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Little Sacred Objects

An Interview with Mei Kazama by Tony Wei Ling

Mei Kazama is a multimedia artist interested in the homes that objects have. Their installations often resemble small dwellings for even smaller objects, which together live in the overlap between the sacred and the domestic. Visiting those dwellings as a human visitor feels sometimes quietly miraculous, sometimes tangibly unsettling. 


Although Mei and I have been in conversation for many years, this interview during their 2019 BRIC residency was a sort of reunion—a welcome re-entrance into their careful, deliberate, and deeply intuitive art/thinking. At the time of our conversation, many of the drawings we discuss were still in progress; the images below show their now-finished form.

Tony Wei Ling: I did write down some questions, but we can also just talk. I like this drawing series a lot-this work is a lot more dense and busy than I expected.


Mei Kazama: Yeah, my previous drawings were faster and visually simpler. That's also something new for me too; I'm thinking more densely. The pacing and the way of visual processing is also new.


Tony Wei Ling: It seems like it has to do with the textile patterns, too-what makes this one busy is that it all looks like different kinds of cloth. 


Mei Kazama: I am thinking a lot more about spaces of comfort and general softness. This [installation] is built with felt—it's the first time I worked with fabric in this way. And then these textiles here are embroidery that I'm learning. It's a traditional embroidery technique called kogin-zashi from Aomori, Japan. 


Tony Wei Ling: It's funny because I feel like your work started out being very integrated-like all of this would be part of one installation. Now you're separating it out and exploring the same themes and images differently, even though they're all still related.


Mei Kazama: When I make installations, everything starts out separate, and I'm working across a bunch of different mediums and through smaller ideas and projects, and then eventually it comes together. I always feel like my installations are opportunities for me to connect the dots between my projects.


One way I think about it is that all the individual works are my notes, different paragraphs; an installation like this one is the essay. The installation is a chance for me to bring everything together.


Tony Wei Ling: You've said that these drawings feel like a shift because they might be the destination themselves, not part of an installation. What does it change in your process to think of it that way? 


Mei Kazama: I feel like the whole process is different. First, because the mediums that I'm using here are colored pencil and gouache, and both are slower mediums. I’m not used to spending so much time on a drawing, but the slower pace also affects how I approach and process motifs, objects, and structures present in my work. The slower pacing forces me to sit with for longer periods of time what I’m investigating, and find different ways to move within the questions I’m asking. Sometimes I'm like, “Is it taking you over?”—like taking over the intuitive making of drawing. But I think these drawings are still a large part intuitive, because the juxtapositions and compositions are intuitive. 


So the foundational process in one is, I would say, the same, because I know the questions that I'm asking and the themes that are important to me and I don’t work with an extremely specific end result in mind. 


Tony Wei Ling: What are the questions that you feel like you're asking?


Mei Kazama: More recently, for the past two years or so, I've been focusing a lot more on domestic spaces. I’m wondering how I can simultaneously honor genealogy and cycles of return while reimagining domestic spaces and the relationships and structures of belonging that exist within those spaces. I’m also wondering how I can use memory—in all its iterations—as an important environment for knowledge in this process. Finding alternatives to structures of belonging is a large part of my work right now, whether that's trying to realize it in a 2D form or trying to create a physical space that allows for that.


Tony Wei Ling: Is this an unstructured studio space, or do you have a table where you're usually drawing?


Mei Kazama: Yeah, that's my work table. 


[They show me several labeled manila folders filled with printed photos, mostly doorways and roadside.]


I have a bunch of photos that I've taken, which I have been accumulating for many years now into my own archive, and I break them down into different categories. These categories are things that I'm interested in investigating in my work. For example, portals, doors and entryways, interiors, domestic spaces. These are all things from my life that I've seen in my environments, collected through research, or interacted with physically. 


These are only about a tenth of what I’ve taken. It's kind of a hot mess. 


Tony Wei Ling: It seems pretty organized.


Mei Kazama: I have these times when I will choose maybe a hundred photos to print from my entire archive, so I can physically see them. Seeing them on paper is really important to me; it's really hard for me to process things digitally. So these photos are all specific to my current projects. 


I'm starting to think about different ways I can organize this. Usually, what I do is look through the photos and then pick a couple that stick out to me that week, and then arrange them [pinned to the studio wall] so I'm looking at them everyday. I’ll pull out different photos every week or so to look at. So this selection of photos from this week, for example, it’s their turn to be looked at. They’re also always being rearranged and combined with different images and texts.


But I've been thinking about engaging with this process in a different format, so I started arranging and pasting them into a book. The main difference is that these arrangements are permanent. I'm kind of curious how this might change how I'm seeing things. Maybe remembering these arrangements and being able to look back on them might help me process in a different way. Even now—I just did this last week—I would have forgotten about this arrangement of photos already.


Tony Wei Ling: I feel like it helps put together the kind of creepy/surreal portal part of your interest with the comfort/domestic space part, which always seemed to me like a weird pairing that nonetheless made intuitive sense. It feels like you've always been interested in putting those two things together. Or maybe they already go together. But it's not exactly uncanny. 


Mei Kazama: I am interested in those two things. I envision my installation spaces as other spaces that don't necessarily have to be within or of this world—or existence. I also think of them as portals to spaces that restructure modes of protection to center those in the margins. There is also a part of them that is an escape or relief, but not a complete escape. I don't like the idea of complete escape because it feels too impossible or negligent, and it doesn't fully acknowledge that we're still here. 

Tony Wei Ling: Can you talk about the heads a little bit too? Part of what makes these places not feel like permanent escape is that they are already inhabited, often by Them. They've been a long part of your practice.

Mei Kazama: Yeah, I think they turned four years old. The heads . . . They're always shifting for me. When I first made Them, I think it was out of this longing to know my expanded lineage, because I was feeling—especially at Williams [College]—so displaced. I needed something to ground me. The heads are really helpful in that sense, providing comfort for me personally. They're always inhabiting the in-between spaces of object and living and ghost. They also speak directly to objecthood, and the subjecthood, resistance, and precedence inherent to a life of objecthood.


The interesting thing was that before I went to Japan, I started to take Them outside and bring them to different places for photos and videos. And when I went to Japan, I saw a lot of closed-eyed head sculptures in temples and shrines. I felt like I was finally seeing what I was feeling. Seeing those sculptures in Japan in very specific places and with distinct environments and moods that they're already inhabiting was important for me in further contextualizing Them.


So there’s that connection that I made. But I'm still figuring out really who They are—and what They are.


Tony Wei Ling: Has that changed since you first made Them? Especially since you've put Them in so many different contexts for those photos and videos?


Mei Kazama: It’s been a constant exploration, but they've always been spiritual object/living/ghost beings for me. Sometimes though they feel more object, more living, more ghost depending on the context they are in. 


Tony Wei Ling: Can we enter the installation?

Mei Kazama: Yes!

Tony Wei Ling: I love this block. It's like children's blocks, with the soft corners. And the hiragana-or I guess katakana, too.


Mei Kazama: Yeah. I realized later that it looks like a children's block.


Tony Wei Ling: Wait, was that not what you were thinking??


Mei Kazama: Not quite. So at every shrine in Japan, there's always some kind of animal—usually a dog or fox—on each side of the gate. I was noticing that the one on the right side always has its mouth open, and the one on the left side always has its mouth closed. I learned that the one on the right represents the "ah" sound, the first sound in the Japanese alphabet, and then the one on the left represents the "nn" sound, the last sound of the Japanese alphabet. It symbolizes the cycle of life and death.


Tony Wei Ling: That's awesome. And I love having one block for both.

For me, it makes the head that sits on top of it a little creepier, because I start to imagine their mouth opening and closing. The block suggests that it's breathing: "ah," "nn." What I would also say is that it makes sense that you recognize the heads at shrines and temples, because your process has always been about collaging things out of their context and into new contexts. That's, you know, what that is-the photos and the drawings. 


You seem like you're really interested in the elements of architecture, not necessarily the whole system of a house or interior, just these moments. And putting them in a new place in order to make a new place, which is what I really like about this.


Mei Kazama: Yeah, that is definitely a large part of my process. And maybe another reason why these drawings are really challenging for me is that there are so many—too many—different references that I’m bringing together and layering, and with each one I'm negotiating how to carry the histories and climates that it holds in imagining these alternative spaces. Even though I'm putting it into a new context of my drawings, a lot of energy is devoted to making sense of and connecting the dots among all these different contexts.


Tony Wei Ling: It's hard with these because a lot of these motifs are things that are circulated around the world because they're popular brands. So even if I don't always remember what it is, I recognize it from stores. Like-what is the name of this character?


Mei Kazama: It's the character from the logo of the Japanese candy, Milky. 


Tony Wei Ling: Yeah. And then this juice box—or drink?


Mei Kazama: It's bubblegum! The Marukawa brand fusen gum I’d receive as gifts when I was little. 


Tony Wei Ling: Oh, God. Okay. Yeah. There's like a recognition that's like sub-being able to name what it is. With the exception of the Coca Cola can. That might also depend on who's looking at it, too. 


Mei Kazama: Yeah, there are definitely different access points for different people. 


Tony Wei Ling: And it seems almost like the opposite process to these embroidery pieces that you've been doing on the squares of fabric.


Mei Kazama: How so?


Tony Wei Ling: I think because these [embroidery pieces] are pre-determined compositions, right, that you're not feeling your way out as you do it. Even though it's still an intuitive kind of work, it seems like you have to decide on this before you've made it. What is that like? Especially since there's a lot of small detailed labor to both of these processes, but in very different contexts. How have they been different for you? Or do they do different things for you?


Mei Kazama: What you mention is the obvious difference, but repetition always plays a large part in my work. And so this [embroidery] is more of a meditative repetition, because it is a stricter system that I'm following row after row. But these [drawings] are more like a fluid repetition, or process of iterations. When I'm working on a drawing, I do sometimes switch between them; I’ll be drawing for a little bit, and I'll do embroidery for a while. It helps my mind reset.


Tony Wei Ling: I just noticed that [this embroidered design] is kind of like a house.


Mei Kazama: [Laughs] I did design that one with a house-like structure in mind. All of these embroidered patterns also have different meanings. I'm still learning the different meanings of the patterns and symbols in kogin-zashi. For example, this one is the pattern for the turtle's shell; it symbolizes longevity. And this pattern is supposed to reference the spots on the back of a baby deer, so it's protection. Normally, the embroidery is a uniformly repetitive pattern across the whole textile, but I tried creating a composition for this one with the house, which I’m still experimenting with.


Tony Wei Ling: Do you know why you've placed these photos in these places along with these drawings and embroidery pieces?


Mei Kazama: Photos that I juxtapose next to the drawings and my other work are always changing. If you’d come last month there were probably like twenty different ones scattered all over this wall. I usually put the photos next to the drawings based on something that corresponds either visually, contextually, or energetically. It’s a two-way relationship where they each inform the other and help me consider further the questions I’m investigating.


[We go inside the pink felt installation room.]

Tony Wei Ling: I feel like this is all about ruminating back on both the source material and the recomposed thing. What is this image?