three artists, Carsten Rabe and Jessica Leinen from Germany, joined by Ayaka Nishi from Japan. It is a dialogue in the making. Creating an opportunity for a societal exchange – of art, of views, of stories – seems to be a focal point of this show, in which nowness is never completed. Instead, now constantly evolves and is formed of everyday practices: fluid, open and attentive. As Leinen, who is with Koh Yoshida (Tsukiyo to Syonen) the co-curator of the show says, its main attempt is the act of ‘becoming’ – instinctively and often indiscriminately.

Thus, the pieces exhibited capture something of a momentary experience, with their contemporaneity and curiosity that carry a potential to develop into narratives engaging on many levels (visual and personal). Inevitably, they interpret the invisible networks spread across the cities, which do not exist on any material map, but rather, they draw on personal geographies formed of the past and the future journeys. This is shown for example on the photographs by Carsten Rabe, who captures the stillness of the commonplaces. Approaching his subject matter in a detached way, he depicts kindergartens, decorative insides of the churches and the seaside scenes equally banal and interesting at once. Quiet and self-reflective, they are portraits which reveal thoughts about relationships formed through the act of looking; like in Rabe’s photographs of people taking photos of what’s in front of them, yet oblivious to what’s happening around. They are humorous vignettes of the contemporary society. Formally tailored and employing deadpan aesthetics, Rabe’s photographs play with ideas of depth and openness by hinting to the space outside the photo frame and creating a subtle linkage between the viewer, the photographer, the scene and what’s behind it.

Carsten Rabe

A more corporeal interpretation of the bonding are Jessica Leinen’s organically shaped sculptures reminding us of fragile nettings attached onto sheets of transparent foil and hanging from the ceiling. Some of the accumulated webs recollect embryos shaped by the movement of the air, suggesting perhaps the beginnings of relationships that form spontaneously with every encounter taking place in the space. On the other hand, they bring in mind the time and process involved in formatting delicate folds of the cobwebs. Stripped of colour and positioned in between the Rabe’s and Nishi’s rooms, Leinen’s display offers an interpretation of time and communication taking place almost beyond words and images. The centrepiece of the installation is a small sculpture with a short dialogue written inside its cavities:

– (Pause)  – Do you have a lighter?  – I’m a non-smoker  – (Pause)  – OK.

This understated exchange sounds like an urban haiku; the essence and the alchemy of making bonds – transformative and inexplicable at times.

Jessica Leinen

Similarly, Ayaka Nishi’s installation of around 1000 small paper boats responds to the idea of invisible bonds that appear through time and between different objects, places and people. Interested in the Japanese literary tradition of monogatari, which translates as a narrative about events: fantastic, historic, poetic and anecdotal, Ayaka Nishi employs both real and dream-like elements in her art, which could be seen as a visual poetry. She also draws on the Japanese idea of anima which Shigeo Goto handsomely defined as ‘the wonder of things’[i]. Animism supposes that everything has a spirit and this potential is revealed through Ayaka Nishi’s boats, which recollect not only multiple journeys in life but harks back also to Hamburg’s waterside location. For a brief moment we are reminded that Hamburg is one of the most important port cities in Europe. It is telling that the careful folding of the origami boats took the artist a month and she used leaflets, old books’ pages, maps, wrapping paper and other ordinary scraps of paper – each recalling a meeting, an acquaintance, a moment of being that somehow entered her life. ‘A story is born from anything’ she tells me. Spread in the gallery as a shoal of fish and secretly peeking from the gallery walls, its ceiling and parapets, the boats echo the nature’s natural movements and cast a reflection on the window – suggestive of a journey that continues outside the gallery walls.


Ayaka Nishi


The ‘movement’ of the boats lends itself to the surrounding space and forces one’s gaze to consider the history of the building and the area in which it stands.  It is apt that a show dealing with the layers of time and encounters is presented in a gallery with so much history, which is literally peeling off its walls. Reclaimed and saved in 2009 from developers by the artists and activists, The Gallery Speckstraße is now a vivid, covered with street art, 19th century listed building facing the new offices – the glass houses – of the Brahmsquarter. It is a stark reminder of the anti-community politics sweeping across the cities around the world and yet, it is also a symbol of humanism and activism. Up until now the gallery has hosted around 200 artists from all over the world and it shows through a visceral appearance of the gallery’s inside. Covered in a mosaic of leftover wallpapers, writings, holes after past installations, the Gallery Speckstraße is now a palimpsest of its past and present dwellers, fashions and ideas, of human presence and absence.




Hence, the title of the show is an invitation to look closer at the relationships between space (where), time (when) and liminality (when I am not). Despite a suggestion of absence, Where I am when I am not here is about presence formed of fragments and reminiscences. This brings in mind Edward Soja’s theory of the third space, which postulates openness to new spatial and geographical imaginations and can be described ‘as a creative recombination and extension, one that builds on a Firstspace perspective that is focused on the “real” material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through “imagined” representations of spatiality’.[iii] Humorous, touching and personal, the encounters depicted by the artists formulate a space that asks important questions about the nature of human bonds, spaces we would like to share and the narratives that dwell in the everyday.

[i] Certeau, M. D. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Goto, S. 2014. Anima on Photo: Hidden Sense of Japanese Photography. Tokyo: Artbeat Publishers.
[iii] Soja, E. 1995. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 6.






Tokyo Photographic Research at CO-OP/ Unseen Photo Fair (Amsterdam)



Tokyo Photographic Research (website soon to be launched) is heading towards its phase two, digging deeper and bolder into Tokyo’s fractured layers. Inspired by the changes in the city undergoing major redevelopment before the Tokyo Olympics 2020, the photographers shift their focus to different aspects of the urban landscapes, including the everyday, the unseen and the eradicated. The project, founded by Taisuke Koyama (b. 1978), aims at conducting a multidisciplinary study and documenting Tokyo’s new metabolisms. In addition to Koyama’s pixelated images of Tokyo’s patterns exhibited previously as Tokyo Photographic Research #01: Phase Trans at G/P gallery in Tokyo, two other artists – Mayumi Hosokura (b. 1979) and Arata Mino (b. 1987) are contributing to the second stage of the project.

The current state of technological advance allows us to manipulate images to an unprecedented degree and we now live in the era when ‘to create’ often means ‘to delete’. Cropped, filtered, reproduced and erased (REPEAT), an image becomes a self-obliterating and self-reincarnated medium. Data extracted from the old are used to create the new, and vice versa – thanks to artificial intelligence, we can recover the photographic ghosts from the past. The creative potential of such a revolution is a prevalent narrative and a method of the contemporary Japanese photographers. Through its hybridity, Tokyo stimulates a collaborative spirit encompassing all means of expression and crossing the boundaries of visual art, writings, sound and architectural forms.



Consequently, the collective’s display assisted by a manifesto presented at the CO-OP programme of Unseen Photo Fair 2018 (Amsterdam) looks at Tokyo as an endless stream of data – mutable and infinite. Hosokura’s newest image TYV #1 depicts a frontman of a Japanese hip hop band Tokyo Young Vision, while Mino shows drawings tracing the transmission of electricity in Tokyo. These wide-ranging perspectives record photographic encounters which ultimately question the direction towards Tokyo is heading. Somewhere down the line, they become inquiries about the future of Japan.

Thus, there is a noticeable shift in the young generation’s approach to photography as a subversive form of information rather than a referential idea. Born into a world saturated with imagery and its endless reproduction, the young Japanese artists embrace errors, both accidental and intentional. The process and materiality/immateriality of an image is more important than a finished product or its context. The process IS the context. In all its capacity for radical and transgressive, the new erosion-fuelled methods somewhat recollect a stream of consciousness; a continuous flow of data generated pictures, embracing multitudinous viewpoints and impressions (visual, auditory, physical). The fluidity and interruption of Tokyo’s strata, its build-and-scrap character, as well as resistance towards tradition makes this city a perfect set for such a visual laboratory. We all who have visited Tokyo live vicariously through its endless façades.

Art in Making: AIR Onomichi (Komyouji Kaikan) & Abandoned House Reclamation Project

‘Certainly, for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the

idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.’

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)

‘I believe that art is about discovery, learning, exchange,

and collaboration. Art has the power to create

experiences and phenomenological effects’.

Fram Kitagawa, Art Place Japan (2014)


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Onomichi is a small town in the Hiroshima Prefecture right by the Seto Inland Sea. It spreads along steep slopes, inhabited by numerous temples cloaked by trees and bakeries so small that one discovers them only guided by your nose. ‘Watch out for the meandering cats’ somebody warns me, and I soon learn that if pastry is on show, the cats will claim it.  One of the family run wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) shop is Tatsumiya, where I was invited behind the scenes to sample edamame mochi and where I quickly became enveloped in the scent of butter, green tea, sticky rice paste and sweet mixtures of unknown origins. Tatsumiya’s emblem is a sea horse and once again I was reminded about the proximity of the sea, which makes this place so scenic and relaxed. In 1168 a port opened here and for the next five centuries it became a centre of rice shipment and trades with foreign countries. When talking about the origins of Onomichi, Kiyohito Mikami, a local artist and curator in the Nakata Museum of Art tells me that the town’s community remained accepting and unbiased about other cultures.

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I am looking at various brochures & texts received in Onomichi, which I visited in April as a part of my research residency in Japan. Here I was introduced to the AIR Onomichi project (acronym for Artist In Residence) with its hub in the Air Café/gallery run by Komyouji Kaikan, an art initiative founded around the Komyouji Temple. Not being able to read in Japanese (yet), I only paused at English phrases and this is what I picked up:

“Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: WORKS – CONCEPTS – PROCESSES – SITUATIONS – INFORMATION”

“… by combining multi-layered materials”

“I edited it as a document with quality, such as movement of the creation site and feeling of air, established the situation of exchange and creation”

Crossroad Blues, Robert Johnson, a blues song written in 1936

Onomichi Art Crossroads

Beyond Boundaries (2017)

The inability to understand everything gives at times opportunity to focus on ideas that shine through. And when foraging through maps, photographs and my own memories of the place and its people, I am now able to create a picture of an inspired society that stunned me with its openness, engagement with the past and thirst for ‘exchange and creation’. During the presentation I gave in the AIR Café, I met Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami, artists and art educators. They asked about a book that inspired me, any unrealized project dealing with utopia and my most current concern; questions suggesting curiosity about my relationship with the world. I also met art students, who shared with me their works: crafted, reflective and experimental. I was lucky to meet Fukuda Megumi, a photographer from Hiroshima, who planted hundreds of artificial red tulips around the country house that once belonged to her grandparents. She titled it Eternal Garden (2003). My views on Japanese photography were challenged by Akira Yasuda, a professor at the Fukuyama University, whose own photographs are seminar on light, form and tenuousness of the quotidian. Indeed, the AIR of philosophical and empirical investigations into the world fills the Onomichi’s historical landscape.

traditional tatami room I stayed in
The view from my room
Onomichi’s hills

Every year AIR Onomichi invites artists from around the world to participate in their residency programme. The scheme coincides with the Abandoned House Reclamation Project, an ongoing renovation (2007- ) of derelict houses scattered around Onomichi’s rolling hills. The number of vacant houses in Japan is rapidly growing and some say that by 2020 there might be almost 10 million of such properties.  I stayed overnight in one of these renovated homes and woke up to a breathtaking view lit up by the sun (and an empty house just in front of the window). Often left behind by the elderly who can’t cope with the town’s vertical layout, the dwellings have been slowly reclaimed by  nature. Seeing them as a legacy of the past and a hope for the future, they are used for the artist residencies, projects and performances. One of such initiatives is ‘Organizing Abandon’ in collaboration with Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman (b. 1973). By scrupulous collection of literally everything (from wooden beams to ashes) found in the ruins of a former greengrocer, Sulaiman acts as an archivist unravelling the unknown stories to map her own narratives. Blending Malay and Jomon culture, astronomical observations, carpentry from Indonesia and new materials, the project turns into a conversation about multiculturalism and histories of the others that become ours. Deconstruction is being replaced by enrichment through participation and interpretation.

The map of the Abandoned House Reclamation project
Pictures of properties before and after renovation
former greengrocers
roof tiles leftovers
Pencils found in the greengrocers

Onomichi’s artistic scene is driven by multi-layered debates, intellectual inquiry and experimentation. Arts are thriving here, whether they are visual, literary, performative or architectural. One could say that AIR Onomichi, or maybe even the Onomichi’s society are an experiment themselves. Being artists and art teachers, Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami place the emphasis on cognition and investigation. The process of unearthing something and the path to understanding are productions of art too. Art’s place therefore is not only in the galleries and the exhibition venues, but it also belongs to the playing ground, garden, studios, laboratory, kitchen, inquiry and the infinity of try and error.

Japanese art critic Arigo Tsuguchi writes in his short essay To Create Everyday Life that ‘art doesn’t really exist somewhere in isolation separate from our lives’ and adds that ‘we can understand “art” as an activity of creating a new way of life and an investigation of the (possible) ways of life/or the world we live in’. Here in Onomichi art does come out from the institutional walls into the surrounding fields; and vice versa, the ways of living implicate artistic perspectives. The possibilities of such collaborations are endless, and the walls come down creating an open stage; borderless and beautifully unpredictable. In this way, Onomichi’s artistic collaborations remind me of situationism with its spontaneous mapping of the everyday geographies.

And that is precisely why standing at the crossroads with the blues in one’s ears is as artistic as any portrait by Cezanne, readymade by Duchamp and Jack Kerouac’s poem. It gives us choice and makes us alive. Thank god for journeys and intersections!

AIR Cafe


Bridge connecting the seaside with the hillside













* The review is a result of  a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation







Kyoto is Life: International Photo Festival Kyotographie 2018 (Kyoto)



I am visiting Kyoto and Japan for the first time ever. I was never going to be objective about the land of the Rising Sun because – as shallow as it sounds – this is Japan; a distant country that has fascinated me for quite some time. At the beginning, you can’t believe you are here, remaining fooled by the beauty of the temple gardens, the sound of the gongs and the grassy scent of the matcha tea. After a period of a sheer disbelief, the curiosity kicks in. Your senses become spongeous, absorbing all things big and small: the linguistic expressions, the order in disorder, the invisible movements, the organic rhythms, the in-between colours and tastes: delicate, opulent and often indescribable.  Some things are different here, some are pretty much the same as in ‘the West’ and everything is either overwhelming or underwhelming (but in a good way). Bear with me. This is a story of Kyotographie 2018, the International Photo Festival taking place in Kyoto right here and right now.

This UP-beat impression of the city might have been stimulated by the Kyotographie’s inclusive character. With its fifth edition and a theme of ‘UP’, this young photo festival has been growing into an influential enterprise which prides itself not only on rediscovering the established artists and noticing the most talented ones, but most of all on showing thought provoking themes. As Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi, the festival directors say, the main concern of this year’s programme was to stimulate and to provoke, which perhaps eventually may lead to a change: in looking, thinking and understanding the world we live in. I also sensed that the idea behind the ‘UP’ leitmotif is to stay alert and not to become immune to the things that do matter, whether they are local affairs or global issues.

To rise UP

To wake UP

To show UP

To make something UP

To blow UP

To look UP

To set UP

To keep UP

but not to give up.


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With this message, Kyotographie touches on the national Japanese psyche strongly bound with societal responsibility, historically placed here beyond and above the individual. Concurrently, there is a clear allusion to a national stagnation – both economical and sometimes cultural. Kyoto, as an old capital and a beacon of Japanese tradition remains as unchanged as it possibly can, protecting its unique ways of being and seeing. Even its geographical position surrounded by mountains gives it an air of a protectionism. Being different can be risky here and both Reyboz and Nakanishi have been determined since the beginning of the festival’s life to open the city up onto new trends and influences. Remaining unchanged becomes with time a false comfort. Promoting diversification, openness and, most importantly – curiosity about the other is what makes this festival so powerful and relevant. Especially at times when the world needs to stay UP and together.


Being a photo festival, Kyotographie definitely delivers on the visual side with its programme rich with striking exhibitions that linger in memory for long, whether it’s a documentary about fashion (Jean-Paul Goude, So Far So Goude), images of the workers from a local wholesale food market (The Hatarakimono Project), Stephen Shames’s photographs of Black Panther’s protest in the 1960’s or a photo document about the richest teenagers on Earth. Kyotographie is constantly opening our eyes onto the world’s most impending or exciting affairs through its main curriculum, which is accompanied by KG+, the festival’s satellite event that aims at providing a networking platform for emerging photographers, curators and writers. A plethora of talks, screenings, guided tours and performances take place across the city, rejuvenating it and making it a celebration of photography, arts and passion for life.

Moreover, Kyotographie aims at providing a more unique understanding of the city through the choice of the venues, which the attendees have to find by meandering across Kyoto with a map. Take for example the exhibition Flowers at Their Fate by Yukio Nakagawa, an ikebana artist that fashioned his own form of this traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. Perceiving flowers as humans, he understood that when cut and artificially composed, flowers – just as people – become devoid of life, remaining rather symbols of death; however seductive and elaborately composed. The photographs of the flowers and vegetables occupy the interior of a Ryosokuin (Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto) and face a beautiful vegetation of the garden outside the windows. Tradition and modernism sit side by side here, forming an irresistible dialogue on the perils of beauty.



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Then we reach the Sazanga-Kyu (a former Ice house), an abandoned space which is as claustrophobic and disquieting as the exposition of Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World. Presenting a personal effect of the flooding across the globe, he inevitably comments on the endangered ecosystem and the fate of our planet. Filmed from the water surface level, the recordings of the submerged streets and houses inhabited by people ploughing through the high waters, the audience very soon becomes a part of the narrative: hopeless and discomforting. This is additionally heightened by the darkness of the ice house, corroded and filled with the stench of damp. Another display in the ice house challenges us to face the Irreductibles by Alberto Garcia-Alix, portraits of the outcasts, who dared to live differently and cherished the freedom of expression (political, artistic and sexual). The use of rough interiors stresses a tender and compassionate attitude of the photographer towards his sitters. His humanity and sincerity prompt questions about our own openness and acceptance of the unfamiliar.

Afterwards we visit a retrospective of Masahisa Fukase Masahisa Fukase: Play in a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse typical for Kyoto’s downtown. Later we follow onto the Former Printing Plant to view the Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield, where the lingering smell of ink plays on the blackness of this vast underground space. The humid, suffocating scent of the interiors play on the leitmotif of the money and wealth, displayed so unashamedly by the characters on the photographs. The golden path guides us around the show and the overwhelmingly vast space, ornamented with rusted pipes, hand written notes and red alert lights; remnants of life, work and money which all once inhabited this place.




In this and many other ways Kyotographie remains an inclusive and enriching experience, which does not forget about the past, but forces us to investigate the present and to be vigilant – but also to look forward to – the future. Always onwards. Always upwards!



*Exhibitions & venues

















The essence of Kyoto



* The review is a result of  a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation


Research in Japan, Day 1 (Ashiya City, Hyogo): Why Ashiya?

Day 1, Ashiya (Hyogo Prefecture)

A shuttle coach took me from the Kansai Airport (Osaka) to the location of my residency. Here I will be exploring Japanese art and aesthetics with the assistance of Tsukiyo to Syonen, a small private art gallery in Ashiya, which aims at cultural exchange between Japanese and European artists.  With their help, I will be looking at imagery and its relationship with the everyday. I will be asking questions about how? and why? and who? and what?

But before all that, I arrived at Osaka Bay. Greys, blues and haze rolled outside the shuttle car windows and I was mesmerised; or maybe just sleepy after the whole flight adventure. Osaka Bay was subtly monochromatic. Mr Whistler would love this.


Ashiya is a small but irresistible city. Perfectly trimmed, leaning on the Rokko Mountains on one side and attached to Osaka Bay on the other, it is a heaven for those who wish to unwind, walk in a blissful silence or just look at everyday life passing by. No one is rushing here, there are more bikes than cars (what is a car?)

and there are more walkers than bikers. If any…


Arriving in the middle of the week and almost at the dawn helps to experience the everyday of this small city (approx. 100 000 inhabitants). The hidden sign posts are peeking out from the bushes; discreet reminders that ‘You are politely asked not to park here’. Lotus root is in season and so I grab a truly informative leaflet with recipes from a local CO OP (convenience store). Ume mochi (plum mochi) are on sale, as ume season is over. Do not despair though, as there is always a season for something. Eat lotus. It will be gone sooner than you think.



Ashiya’s quietude is basking in the sun and cherry blossoms developed hastily this year. Apparently, I have just about missed the sakura watching craze which culminated last Sunday. There are still some ‘pikunikku’ goers (traditional way of celebrating the event) around and they are catching the last glimpse of the falling petals. The everyday of this city is unhurried but amusing. And are small things of value here? Of course they are.

Fact-of-the-day: Ashiya is the only city in Japan that has banned gambling and gaming centres.


It might be then pretty difficult to believe that Ashiya is a place where the experimental vigour of the Gutai Art Collective gathered in the 1950’s. Artists revolted against the conventions, stagnation, sleepiness and the sky*. Instead, they used force, movement and industrial materials to express the uncertainty and fuzziness of their surroundings. They went out onto the streets to perform art. They held an exhibition in the local Ashiya Park (just round the corner) and became one of the most important contemporary Japanese art movements. All of us, who know Gutai would recognise some of the most iconic images taken in the Ashiya Park. One could say that Gutai woke Ashiya up!


There are more surprises to Ashiya City and its surrounding (Kobe):

Haruki Murakami was raised here.

One of Junichiro Tanizaki’s (who was inspired by Kansai region) books Makikoka Sisters is based in Ashiya … and his memorial is here.

Tadao Ando designed a plethora of beautiful buildings around here: Shibata House (Ashiya), Takanata House (Ashiya), Koshino House, 4 x 4 House (Kobe), Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Kobe), Rokko Housing (Kobe) and plenty more.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s (a collector of Japanese art who inspired Tadao Ando) design Yamamura House is here.

Yoko Ogawa (contemporary writer) simply lives here.


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*A loose paraphrase from Alexandra Munroe.

* The review is a result of  a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation


Indefinable Cities (AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, 10 April – 16 May 2015)

A city is a place that has been described by many, but still remains indescribable. ‘Indefinable Cities’, a new multi-media exhibition at AirSpace Gallery situated in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent draws on the city’s inexhaustible character. It tackles not only the subject of how a city can be represented in art but also illustrates how the relationship between the artist and the ever-changing city evolves, and the ways in which artists inhabit new places and spaces. The show is the result of a project led by Stoke-On-Trent based artist and AirSpace curator Anna Francis and Japanese curator Koh Yoshida, representing Tsukiyo to Syonen, an artistic initiative from Osaka. The exhibition provides an international dialogue between two artistic sensibilities and practices married by one multidimensional theme: the city and its possibilities. With Stoke’s post-industrial landscape outside the gallery’s window and the quietude of the gallery space, we are transported to a dream-like land; an in-between shelter filled with pictures and stories constructed by three Japanese – Ayaka Nishi, Hirofumi Suzuki and Daiki Murakami, and three British artists – Emily Speed, Ben Cove and Rebecca Chesney. Two countries, six artists, endless possibilities.


We find such interpretation of the city in the art of Ayaka Nishi, who often works with discarded objects, such as in ‘Trace of Night’ (2009), a copper etching plate on board reminiscent of a glistening night sky. For the exhibition she has produced ‘Measuring Memory’, made of collected fragments of pottery scattered around Stoke-on-Trent, the capital of the British ceramics industry. Some broken pieces are reconnected with wire, reinventing an object that was once abandoned, forgotten – now lovingly reanimated. Placed side by side in the gallery’s small alcove recalling a Victorian mantelpiece, they encapsulate ideas of excavating as well as storytelling present in Nishi’s practice. Working also on archaeological sites in Japan, the artist often accompanies her trinkets with meticulous handmade drawings that add to the authenticity of her art. They form a dialogue between old and new, outside (where the items were found) and inside (where they find their new home), public and personal.

Similarly, Hirofumi Suzuki’s work presents spaces that blend private and public. His ‘Diary of a Stranger’ consists of a selection of drawings, some of which depict street views in Osaka, and others strangers on trains. Despite keeping a distance from the subjects, Suzuki captures the intimacy of the city with all its details of densely populated streets. The trees, the buildings and the pedestrians drawn from different perspectives over a period of time, provide a glimpse into the flux of the urban environment.


While Suzuki focuses on depicting the city in its very centre, Daiki Murakami ‘performs’ his vision of an almost utopian city construct titled ‘Manifesto for a Free Town’. The word ‘performs’ is not accidental, as the artist is known for working across many media (cartoons, drawings, installations, videos), in which performance takes a central role. For ‘Indefinable Cities’ Murakami has produced a large-scale wall drawing of a tree existing in a perfectly symbiotic relationship with inhabiting people. This paradise-like vision is accompanied by a ballot poll where visitors can vote for Murakami running for the ‘mayor of art’ in his Free Town. Despite raising serious issues of how people can create a sustainable city and what it means to be a socially engaged artist, Murakami’s art remains funny, touching and extremely engaging.


Next to the Japanese group’s art, characterised by a certain raw immediacy, the three English artists taking part in the show seem to represent a more conceptual vision of a city. Emily Speed, whose art – just as Murakami’s – also harks back to the idea of a shelter, draws primarily on the relationship between architecture and the body. In Speed’s work these ideas create a space that is the sum of such encounters, used as the palimpsest of things that hide and facades that perform. In this, constant overwriting and the covering of old layers by new ones reveals glimpses of an inner life. Speed’s video ‘Garbuglio/Tangle’ (2015) inspired by a recent residency in Rome is a beautiful peek-a-boo depiction of flesh, stone and cloth, which blend one into another, revealing the sheltering character of architecture. This is emphasised by a soft fabric curtain made by the artist, comprised of convex quilted diamond shapes.


Ben Cove also touches on the relationship between architectural constructs and internal spaces, but his work is characterised by the legacy of Modernism expressed in abstract forms and a sculptural language. For the exhibition he has created the installation ‘Look-See’ (2015) consisting of paintings, oak frame-like shelves and photographs that come together as a protruding façade – a screen with fragments of formalised thoughts projected onto it, or a half-emptied museum cabinet. Just as the title suggests, Cove’s piece balances on the idea of the in-between space that is neither in, neither out; the invisible area created by the relationship between the image and the thing itself.

The more natural aspect of cities is represented in the exhibition by Rebecca Chesney, whose art explores the impact imposed by humans on nature. Chesney’s works may be sombre and subdued in form but they are full of life that is written, imagined and heard. This very sensorial approach is reflected in her ‘Melodies 1, 2, 3 and 4’, a series of four simple pencil drawings depicting geometric shapes, accompanied by recordings of birds singing in Preston and legends (location, weather conditions, etc.) produced in relation to the specific city locations. The drawings, as well as the artist’s videos of roofs inhabited by birds, bees and ants invite us into a state of close observation and a focus that exposes the unexpected activities and qualities of these places.

Indefinable is a word that carries a huge potential. It means everything and nothing. It can be indescribable and ambiguous, but also subtle and transitory. The city’s state of flux is mirrored in the variety of media selected for the exhibition, creating a multi-sensory experience. The works feel like six different stories that, with the help of visual, written, oral and sensory language, speak about spaces and their inhabitants. As a result, the show echoes Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, a book made of brief descriptions of imaginary cities that exist on an emotional rather than a physical basis. These municipal constructs are formed of encounters, memories and ruins. The stories create cities of an ephemeral atmosphere, because, as Calvino notes, ‘cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else’.