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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?

Mei Kazama: This is a photo I took in Japan. I was sitting inside of a cafe right by a train station, where a bunch of tour buses come by as well. The buses all have strange names, and this one was called “Dream.” This was my view inside the store looking out, and as I’m sitting at a table waiting for some food, just the word “Dream” very slowly passes by the storefront window as the bus drives by. I took a video clip of it too. 


Tony Wei Ling: It looks like a painting, for some reason? Like a gouache drawing.


Mei Kazama: Yeah, I could see that! It’s also the first time I put a photo in an installation piece. 


Tony Wei Ling: I like that this installation is also its own mini-gallery space, but doing away with white walls. It has a whole experience that a white gallery does not, when you enter it.


Mei Kazama: I have a tendency and desire to put my works and viewers in a space that provides an actual physical alternative space and context. For me personally, it's also really hard to see my works—not just visually see them but also emotionally see them—when in a whiter space.


Tony Wei Ling: Is that wider or whiter?


Mei Kazama: Whiter. [Laughs] Both physically and contextually . . .

Tony Wei Ling: Your work is also often very small. The biggest things are usually the structures that you build. So it is like building a home where you can see these things properly, then. Because I feel like big gallery space or big studio space is much more geared towards larger, louder work.


Mei Kazama: That’s true, the works themselves individually are small, and this is often because I create smaller explorations during the times I don’t have a studio space which I then build upon or incorporate into larger-scale pieces. Also, space-making has always been an important part of my practice, and the desire to create and cultivate spaces that provide a kind of quiet comfort, warmth, and care that is not always accessible.


Tony Wei Ling: Have you always been drawn to doing small objects? It seems like you're also interested in collecting small objects. 


Mei Kazama: I do like collecting things, as much as I am able to. Smaller scale was a necessity, again because I didn't have a studio space for a while until this year with BRIC. But also my process has always been about piecing together. Whenever I make something, it's often with the thought that it will be returned to and explored further at another time when combined with or placed next to something else, so that also likely relates to my scale tendencies. 


Tony Wei Ling: And these plants are kind of a new motif for you, yeah? Where did those come from? It's like everything is sprouting.


Mei Kazama: Wow you’re right everything is . . . and I didn't realize it so explicitly until just now.


Tony Wei Ling: There's this piece with the pumpkin [actually a persimmon!] with the pinwheel coming out of it, and then there's those flowers and then the kind of out-of-order leaf sprouts.


Mei Kazama: Plants are definitely becoming a larger part of my work, especially since learning more about family crests and situating my investigations within generational trauma. The repeated motif with the three leaves speaks specifically to this. And this pinwheel, it might be one of my favorite things from this installation piece. [Laughs]


Tony Wei Ling: It just seems like it's inherently funny.

Mei Kazama: I think a lot of my work can give off humor, especially at first glance. This specifically references pinwheels found at Japanese temples. When I went to Osorezan, which is a temple and landscape known as a sacred space between here and the afterlife, there was an incredible number of pinwheels, and they made this ominous hissing sound whenever the wind would hit. That’s something that really stuck with me. 


As for the persimmon, where I was in Japan, many homes dried persimmons in the winter. When I walked down the streets during the transition from fall to winter, I saw strings of persimmon hanging in people's parking lots, entryways, window frames. Actually that photo [on the studio wall] shows some.

Tony Wei Ling: Oh, what? I never would have thought that those were persimmons. 


Mei Kazama: Many people who have persimmon trees, when they have too many, will create this really delicious treat. It's a very tedious, labor-intensive process, where they carefully peel the persimmons leaving just the stem intact, tie and connect them to a string to hang, and massage them regularly during the drying process. The first one I tried was offered to me by a woman who dried her own persimmons who became a good friend of mine during my time in Japan. Most of the objects I reference are also things that were offered to me by people important to me in my various communities. I spend time thinking about different ways you can receive and envision physical and bodily care and how I build connections to the people and places that provide me the access to see myself. 


Tony Wei Ling: You've sometimes talked about Them [the head sculptures] as being ancestors or elders, but then also sometimes They were children. I don't know how that connects exactly, but that feels connected to me. 


Mei Kazama: They are both and all and everything in between, offering the different lenses I need to see and envision other spaces and relationships. 

Tony Wei Ling: I know I bring this up a lot, but I love the story of Laylah Ali getting freaked out by these heads. 


Mei Kazama: She was pretty creeped out seeing them all gathered in the corner of my studio. I was like, “But you made a whole extensive series of paintings of heads . . .” They're comforting for me. Scary for others. They're cute to some people.


Tony Wei Ling: How do you feel about cuteness and gentleness? Since there's often something really cute but unsettling about your installations, as well as the individual pieces.


Mei Kazama: Cuteness is a word that I am still figuring out, because the most immediate reaction to my work has been, “So cute! Oh my god, it's so cute, just like you,” and I'm like [stony face]. 


In terms of people's reactions to my work, but also in my own life, I'm usually labeled as cute. Since I was really little and even now—"You're so cute." People will just touch me without asking, which is not okay. I’m still figuring out exactly how it exists within my work. I wouldn't ever deny that my work is associated with cuteness, because it is in relation to it, but I can't name yet how it’s functioning and how it's coming into these themes, like alternative domestic spaces, comfort, care.

Tony Wei Ling: I remember we both read Sianne Ngai's chapter on the cute. But it feels like the work that Ngai talks about has a more direct relationship to cuteness. It's more just like, "Oh, yeah, it's cute, but it'll bite you." Or, "It's cute, but it's threatening." Your work isn't that, and that's always been both confusing and interesting to me. 


That's why I'm interested to see where we'll go with aesthetic theory on cuteness next, because your stuff is stranger than the dynamic within the artists that Ngai talks about. There's an element of confusion there—that maybe there's some aspect of cuteness that Ngai hasn't yet figured out either, but that you're getting at, or heading towards.


Mei Kazama: That’s a good point, right, because the things that she's talking about are really directly cute—like those cute frog sponge objects she writes about—in the sense that they’re made to be cute. But I don't make my work intentionally trying to make it cute.


So I would agree with you that it's less direct. And I also think that if my work is given a little bit more time, people might realize that it's not just cute.


Tony Wei Ling: Yeah. I feel like it's actually hard to coo at your work and say, "Oh, it's so cute," probably because one of the ways you structure it is this intense cleanliness and minimalism to it, which makes it feel like even though it is a domestic space-especially with this installation-there's something very clean and orderly about it. So it's like, "Don't get comfy." Even though it is often about comfort in some way. If this were cluttered or arranged very differently, it'd be easier to see it as cuteness only. Or purely. But your clean and boxy aesthetic counters that.


Mei Kazama: I guess the bareness might feel a little stoic. 


Tony Wei Ling: That's a good word for it.


Mei Kazama: Or maybe it's more a little bit reserved, might be another word—or a little bit contained.


Tony Wei Ling: Reserved, contained, stoic feel almost right. Because I feel like Ngai talks about the cute object as offering itself to you. And these are kind of offerings in a way, but not in the same way. Not for consumption, not for squeezing.


Mei Kazama: Yeah, I think Ngai is more talking about cute objects that are unprotected. They're out in the open, you know? Anyone could squeeze them. But I'm definitely about protection and the objects—or this structure and space—knowing what it is to offer protection and to be aware of protection. 


Tony Wei Ling: That's a very different kind of threat, too, because for Ngai the cute object's threat is that it'll-I don't know-bite you or multiply or somehow go out of control. But this is under some different and sometimes spiritual guardianship. The kind of threat of like, "Oh, if you harm it, something will happen," which feels very different than that out-of-control cute object.


Mei Kazama: And it's not a physical harm, right? Because the ones Ngai talks about will bite you; they look cute but like, “Look at its fangs.” Cuteness and physical forms of violence don't go hand in hand for me either. I think it is more of a spiritual threat.


Tony Wei Ling: Do you know where you want to take this work next? Or does your intuitive process mean that you're never going to think that many steps ahead-you're just feeling out what you're working on right now?


Mei Kazama: I definitely want to see through the drawings, which seems to be shifting into a series of drawings. The intention of seeing these through is about seeking alternative domestic spaces that expand their structures of belonging. How can we think about domestic spaces in a way that can hold, for example, both rituals of ancestral communication situated within gendered norms, and alternative modes of relationality situated within expanded notions of lineage. The commitment to seeing these drawings through also pushes me to continue to sit within these blurred and messy but rich spaces, to sink deeper into the complicated in-between climates in ways I have not held myself to be within before. 


Another thing that I'm continuing to work through is how personal all these references are, but how they will make larger connections in a way that doesn't sacrifice that personal narrative. It’s important that this type of work I’m making has different access points. I don't make this work just for myself, although it is a lot about me figuring out all these different things from my life. At the end of the day, I do see these as being ways of envisioning alternatives for others who also need that kind of space and possibility.


The work should be—or will inevitably be—read as opaque to certain audiences, which is not a problem for me. It's more for those that I want to share this work with, and want to communicate with through this work. It’s about how I can offer those points of connection. 

Tony Wei Ling: I like that we came back around to offering.

All images courtesy of Mei Kazama

Mei Kazama (they/them) is a multimedia artist from New York City. Their work investigates objecthood, belonging, and alternative modes of relationality. They seek and imagine spaces where past, present, and future meet to create other structures of protection and care that center the liminal. They have exhibited their work in various spaces in both the U.S. and Japan. They have also worked as an arts educator at various nonprofit organizations, public schools, and cultural institutions, and their teaching centralizes and empowers those most vulnerable by bringing together art and critical thinking to develop long term self efficacy. Mei holds a B.A. in Studio Art with honors from Williams College. 

Tony Wei Ling (they/he) is a comics critic, teacher, and community hotline operator living in Los Angeles. They study contemporary fiction and comics at UCLA and are a managing editor with Nat. Brut.

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