Portrait of AKI INOMATA. All images courtesy the artist and Maho Kubota Gallery, Tokyo.
Portrait of AKI INOMATA. All images courtesy the artist and Maho Kubota Gallery, Tokyo.

The Ingenuity of Nature

Aki Inomata

Also available in:  Chinese

Born in 1983 in Tokyo, Aki Inomata grew up in a “forest of concrete buildings.” She found respite at her elementary school, which was located on a verdant college campus, “a precious place where I could contact various creatures, such as red dragonflies and crickets,” she recalled. This childhood spent between urban grays and pockets of green came to inform the two entwined realms of Inomata’s artistic practice, which combines human technology and nonhuman actors to probe the creative possibilities of interspecies collaboration.

As a student at Tokyo University of the Arts, Inomata was already experimenting with ways to conjure natural elements in urban environments through sound pieces and digital projections, a layering of real and artificial spaces inspired by avant-garde playwright Jūrō Kara’s theatrical technique of shakkei (borrowed scenery). Mounted in unorthodox settings like tents and back streets, Kara’s productions melded the stage and the actual exterior world. “However, I gradually began to have doubts about the fact that my works could be just a simulation,” Inomata reflected. “I felt that I was reproducing the sense of stagnation of information society, where everything is controlled by computers.” 

Her breakthrough came when she decided to collaborate with nonhuman species, “‘co-creators’ with their own thinking.” She put this idea to the test after she was invited to participate in “No Man’s Land” (2009), a group exhibition held at the French Embassy in Tokyo as a closing event before the building’s demolition. During her preparation, Inomata was surprised to learn that the land on which the French Embassy stood belonged to France, and was being leased to Japanese developers for a new condo for a 60-year fixed term, at the end of which term it would revert to French ownership. “I associated this story with the way that hermit crabs exchange shelters,” she said. Thus arose Why Not Hand Over a “Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? (2009– ), in which Inomata used rapid prototyping to devise habitable 3D-printed shells resembling Tokyo’s houses and Paris’s Haussmann apartment buildings. At “No Man’s Land,” Inomata presented photographs of these clear resin sculptures, snugly enclosing actual hermit crabs. Subsequent iterations of this project include gorgeously detailed dwellings modeled on global landmarks, such as Berlin’s Reichstag and the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. Inomata’s cosmopolitan crustaceans remind her of “how people move from city to city . . . sometimes changing nationalities,” yet they also embody the tension between globalized mobility and essentialist readings of identity: “For hermit crabs, the shell is not a part of their own body. However, when we see hermit crabs, we identify them with their shells.” 

Of course, the pitfall of comparing our experiences to those of nonhuman beings is anthropomorphism; without a mutually intelligible system of interspecies communication, humans can only guess at the inner lives of other creatures. Despite her deep engagement with and care for her animal collaborators (projects are supported by relevant experts and research labs), Inomata is aware of their inescapable otherness. In the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which precipitated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, Inomata wondered: how might the organisms of the region’s coastal ecosystem have registered the tragedy? For Lines—Listening to the Growth Lines of Molluscan Shells (2015– ), the artist enlisted the help of Toho University marine scientists Kenji Okoshi and Masahiro Suzuki to examine the growth lines of Fukushima’s Asari clams, and transposed these grooves onto disc records so that one could “hear” the molluscs. Inomata added a caveat in her project statement: “The sound of this recording is not the clams’ voice itself. However, perhaps within the sound, we may feel a fragment of the world the clams felt.”

The thread of ecological loss runs through two of Inomata’s subsequent projects, which employ technological means of materializing extinct creatures. The moving-image Think Evolution #1: Kiku-ishi (Ammonite) (2016–17), on view in the exhibition “Broken Nature” (2020–21) at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, depicts a live octopus crawling inside a resin ammonite shell. The fabricated spiral form is based on a fossil of the extinct cephalopod, which is related to the octopus. The work “allowed a live octopus and an ammonite to meet beyond space and time . . . I think it shows the plasticity that our world has,” Inomata remarked. 

During her 2019 residency for her solo show at Towada Art Center, the artist conducted research on the extinct Nambu horse native to the historical equine-breeding region. The skeleton of the last Nambu stallion is apparently kept at the Morioka Agricultural High School. Inomata revives the animal in Galloping Nambu breed horse (2019), an animation of a gaunt ice stallion bounding across the snow.

Over the past few years, Inomata has been working with an oyster farm on a project that resurrects an old civilizational practice—using seashells as currency. On returning home from a trip, Inomata had to exchange her foreign bills for Japanese yen. Accustomed to contactless payment, the artist found the cash in her hand “incredibly ancient.” This prompted her to reflect on pre-modern shell money, which was “not only a medium of exchange, but also a way to perpetuate relationships in human society” (in some societies, a shell did not simply indicate the going price of the transacted item; rather, its value was also contingent on the set of social relations within which the shell giver and receiver were situated and their attendant obligations to one another). Inomata hearkened back to this materially and socially grounded form of exchange in Memory of Currency (2018– ), exhibited at Maho Kubota Gallery in Tokyo in 2021. Borrowing the method used in pearl cultivation, the artist sculpted miniature portraits of figureheads that appear on international currency and inserted them into oysters, which then covered the irritating foreign objects in nacre. A multichannel video installation shows these “money fossils” bearing the pearlescent visages of Queen Elizabeth II and George Washington, glinting under the sea like naturally occurring treasure. Inomata’s invented currency is pegged to living organisms, illustrating their value as well as humanity’s inextricable dependence on nature.

As one of the three finalists for the 2020–21 Contemporary Art Foundation Artist Award, Inomata mounted a solo exhibition at the Foundation’s Roppongi space in June. She presented a new iteration of How to Carve a Sculpture (2018– ), which involved commissioning beavers at Japanese zoos to gnaw on logs. Dubbed “nature’s engineers,” beavers can fell trees in minutes, eating parts and building dams from timber, mud, and stones. In the version for the 2018 Thailand Biennale, Inomata engaged Thai stone-cutters to reproduce the sculptural wooden forms created by the beavers, and then installed the replicas around a pond to evoke the semiaquatic animals’ habitat. The newest sculptures are carved in wood using a CNC-machine, an automated process that nevertheless yields unintentional rotary-blade nicks that the artist likened to the unique bite marks of beavers. The project complicates the notion of artistic authorship, as the humanmade sculptures are copies of the beavers’ originals. Inomata’s practice is admirable not merely for its innovation but also for its humility in the face of creatures whose own kinds of genius we seldom acknowledge.

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