Review: The Floating Word

Exhibition Dates: 4-20 May 2017
Webb Gallery and Project Gallery
Queensland College of Art

Words by Annelize Mulder

The properties of cultural identity are paradoxical and elusive. The question of identity takes its most delicate and barbed form when a sense of belonging is in doubt.1 - Spatial Aesthetics, Nikos Papastergiadis

The intricacies of establishing roots in a new place are fully understood once the journey is undertaken. Global borders have become fluid and many people find themselves living in a place with a foreign passport tucked away in a drawer. The initial euphoria of living in a new country wears off and reality sets in. Gradually the emotional and psychological distance between past and present places grow. It is inevitable that the relationship to people and places change. Migrants often cling to familiar cultural practices and memories to maintain a sense of self as displacement allows questions of identity to surface.

Fig. 1
Mika Nakamura-Mather, Dimmer and dimmer, fewer and fewer, 2015, Kiritame boxes, timber, transparency photo sheets

The latest exhibition of Mika Nakamura-Mather is the culmination of work presented for her Fine Art Doctoral assessment. The Floating Word is installed across two exhibition spaces showcasing nine artworks produced over the last four years. Nakamura-Mather originates from Japan and her work echoes her experience of displacement. Her Japanese culture is prominently featured in her choice of materials. The fragmented approach and repetition convey the artist’s complex relationship with migration and a persistent attempt to decipher it. Dimmer and dimmer, fewer and fewer (2015, fig. 1) is an installation of Kiritame boxes arranged according to sizes. The wooden nesting boxes that are traditionally used as food storage or serving containers are filled with small timber blocks. Each block contains a photo transfer relating to Nakamura-Mather’s life reminiscent of a child’s building blocks. Nakamura-Mather also uses Cypress Masu boxes in Lifebox (2017, fig. 2) and The Floating Word (2017, fig. 3). Masu boxes have been used for centuries and originally used as a measuring cup for rice, soy sauce and a vessel to drink Sake from. In Lifebox 2017, the Masu boxes are treated as small lightboxes with transparent photo images. The small lightboxes radiate a dim light and are packed tightly into cardboard moving boxes. The Floating Word 2017 is an installation of tatami mats, a coffee table and four Masu boxes. The Masu boxes contain English and Japanese text embedded in resin. Both installations evoke a sense of preciousness. In Slipping away (2014), Japanese Kyogi strips form a long flat scroll with photograph transfers. These thin transparent strips are shaved from pine or cedar wood and traditionally used to wrap and preserve food.

Fig. 2
Mika Nakamura-Mather, Lifebox, 2015, masu boxes, cardboard, lightbox, dimensions variable

Fig. 3
Mika Nakamura-Mather, The Floating Word, 2017, masu box detail

Nakamura-Mather’s use of multiples, fragments and photo transfers illustrates her attempts to grasp hold of memories and ties to home that are slipping away. The use of Kiritame, Masu and Kyogi references traditions of serving and preserving food. Cultures are most prominent in the food we share and associated with family gatherings. Nakamura-Mather uses these materials to suggest the preservation and nurture of memories with a poetic approach. The small photo transfer blocks inside the kiritame boxes and the masu lightboxes are neatly packed into the respective containers. It seems like a controlled and calculated method to order the memories. However, The silent sadness of Decay Theory (2015-17, fig. 4) suggests the haptic and fragile nature of memory. Timber pieces with photo transfers are installed on the wall and floor. Some wooden pieces have squares cut out, leaving a gaping hole. Smaller pieces are scattered on the wall and floor to reiterate the fragmented nature of memory and belonging. The challenge of holding on to memories are revealed and in contrast with the neatly packed blocks and boxes.

Fig. 4
Mika Nakamura-Mather, The silent sadness of Decay Theory, 2015-17, detail view

The instability caused by displacement is experienced by most people at some point. Migrants grapple with the meaning of home and belonging, often not finding only discovering tactics to navigate this complex terrain. The repetition of shape, materials and faded images suggest Nakamura-Mather’s persistence to articulate the effect of displacement on her life. Nakamura-Mather allows the audience into her connection to home, culture and memory. Telling the story of the bond we have with place and how it infuses who we are.

  1. Papastergiadias, Nikos. 2010. Spatial aesthetics: Art, place and the everyday. London: Rivers Oram Press, 51