From the metamorphosis of her creative process to the immersive inclusivity of her large-scale installations, Eiko Nishida’s artistry emerges as a force that challenges conventional boundaries. In a recent interview, I delved deep into the avant-garde realm of conceptual and participatory art with Nishida.
Nishida’s commitment to community engagement and the profound impact of audience interaction within her projects injects a dynamic energy into the arts community in New York. Unveiling the temporal nature of language and its symbiosis with broader themes, Nishida’s artistic ethos resonates as a beacon of inspiration in challenging times. My conversation with Nishida not only captured the essence of her practice, it also thrusts readers into the vibrant pulse of an artist unafraid to redefine, reclaim, and reimagine reality.
Clare Gemima: Eiko, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your recent showcase at Tutu gallery, and your larger practice in general. Your artistry has evolved from drawing to three-dimensional explorations, and further into social practice. How has your creative process transformed over the years, and what aspects of your professional background have significantly influenced this evolution?
Eiko Nishida: Thank you so much for this opportunity, Clare. I still draw as a study when I start sculptural projects, and I see the components influencing my site-specific work as drawing lines; lines in two dimensions eventually become more volumized as objects, and this happens naturally. My practice gets fueled by all types of encounters, and I value communicating with stakeholders during the production in and outside the studio. The term ‘social practice’ may sound hard to understand, but I believe it’s actually quite simple. It’s a fundamental human activity that encourages the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and information with others, and enriches people’s lives overall. Social practice activities appear as all sorts of art forms: participatory work, installations, performances, music, poetry, debates, cooking, or even throwing a party.
The group show at Tutu Gallery is curated by AGORA, a curator duo made up of Dylan Seh-Jin Kim and Samuel Sunghyun Kim Moussan. They, and the gallery owner April Z, allocated a perfect place—the backyard with a big tree—to exhibit my piece, a series called Message On A Bark, which I’ll talk about later. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity and am happy to see the audience interact with over 200 hundred pieces of bark I had made specifically for the show.
Clare Gemima: Your work is known for creating inclusive platforms that transcend barriers of gender, age, skills, and nationality. Could you share insights into your approach for ensuring accessibility and engagement in your large-scale, site-specific, and often interactive sculptures? How do you balance the universal appeal while addressing specific contexts?
Eiko Nishida: Everything has two sides with a broad spectrum in between them, and it can all be subject to change. I am curious about things in general, and long to learn more about my personal interests in people. I had a great English teacher at high school, Mr Hirano, and I still remember something from his class; the English word foreigner is gai-koku-jin in Japanese, which literally translates to ‘outside-nation-people.’ He said perspective matters; “outside and inside will change depending on where you are.” I enjoy thinking about how I could make my work that my audience receives intuitively. In the case of what I make, an immersive or interactive installation is effective because it often relies on touch or hearing other than sight.
I admit making large-scale site-specific work is challenging and laborious, however, the result is always rewarding. My audience completes my work; I appreciate seeing how people engage with my piece and it’s my pleasure to interact with them onsite. My approach towards engaging my audience with participatory work varies each time, but a simple greeting with a smile often allows people to be more open-minded, which helps ignite a great dialogue.
Clare Gemima: Your current investigations include themes of time, aging, and natural resources. How do these themes manifest in your recent works, and what message or dialogue do you aim to initiate with your audience through these explorations?
Eiko Nishida: Paper is one of my go-to materials, and I am fascinated by how it has changed and remained the same over time through its color, texture, and mere existence. After I lost my mother, my perspective changed drastically. I’ve been making an effort to see things just as they are, and to focus on what I can do today. I care about the present moment, and the people that I can share it with. Also, being away from my home country raises questions about being Buddhist more than ever. It was a large part of my identity because it was so ritualistically intertwined with daily life. I have eventually come to reclaim it while living abroad. These thoughts are woven into my work.
Clare Gemima: Your extensive solo and group exhibitions, along with performative participation in events like “Cosmic Cucumber Carousel (2023),” highlight a strong connection with communities. How do you approach community engagement in your art, and what role does audience interaction play in shaping the narrative of your other works? Are there specific instances where audience engagement significantly influences the project’s next stage?
Eiko Nishida: My thesis works included two kinds of multiple reflective films that were placed on the floor underneath a ceiling-hung sculpture. People peered into their own reflection, and realized they looked different depending on the film surface’s finishes. Their distortions made them more curious about how the work operated. A work like this cannot be activated without great participation, which is why I want to make more audience-involved works. Regardless if people are part of my audience or strangers on the street, I feel that everyone can offer new perspectives and ideas.
I try to stay open and flexible, which I confess I may not always be successful, but on occasion when I struggle to open up, I have to ask myself why. Through these exercises, I reconfirm what I can, want, or don’t want to change. I clarify my identity and what I believe in regard to faith or credo because these personal aspects profoundly connect to my work. I hope people find something new through my work, even if it’s for a brief moment, that they didn’t see before.
Clare Gemima: Message On A Bark involves a unique interaction where the audience picks up pine barks with cut-out words or phrases from newspapers, prompting them to reflect on the meaning. What inspired the conceptual genesis of this installation, and how do you see the physical act of picking up these barks contributing to the overall experience and interpretation of the message?
Eiko Nishida: As I mentioned earlier, language is one of my strong interests. As a non-English native speaker, I use online dictionaries every day and notice each definition is slightly different from one dictionary to another. When it’s in the news, a specific meaning is added within various contexts. When extracted from a newspaper, a meaning suddenly becomes default again, but now an audience definition can be projected.
We may talk about a certain word and how its meaning varies so much based on participants’ memories and lived experiences. Maybe that’s the way it is, but I am very much intrigued by that, and want to investigate definitions other than my own. I felt content watching my audience continually discover something new from one another, and exchange their point of view with strangers at the gallery.
Clare Gemima: Some of the words and phrases you used for this work were taken from articles about daunting events but were carefully edited to sound neutral or positive. Can you elaborate on your process of selecting and editing these words? How do you navigate the fine line between addressing serious issues and providing a moment of participatory hope?
Eiko Nishida: As we all know, there is not a whole lot of wonderful news featured in the media these days. Although positivity and negativity are two sides of one coin, I want to deliver some excitement or something we can find hope in to my audience, even if it’s just for a little bit. For example, one sentence I used to glue onto a piece of bark read “if I can’t”, so I decided to cut out the ‘t’, and turn it into “if I can” instead. I’d rather emphasize a constructive, optimistic, or confident message to move forward with, especially in this current climate.
Clare Gemima: Message On A Bark has been featured in various solo and group shows, with upcoming displays in different locations. How has the installation evolved or adapted across these exhibitions? Have you noticed any distinct audience reactions or interpretations that stood out to you during these showcases?
Eiko Nishida: How I craft the pieces for each show is the same. The only thing I pay attention to is choosing words found across all of the newspaper sections, such as domestic, world, economy, sports, art, book reviews, cooking, travel, real estate, etc. Audience reactions range from excited, to more puzzled. If I had enough time before they picked up a piece, I’d advise them to have a question in mind. How they close their eyes and feel for a message or answer is completely sincere. I am grateful that my audience is part of my work, and I feel awe towards something more significant than us at the same time.
Clare Gemima: Your statement emphasizes that words are living things, with meanings that change depending on the context in which they are received or consumed. How does the temporal nature of language tie into the broader themes of your artistic practice?
Eiko Nishida: Once I leave my home country it makes me sensitive to word choices and how to convey my thoughts to others as correctly and authentically as possible. Language is a crucial element of each culture, and I love learning different spoken and non-vocal languages, such as braille or sign language.
At Tutu Gallery, it was interesting to see just how different each audience member’s definitions were once I heard from them, or overheard their exchange with others. Their perspectives are a good reminder of Mr. Hirano’s lessons, and made me think about my stance, too. Although I used an English newspaper for Message On A Bark, multi-language newspapers are a primary material in other installations I’ve made, and are used to focus more on broadcasting a diversity of cultures rather than individual words and associative definitions.
Clare Gemima: Your behind-the-scenes insight reveals your intention to deliver excitement or hope, even when dealing with topics like war or student loans. How do you strike a balance between addressing potentially heavy subjects and infusing positivity into your art works? What role do you believe art plays in offering moments of solace or inspiration in challenging times?
Eiko Nishida: There is no need to be Pollyanna, nor do I think we need to be trapped inside of one aspect or another either. If people notice multiple facets of any subject across its spectrum, even for a brief moment of time, it could help them smile, or even prompt the courage and power to keep them going. Experiencing audience engagement in my works infuses me with excitement and provides infinite pleasure and gratitude.
Group show “Tu! Gift, Tu! Take” is on view at Tutu Gallery until January 24, 2024.