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Mika Tajima on Materialising Mood and Intangible Energies

Mika Tajima on Materialising Mood and Intangible Energies

Mika Tajima’s debut solo exhibition in the UK, Regulation, is currently on view at Simon Lee Gallery, London.

New York-based conceptual artist Mika Tajima materialises the intangible forces that surround us in her paintings, textile works, sculptures, and installations. Her series of works presented in Regulation immortalise the transience of technology, revealing the ways we are controlled, changed, and contained by the systems built around us. How do we understand the effects of digital technology when the pressures they exert are invisible? Tajima’s works weave together immaterial concepts with tangible materials to help her viewers visualise the ways in which ineffable forces penetrate our psyche, shape our desires, and influence the way we live. The layers of metaphors in her works serve to articulate and interrogate our built environment. Drawing from science, architectural design, acupuncture practices, and emotional data, Tajima bridges the gap between how we are governed, and how we can exercise agency over our lives. She uses mood as one of her materials to create a liminal space between our exterior and internal worlds. Meditating on Tajima’s works awakens the viewer’s senses: her practice forces us to become conscious of our lived experiences, understand the fluidity of our identities, and regulate the flow of life’s energies.

Since she received her MFA from Columbia University in 2003, Tajima has received international acclaim and her work has been widely exhibited. Her exhibitions have been extensively shown at art galleries and museums, including Centre Pompidou in Paris, Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, Bass Museum in Miami, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Sculpture Center and PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, and she was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. 

Can you tell us about your background, and what drove you to become an artist? 

I was born in Los Angeles, and both of my parents are scientists. My dad is a theoretical physicist and my mom is a geophysicist, so science has always been a big part of my upbringing. But since I was little, I have always made art and drawings. 

While I never pursued science academically, my art practice interrogates the physical world—how power is manifested through matter, energy, and force. In my artwork, I contemplate how the built environment and the spaces around us affect and manipulate us.

Installation view, Mika Tajima, REGULATION, April 12 – May 8, 2021; Simon Lee Gallery, London. Photo: Ben Westoby. 

We love your current solo exhibition Regulation at Simon Lee Gallery, London. What do these series of works mean to you? 

The title Regulation is a play on the idea of control: how the systems around us attempt to systematize, standardize, flow, maintain, soothe or govern us. I’ve been thinking about the metaphors of energy as an intangible force that can affect and control the body—so much technology has been used to optimize our physicality and our psyche. Each work in this exhibition represents an interpretation of the idea that this intangible energy can represent freedom and subjugation simultaneously. For instance, I incorporated acupuncture in my work to show how forces we cannot see or completely understand have a way of controlling the body’s energy flow. Similarly, we don’t completely understand or know the way digital technology influences us or shapes our minds, but it’s definitely internalised and it dictates how we move about the world.

Mika Tajima, Meridian (Gold), 2016, installation view in Hunter’s Point South Park, New York. Courtesy the artist and Taro Nasu, Tokyo. Photo: Yasunori Matsui.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I consume a lot of news, and I think about how things are affecting us personally and societally. When I consume the news, I digest how it affects me personally, but I also think from a place of empathy. I make works that respond to what’s happening around us. There’s a lot of advancements and change that we take for granted, without really understanding how they’re affecting us. I want to focus on the moments or situations that we almost blindly accept, break them down and bring certain conditions to light.

Negative Entropy is a series of woven portraits patterned after sound waves taken at production sites. Can you tell us more about these textile works? 

Even before the pandemic, we were already experiencing a rapid shift into the digital life. And now that we are in isolation, there are even more limitations imposed on our bodies and the physicality of the world. We are also witnessing an intense geopolitical climate, and an increase of disembodiment.

Negative Entropy represents the contradiction between the immateriality and the physicality of our lives. To create these, I visited production sites, and recorded audio of various productivity—of machines, people working, etc. These audio files were then translated into visual spectrograms and then woven into textile. These are acoustic portraits—almost like a snapshot of an active moment, and they speak to the idea of death and obsolescence. I tried to capture those fleeting moments and immortalise them. Dematerialised labour and work are woven into tactile, physical objects in the Negative Entropy series. 

Installation view, Mika Tajima, REGULATION, April 12 – May 8, 2021; Simon Lee Gallery, London. Photo: Ben Westoby. 

There are so many layers of metaphors in your works. For instance, Pranayama (Monolith, E, Rose Quartz), 2020 is punctured by jacuzzi jet nozzles in the configuration of acupuncture pressure points, echoing your previous work, Force Touch, 2017. Can you tell us about this work and what these jet nozzles symbolize for you? 

I created this work with Rose Quartz: it’s a beautiful, mystical crystal, but it also has technological purposes for time-keeping and has piezoelectric properties, which means it holds and releases energy by force. I punctured the Rose Quartz sculpture with jacuzzi jet nozzles in a diagram of acupuncture pressure points.

The jet nozzles symbolise the idea of invisible forces or air pressure—something that can be felt but can’t be seen. They represent the invisible pressures that surround us, and the energy forces that push against our bodies. 

Mika Tajima, Pranayama (Monolith, E, Rose Quartz), 2020. Rose quartz, cast bronze jet nozzles © Mika Tajima; Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.

We love that many of your works evoke a multi-sensory experience. Can you tell us how the Art d’Ameublement series draw on colour and music to set the mood of a space?

This series resulted from my research on how modern architects like Le Corbusier instrumentalized colour and painting for architecture. Le Corbusier had a library of colour palettes for his buildings, and each colour was designated for a certain usage—bedrooms, kitchens, libraries, and so on. This idea that visceral things like colour and paintings are used to evoke mood or purpose really struck me. 

I worked with a fabricator to make the shell forms, and then painted them with different colours. The title Art d’Ameublement refers to Erik Satie’s Musique d’Ameublement, which is a genre he termed Aural Décor, meaning music as the background for other activities. This echoes how modern architects thought of colour: an element that sets up the background for other activities. Similarly, art sets the tone for a space. 

So in this series of paintings, I wanted to break it down to these basic elements: paint pigment and surface. Each person has a different relationship to different colours. And the surface of these works are glossy, so when you’re looking at the painting, it’s a complete abstraction of colour, except for your own personal reflection on the glossy surface of the painting. You become the background of the painting. Each painting also has a subtitle of a deserted island, so you can create an image in your head of this deserted island. While the other series in the show are about capturing the energy and forces around you, this series is the opposite. These paintings give you freedom because they’re a reflection of what’s inside your head—unreachable, unknowable, and intangible.

Mika Tajima, Art d’Ameublement (Karake), 2020. Spray enamel, thermoformed PETG. 182.9 x 137 x 2 cm.

Anima is a new series you created for the show. What was the inspiration behind these glass vessel sculptures?

I wanted to work with glass because it has the unique characteristics of being simultaneously liquid and solid, it’s clear, and it’s formed by air. The sculptures represent organic, biomorphic forms, such as bodies, organs, cells, and other alien forms of life. Anima means life force or breath in Latin. In yoga, it’s all about the control of the breath, of life’s forces. I love the idea that glass is shaped by someone’s breath. I’m fascinated by what we do to contain and control life’s energies.

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Installation view, Mika Tajima, REGULATION, April 12 – May 8, 2021; Simon Lee Gallery, London. Photo: Ben Westoby. 

You work with an incredibly wide range of materials, and you recently said at the Hawaii Art Summit that you have started to incorporate mood as a material. Could you elaborate on this? 

Our psyche, our mood, and our sentiments are being targeted by technology, which influences us and shapes the way we live our lives. A concrete example is the previous US elections, which showed how much power sentiment has: it can literally change the course of history. Trump was not elected based on policies or facts, but based on how people felt, which was targeted through technology and social media, such as Facebook, fake accounts, and trolls that changed people’s realities and sentiments. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the new economy is based on how much you can change people’s feelings about something. I am fascinated and fearful of the power of technology, and I’m working with data scientists, technologists, and programmers to create new artworks that are interrogations and meditations of using sentiment data—otherwise, mood—as a material.

Mika Tajima, Art d’Ameublement (Les Aiguilles), 2020. Spray enamel, thermoformed PETG. 182.9 x 137 x 2 cm.

How has your Asian heritage shaped you as an artist? 

Particularly in this moment, I’ve been questioning the power of identification, as I think the implications have been made very evident with this pandemic. Suddenly, borders and nationalities really matter, and there is heightened racialised violence and injustices such as anti-Asian sentiment because of geopolitical events such as the pandemic, the rising power of China, growing income inequality or immigration from the global south, etc. 

What does one’s identity actually mean, and who’s defining it? Questions like these have always been in the back of my mind as an Asian American or Japanese American. There’s always a questioning of belonging and authenticity that is tied to my Asian identity. Technology has made identification an imperative part of our lives. Companies use our data to identify us, and it’s a way of categorising who we are. It makes me wonder: who is doing this identification, and what agency do I have within this? I find there’s power and agency in self-identifying, where you can voice who you want to be, such as being transnational or self determining one’s gender expression. Identities are complex. I like having the agency to be opaque, and not allowing somebody or something to tell you who you are. 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Meditate.

Installation view, Mika Tajima, REGULATION, April 12 – May 8, 2021; Simon Lee Gallery, London. Photo: Ben Westoby. 

Are there any artists who have especially inspired you?

There are so many, but the two that I often go to are Vito Acconci and Charles Atlas. Both of them are fluid in the way they work, and they are artists who create borderless artwork. 

Anything exciting in the works for you?

I’ve been working on a permanent installation for Dazaifu Tenmangu in Fukuoka, it’s one of the oldest shrines in Japan. They have commissioned me to do several artworks—one outdoor piece and a few indoor pieces for their museum space. This project deeply connects with my works around energies, control and freedom, permanence and time. While a lot of my other works have been about the speed of time, like Negative Entropy which was about the quickness of technology, these works will be about time that is elastic and long. This is a permanent installation that will be there forever, and it’s at a sacred place that’s already been around for over 1,100 years. It’s really exciting to work on art that speaks to timelessness and permanence, especially when everything is so fleeting. Experimenting with technological and elemental materials for something that will be permanent has been so much fun! For example I’m using a phosphorescent mineral—something from the Earth that absorbs and emits energy, and glows in the dark—which will become a meditation platform in the garden of the Shrine. The works will be shown next May, and I will also have a solo show at my Tokyo gallery Taro Nasu to coincide with the opening.  

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