13 April 2023
By Salena Barry
Imagine that the moon knew its names. Lune. 月(tsuki). Måne. Selene. Would it have a favourite? Might it prefer the nuances and history behind its Greek title over its French? Or would it find them equally insufficient in their attempts to capture its essence in a mere few syllables? After my conversation with artist Sumi Kanazawa, I now wonder if the moon would only find its many names meaningful when considering them in unison: each one offering its unique traits to create a mosaic of meaning. The names and languages they are drawn from act as linguistic bridges and borders, bringing together certain groups and breaking apart others. Similarly, Sumi’s practice considers how we use categories like nationality, gender, and place to both identify ourselves with, and separate ourselves from, one another. Through interrogating these boundaries, ostensibly delineating similarity and difference, she shows that such lines only reinforce an undeniable wholeness and the importance of its constituent parts.
I met Sumi and her friend Ryoko, who acted as our interpreter, in February to discuss her practice and what she would be working on during her residency in London. The three of us sat around the table in the Delfina Foundation library and exchanged questions, answers and clarifications in English and Japanese. We mostly focused on her ever-evolving work, Drawings on Newspaper, for which she is perhaps best known. The work consists of sheets of newspaper gathered by the artist from different times and places, over which she then draws in pencil, obscuring the majority of the page, leaving only a few images or words visible. Then, periodically, she attaches these sheets together to form a large curtain which evokes the night sky, illuminated by constellations of stories.
Describing the effect her cosmic archive creates, the artist speaks of “galaxy time”. Everything, past, present and future, exists at once, in no particular order or hierarchy. Each moment is equally precious and pressing. I imagine one could play a game, trying to distinguish between images from a decade ago and those from only a few months prior. I guess that what would slowly become clear though is the links between these fragments of time. For example, Sumi tells me that the work includes an article about the racism experienced by a Black runner in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as a 2014 article on the racist murder of Black man in the US. Bringing these events into conversation testifies to the persistence of racism across decades and places. By holding such moments together, still and uncategorised, Sumi shows that time, which is probably the greatest border of all, doesn’t contain or delineate beginnings and ends as neatly as we may assume. Events from years ago can often remain sharper in our minds than moments from the last hour. As suggested in Sumi’s work, the context of this moment can be blackened out by the emotions and beliefs we use to protect and preserve that sliver of time, and perhaps an essential truth it might hold, both about ourselves and the world in which we live. In this way, the artist’s practice of temporary redaction – just a moment with an eraser could revert her endeavours – elucidates more than it conceals.
Distilling meaning from an abundance of information is also central to the work Sumi is developing while at Delfina Foundation. The project considers the experience of migration, an experience resonant to the artist, as a third-generation Korean born and raised in Japan. During her residency, Sumi is interviewing people with a history of migration. Her intension is to find an abstract way to depict this range of experiences – everything from joy to pain. She recounts the conversation she had with her friend Yoko’s daughter, in which they discussed what it was like to move to the UK and overcome a language barrier to make friends. Another interview was with a Moroccan man who was born in France, but always felt out of place. Some conversations she finds surprising, like the one she had with a British-Indian man whose stories she found contained many experiences similar to her own.
After each interview, Sumi reviews her transcripts to find words that resonate with her. These are not words that are specific to a person’s particular experience of migration, but rather unemotive, simple words. I suspect that in selecting words that are seemingly more mundane, she seeks to delve beyond fact and specificity to reveal a unifying truth, to which anyone who has undergone the process of leaving one home to create another can relate. I reflect on my own experience of migration, from Canada to the UK, and my family’s history of migration from the Caribbean to the UK to North America. I think about my ancestor’s forced migration from Africa to the Caribbean as part of the slave trade. And I consider the sort of “simple words” that would be meaningful to me: community, understanding, roots.
After gathering a number of these words, Sumi plans to animate them by stitching them into the earth, treating each word as a blade of grass, which will collectively form a field. This connection between language and nature, created through the literal grounding of these words, removes from them a particular emotional charge. Their association with nature and organic processes, provides the words, and the experiences they represent, a certain normalcy. They all exist equally across a level plane of possibility and probability. Sumi is still gathering the content for this work and developing how the finished project will be presented, but I already have a sense of how looking back at those words might feel. I imagine most would resonate with me, either because I have had a comparable experience, or because I could have, if certain aspects of my circumstances were different. I wonder if some words or phrases will be able to unlock a depth or dimension of my own unconscious experience.
At the end of our interview, as I pack up my notepad, phone, and laptop, I thank Sumi and Ryoko for their time and tell them that I look forward to further reflecting on her work. At this point I share that I am especially interested about the work in progress because of my own history of migration. Ryoko translates this for Sumi, and then quickly translates to me her response, “we should interview you”! I agree, and a week later we are all seated again around the same table in the same room, speaking in the same languages, but from slightly different positions. This time, I answered more than I asked, and Sumi asked more than she answered. As we discussed my experience of migration, we added to her work as well as to a collective story. I wonder which blade of grass will ultimately sprout for me, my family, my ancestors. I doubt that I will be able to distinguish it, and therein lies the beauty.
– Salena Barry is a writer and digital communications professional living in London, UK. She is a 2022 Jerwood Writer in Residence.
Sumi Kanazawa (Japan) was awarded a 12 week residency at Delfina Foundation as the Grand Prix winner of the Contemporary Art Foundation Artist Award 2020-2021. Her residency was undertaken in six-week blocks across two residency seasons, Winter and Summer 2023.