Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.
From insects to natural disasters, there are fears about the natural world that we humans harbor, despite the shelter provided by our built environments. Acknowledging her own fears, particularly that of bugs—perhaps deriving from the social conditioning of urban life, Sunroom Project Space artist aricoco investigates a micro-existence, then recreates it on a macro-scale. From looking closely at the systematics of ant colonies to making carnivorous plants from found fabrics, her practice has also developed a performative aspect. She often creates uniforms or armors from various everyday materials, which become a kind of “second skin” that both shields and disguises.
After receiving her BA in International Legal Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo, Ari Tabei, or aricoco, as she prefers to be known professionally, left Japan to attend Brandeis University, where she completed a post-baccalaureate program in Studio Art. The artist is based in both Tokyo and New York City, where she is now in the Visual Artist Residency at BRIC in downtown Brooklyn. In a chat in her new studio space, the artist discussed her practice materially and conceptually, in preparation for her exhibition in Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space. Her installation is on view from July 25 through September 7, 2015. Make sure to attend her Artist Talk on Saturday afternoon, July 25, and hear more about Survival of the Weakest. Her Artist Talk will include a one-time performance on the Sun Porch.
Danni Shen: What is your view on the relationship between nature and culture? Between tradition and “contemporary”?
aricoco: I’ll use the two diagrams reproduced shown here as references. For me, we have cultures inside of nature; nature is all around us. We can’t escape it, and culture, as in human society, is trapped inside. There’s always a conflict, or tension, between the two, because culture has destroyed nature in many ways, and nature can also pose a threat to humans.
DS: You mentioned being trapped.
aricoco: I think that’s just my reality. Nature is around us, and we don’t know to what extent. We just know we are a tiny part of the whole, which seems frightening to me in a way. I think tradition also falls into culture. Traditional culture, in the second diagram, always has to do with human history. It’s something we inherit from our ancestors and carry on into the future. So if you have an ancestor, you have a tradition you must carry. As for the contemporary, it is born inside of tradition, and tries to break out of it. Sometimes it’s a fusion, or sometimes they fight against one another.
DS: Your performances are often about enlarging and becoming a part of environments that include bugs or plant elements, but you’re also very fearful of natural surroundings. What do you hope to achieve in creating your work, for yourself or for your audience?
aricoco: I feel like I’m never trying to achieve anything, or rather that I can’t. I think making work is to question myself. It’s an existential question of where I come from, who we are, what being human is about and how I can survive this world, or my reality. It’s also about the audience; how can we do it together? So when I perform, “I” becomes “we”. I want to share the same questions. It’s a never-ending quest. I’m trying to acknowledge my fear, which makes me realize that I will be okay, and that I can live with it. It’s not about healing myself, or trying to conquer my phobias. Some people may see this fear as a problem, but for me, it’s not necessarily a problem. It’s just the way I am, and I try to acknowledge that. In trying to become what I fear through performance, I try to fool them [the insects] in order to protect myself.
DS: So in a way you’re trying to assimilate?
aricoco: Right, in disguising myself, I try to conceal my identity. That way, I can be invisible so they won’t dismiss me, or even interact with me. It’s not that they’re welcoming me, but I’ve become a part of their system without them knowing me.
aricoco: So many bugs invade our houses and pervade the environment. It’s something you can’t seem to escape, that’s why I’m afraid of them. But to be honest I don’t even like grass, or trees or mountains. So on the macro-level, something like a natural disaster would be even more horrifying.
DS: The process by which you create is very labor-intensive. Is there something particular about the act of making something with your own hands that is interesting to you in relation to the ideas you are addressing?
aricoco: I wouldn’t say I intentionally make things to look labor-intensive. I’m not even sure that’s an important part. It’s just my reality. I’m a poor immigrant. If I had tons of money, maybe I’d have someone do my work, like collecting materials, touching up, creating the finish. So it’s just how I live right now. Certainly there’s a meditative, or rather calming, quality to it. It’s also another way to get to know your materials, so I can manipulate them better.
DS: What influences your work?
aricoco: I’m drawn to fabrics. If I was to pick something from my own culture, I am very interested in kimono; the color, texture and the way people wear it. It has a discipline, and is very ritualistic. Growing up, my mother would wear it. And I started wearing one myself, with different materials, of course. I always go back to that. So a lot of my work involves creating a second skin by wrapping some kind of garment around myself. Right now, I also have this interest in insect colonies and how they’re formed. It’s very systematic. Queen bees aren’t really “queens” they’re just super-organism baby-makers. It’s the reverse of a hierarchy in that way. In general, my practice is also informed by everyday actions and materials. I find ritual to be very interesting, all the things we do to survive in this world, the simple actions. Ultimately, I don’t want to say I don’t like nature, because it’s a part of everyday life. It’s beautiful! I just fear it out of respect, since we’re an inseparable part of it.