The artist Mami Kosemura creates work that blurs the boundaries between art and its environment. In the case of “Pendulum,” her recent site-specific exhibition at Dillon + Lee gallery in New York, the conflation between artistic intervention and the architecture that frames it began outside the front door. Dillon + Lee is situated in an early-nineteenth century townhouse that was built by the American writer Clement Clarke Moore, author of the well-known poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; it is located on a residential street, and its historic character has largely been retained both inside and out. This distinguishes Dillon + Lee from many other nearby Chelsea galleries, which are housed in contemporary or modernized buildings. For Kosemura, whose work explores the nature of memory and the effects of passing time, the site was fortuitous. In “Pendulum”, which was the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Kosemura exploited the layered historical significance of the building in both overt and subtle ways that revealed themselves through retrospection, over time—similar to the way memory itself unfolds.
Kosemura was born in, and lives in, Japan. She first traveled to New York City in 2016 for a yearlong residency with Residency Unlimited in Brooklyn; all works in the exhibition were made in the city during this period. For materials, Kosemura culled mysterious objects from detritus on the street or from thrift shops throughout the city. They consisted of both organic and inorganic matter that included handcrafted items made of metal, wood, or stone, or found pieces of bone or plants. Some objects, such as glasses or teakettles, are utilitarian; others are broken fragments that, in their useless state, emphasize the decorative aspects of antique items. Together, they formed the subject of a photographic still life series titled “Objects—New York” (all works 2016 unless otherwise stated), which
was partially hung along the left wall of the townhouse’s narrow and dimly lit foyer.
Kosemura works primarily in the mediums of photography and video; however, her work investigates the aesthetics of painting as well as the multisensory experiences of interactive art installations. “Objects—New York” consisted of small editions of color Giclée prints featuring well-worn objects meticulously arranged along a table draped with a white cloth, and shot in shallow perspective against a deep black background. The objects collectively offered a range of opacity and texture that enlivened each composition. Kosemura’s stylization of this particular series, which spoke to seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas still-life paintings, cleverly recalled a history of New York City in the 1600s, when it was a Dutch colony.
On the right side of the foyer, a sweeping staircase lured visitors to a dimly lit upstairs level, where the series continued, alongside larger black-and-white photographs that featured still-life arrangements covered with a wet cloth. This latter series, titled “Drape” (2013), was not officially part of the exhibition, but it is worth mentioning here as a counterpart to “Objects—New York.” The wet material clung to the three-dimensional contours of the underlying objects, yet, paradoxically, once photographed, it flattened the sense of perspectival depth. Using this simple gesture, Kosemura thereby transformed her standard motif from a hyperrealistic style to a more abstract, painterly one.
The actual objects in the photographs could be found throughout the gallery, arranged in niches along the curving plaster walls of the staircase and in the center of the exhibition’s eponymous work, Pendulum—a video installation that filled a darkened front salon on the second floor. Kosemura appears to have treated each object with equal care, choosing its placement in consideration of its relation to the original carved plaster moldings or parquet floors of the site. This measured detail suggested a precious quality inherent to each object as well as to the overall installation, as if one misplaced item might disrupt the synergy of the whole.
Roaming in solitude down a narrow hallway—the space was remarkably devoid of customary gallery staff and office equipment—one encountered Pendulum in a room with stunning architectural detail: French doors with etched-glass panes, an original marble fireplace, and two grand mirrors in ornately carved, built-in frames above the mantel and stretching floor to ceiling between two shuttered front windows. Kosemura exploited the physical qualities and historical implications of these architectural elements, by imposing on them ghostly moving images and actual candlelight from a candelabra positioned on a central table, alongside selected found objects and voluminous lace fabric. Overhead, a string of crystals taken from a chandelier was vertically suspended from the ceiling, like a plumb line or the titular object of the installation—a pendulum. A chair occupied one corner of the room, and a cluster of assorted found objects was arrayed on the floor in another.
The 20-minute video that constituted the essence of Pendulum featured 360-degree footage of the room in which it was installed. The reflective panes of the two mirrors were covered with a thin, adhesive film that functioned as a type of movie screen. Two small video projectors mounted discreetly and precisely above the doors allowed Kosemura to project moving imagery precisely within the boundaries of the mirror frames, the way a reflected image would appear. This produced a sense of disorientation, an effect which was heightened by the appearance, in the video, of slight variations from the actual space, as it was experienced in real time by the viewer. Occasional glimpses of shadowy figures flashed across the surfaces of the mirrors—Kosemura’s young daughter could be seen running through the room or asleep in the chair, and the artist herself was represented by hands polishing the glass panes of the French doors. To describe the effect as haunted would not be quite accurate; rather, it was a benign space that seemed to exist in multiple spatial and temporal dimensions. The presence of the youthful child, for example, spoke to the biography of the artist as well as to the whimsical aspects of Clement Clarke Moore’s holiday poem.
For this exhibition, Kosemura integrated actual history and fantasy to explore the function of subjective memory within a priori structures such as physical architecture, or social norms such as souvenir-collecting. In this way, Pendulum, as an installation, transcended the room in which the video was displayed, by implicating features of the entire townhouse and even the history of New York City. Kosemura responded to her environment with both micro- and macroscopic focus, as a living and multi-dimensional location for her site-specific work. In so doing, she brought attention to the notion of constant change and whether a still life can ever truly be “still.”