an interview with
Mika Tajima of New Humans
By Richard Goldstein, WM New York
Working collaboratively between sound, sculpture, video, and performance, New Humans challenge fixed notions and expectations of art. Since 2003, Mika Tajima led the group through a minimalist investigation of space expanding those very criteria. Following is an interview with her on the occasion of New Humans’ exhibition at Elizabeth Dee Gallery.
The opening weekend at the Armory Show was equal parts trade show and class reunion. The best way to navigate the crowd being through a series of tangled kiss kisses, hugs, and promises to meet up later. “Dike and Sam at Feature. What’s happening later, dear?” “Elizabeth Dee,” Cali urgently said as we were swept away. Asunder
As fast as the wings of the MTA could take me, I was down to the Feature opening unfortunately just in time for its closing.
Another crowd, this one in front of E. Dee overflowing onto the sidewalk . . . “not one more.” The bass was alive—growling out of the gallery. We slipped through the side door and dropped into the middle of a New Humans/Vito Acconci performance. His deep grumbling voice was laced within the bass. His menacing murmurs of envy and things lost were seismic. “I don’t want a cock like that, cunt like that, where's my baby, where's my brother, my father.”
A cameo appearance by C. Spencer Yeh marked the second performance by New Humans at Elizabeth Dee. The mobile tangerine and white walls were rearranged along side the long wall of the gallery making a five sectioned stage. With a bow in each hand, C. Spencer Yeh started the performance by playing the violin like a mantis. Enter the mixer, drummer, bassist, and guitarist—all riffing off of each other. Each individual quality was lost in the collective din, so it seemed at times a fragmented roar.
Dressed in white, Mika leaves her bass for the back room
-white banner with the phrase, in black repeat print, “NOT ONE MORE”
-white Eames shell chairs stacked to the tipping point
-a tower of champagne glasses).
Mika proceeds to drag the stack of chairs back and forth the back room floor, which releases a shuttering groan. The chairs are amplified. Closer and closer, she pushes the chairs towards the stemware. Timber. Glass flies everywhere to the sound of a crystal cascade. Mika gets back to her bass.
Roebling Tea Room
RG- What led you to performance art?
MT- Well, first of all I want to say I don’t see myself as a performance artist. I actually get nervous when people try to put me in the category because I see myself as a sculptor. But, the use of time based intervention that involves some kind of performative act, I see that as a way to disrupt the autonomy of the sculptural moments that are happening in my installation. It’s not so much about the performance or some specific theatricality of the event but a confusion of specifics of the installation.
RG- More pushing how you receive the object, and the possibilities of a sculpture.
MT- The whole show that’s up right now at the gallery is up for six weeks and there are really only two moments that are interruptive to the exhibition. Even throughout that time, the space is transformed. Now, there are only two weeks left of the show, and already it’s the sixth configuration of the space. Those performative moments were two distinct moments within the longer transformation of the space.
RG- They are just different periods of focus.
MT- In a way, having a performative element demonstrates another identity for the work itself. The performative act itself isn’t the work itself. It’s a constant production with the show as it constantly changes. Whatever material I have gathered from it is not like a documentation, but the thing that’s recorded, sound or visual, is just material for the next piece.
RG- It is as if the exhibition has different ways of expressing itself. You formed New Humans during your thesis project at Columbia?
MT- I did this sculptural piece that is essentially a clothing piece: a stripped rugby continuing off of the shirt in a pseudo-s&m-teen-sport-live-sculptural-piece. After the opening, I had it stretched across on the floor. But I thought for the opening, it’d be good to make a person into a sculpture and make the sound be another part of the piece. So, I got a couple friends together who play music to wear the sculpture. They became part of it and played this sound composition, which traveled across the exhibition space, 250 feet. The sound filled the gallery in this circuitry.
RG- How did you come up with the name New Humans?
MT- It sort of just came about after that project happened. Another artist friend of mine invited me to come and do a sound/performance piece. I was like, “Hey, want to get together and do it again” . . . and what do we call ourselves . . . I don’t know how we actually thought of it. There’s this funny word in Japanese that describes the youth culture now that the older people, out of a generational bewilderment, call them—“new humans.” Pretty funny way of describing something that is going to be this amalgam of all different types of things that are going to be something new.
RG- and also a bit apocalyptic
MT-Yeah, it’s like some kind of science experiment.
RG- About your process, how do your ideas start?
MT- Well, I have my own individual practice, which New Humans is a branch out of. It depends on the situation. For this show, I wanted to do a larger scale project. I wanted to be able to include different elements in the piece which included demonstrating that the sculpture could be both a structural skeleton for an overall theme while each autonomous sculpture could have its own elements going on within it. For instance, there are posters that are clipped on to the painting/print panels making them bulletin boards for someone else’s work.
RG- That destabilizing thing again . . .
MT- It’s a very tense relationship, almost an antagonistic relationship.
RG- . . . subversion
MT- And then, I was like, “I’m not going to make my own poster to put on my own panel, I want to ask some friends to do that.” Another way we destructed identities was to have these moments where we turned the gallery space into a recording studio. So in that case, I had to work with other people including members of New Humans. Basically, I start with a visual concept or idea, and that given conceptual basis determines what needs to happen next. Is it going to be sound included? Is it going to have these other elements that require other people to be involved? . . . It’s pretty organic starting from a specific concept, and we’ll see what happens.
RG- What was your motivation for Disassociate?
MT- It started essentially with looking at Godard’s movie Sympathy for the Devil. The part I was looking at was when he’s filming the Rolling Stones in their recording studio trying to capture that sound from “Sympathy for the Devil.” So he’s taking these tracking shots and seeing whether they’re succeeding or failing. The whole idea being collaboration, while playing spatially isolated/separated, to make the music make the sound . . . having all these problems and taking visual cues from that and ideas behind the Rolling Stones working together for their most popular song.
“We wanted to make the lyrics for this hypothetical song. Eventually, it really worked out well because I really wanted Vito to get back to his poetic roots, and he did that! He pulled out a lot of old material then adapted it to make it work really rhythmically.”
RG- Funny, you brought up the reference from film. Disassociate triggered my own association with film—Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up . . . when David Hemmings stumbles into a Yardbird’s concert. The audience entranced all the while the band experiences some feedback trouble, and the guitarist proceeds to bash his guitar.
MT- In a way, the audience being there while we were recording was almost incidental. People able to see us while we were working is not a traditional set up for a music show where there’s, “ok, here’s the stage area.” It’s very much where the audience feels, very in the installation. With the set up for Vito’s reading, the audience felt very awkward because they weren’t sure where to stand . . . where am I looking, what am I doing, feeling. They were almost intruders to the situation. We were recording in a studio set up, and in fact all of this was being recorded. The audience became part of the architecture of isolation . . . their bodies becoming sound baffles.
RG- And they actually helped shape the sound.
MT- Yeah, it changes the sound a lot. That day it was so packed with people we decided to record it again. We will have a closed session with nobody around so you could get a good quality recording.
RG- How did you work with Vito in coming up with the lyrics?
MT- That’s part of the idea of collaboration. We had some specific ideas about what to happen there. We wanted to make the lyrics for this hypothetical song. Eventually, it really worked out well because I really wanted Vito to get back to his poetic roots, and he did that! He pulled out a lot of old material then adapted it to make it work really rhythmically. He made his voice another sound layer, not singing per se, but a rhythmic pattern in part of the whole sound composition.
RG- His voice growing within the sound. About growth and decay, is there a social element with things growing out of control and how to maintain order you wish to address?
“I don’t know how we actually thought of it. There’s this funny word in Japanese that describes the youth culture now that the older people, out of a generational bewilderment, call them—“new humans.”
MT- I think there are elements of entropy in all the work that I do. It’s another way to show the ruptures in the process, where things go wrong, strange, fall apart, or are fine. If we look at a lot of the minimalists who I reference and investigate, there was never really any room for those kind of things to happen . . . those moments where you see finger prints on a Judd sculpture, that’s never supposed to happen. I saw this one Judd piece that was a long rectangular form on a wall, 10 ft long, and I looked inside of it. I could see exactly where the art handler or registrar had stopped dusting because they couldn’t reach with the duster to the center of the sculpture! I don’t know exactly what Judd would think, but am sure he would be appalled by the very unintentional. For me, those are the things that come out when I’m introducing all these things into the work (another poster that goes on top of my
panel/sculpture/print/rolling painting). The points where there’s tension is about finding these holes and showing these holes in the process.
RG- An open minimalism. For me, Minimalism covers a lot of the formal bits but not necessarily the content. How do you position the group?
MT- There’s this short period in the late sixties called the Deconstructionist Movement. Raphael Ortiz was one of the main players. His work was to just destroy things. Being in the gallery situation is the ultimate showroom situation for things of desire, things you can purchase. The institutional references are an obvious metaphor. But the end game of showroom formalist practice, destroying the thing you have desire for, is the next stage of the project. Splitting up the show in two segments: with the front gallery (before style, a place of constant production, before the final thing is made) and the back gallery (post destruction, to destroy the thing that is so ubiquitous, that’s both replete with meaning/symbolism yet so exhausted by over-styled everpresence) features the object as a non-object. Break it down and destroy it.