Close Reading: Proximity of Syllables by Migiwa Orimo at the Weston Gallery

March 3rd, 2019  |  Published in *

A pair of curtains adorned with a large set of parentheses hung at the entrance to the exhibit “Proximity of Syllables” at the Weston Gallery make a pronouncement: as you pass through, you are entering a space of meaning made not by what is directly stated, but by what is implied, unsaid, sidelined, redacted, absent, and hidden. In this group of eleven works by Tokyo born-and-raised, Yellow Springs-based Migiwa Orimo, the artist uses material transformation to redirect attention from text to the contextual conditions that surround and scaffold it.

Orimo, who has worked for thirty years in this “realm of disjunction”, developed her pieces for this show by researching and re-presenting texts not intended for public consumption, from institutional communication sources such as the US and Japanese government authorities as well as private or personal communications. A quick scan of the exhibit will certainly result in an appreciation of the quiet order and refined craft on display, but those who read more deeply will reap the greatest reward from these offerings.

Orimo, Migiwa – Installation view of Proximity of Syllables
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery

Orimo captures the viewer’s gaze at first with words. On entering, ones see across the expanse of space a grid of modified tourist postcards that spell out PUBLIC BLINDS. A clearly stated but puzzling phrase to set the tone. The public is blind? Public things blind us? The public behind a blind, hidden and watching? Are we being blindsided?

Turning to the left, the viewer is presented with two tight grids of deep cyan pages sparsely dotted with white typewritten words such as “water”, “industrial spill”, “brown out”, and “kidnap”. They’re tiny and smudged, and float untethered in the cosmic void created by the pages. These and other words, classified as suspicious by a Department of Homeland Security monitoring program, triggered surveillance if encountered by agents in private communications such as emails or telephone calls. The wrong combination of syllables could spell trouble for criminal and innocent citizen alike. Titled In Broad Daylight (DHS monitoring words/2011)#1 and #2, the pieces refer to “Sunshine Laws” that shed light on US government covert operations, enabling information about these programs to become available to the public. Orimo used sunlight to expose her cyanotype sheets, while using a typewriter loaded with white correction ribbon, ordinarily used to erase, to make visible the triggering words on the pages.

Orimo, Migiwa – In Broad Daylight (DHS monitoring words 2011) #1 & 2, 2017-19
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery


Orimo, Migiwa – In Broad Daylight (DHS monitoring words-2011) #1, detail
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery

With these and subsequent pieces, Orimo introduces a logic connecting materials, their processes, and the words they embody. The artist translates secret and public texts using processes of sculpture, photography, drawing, sound, and fiber, in ways that are at turns literal, symbolic, and culturally referential. Throughout, she also materializes punctuation marks to create a gallery-sized installation, treating each wall as a page, carving ellipses, parentheses, and braces directly into the drywall as transitional elements between individual works. In Orimo’s deft handling, each process gives a physical form to connotations of meaning hidden within conventional or official modes of written or verbal communications.

In The Report and Absence (#1-9), Orimo reveals the hidden-from-view through plaster relief sculptures. In The Report, redacted paragraphs from the publicly released report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster become rectangular negative spaces receding into rigid, nearly legal-sized tablets. The cheerfully-colored slabs project a structure of official authority and a promise of informative sentences but reveal nothing. In Absence, a publication editor’s hand-drawn, gestural marks cut a playful line or organic shape into the thin slab, while the words they seek to wrangle are lost to the viewer.

Orimo, Migiwa – The Report, 2016
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery


Orimo, Migiwa – Absence #1-3, 2016-18
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery

With Absence and its evidence of the hand, the viewer is reminded of the proximity of the body to syllables, to text, and to meaning. Text can protect the body like a shield, as it does with the written report in the case of the Fukushima authorities, or it can expose the body and make it vulnerable, in the case of surveillance programs. Orimo carefully weaves this relationship into what at first might appear as an aesthetically rendered presentation of depersonalized, static documents. Code addresses both vulnerability and protection as it switches the perspective from public and authoritative to private and personal communication. In the piece, a linen wall hanging contains a hand embroidered Landay poem, an Afghani form of secret women’s oral poetry that is often critical of traditional religious authority or gendered cultural norms. The text, rarely written due to the danger of creating it, is translated by Orimo into Morse Code using a technique of dashes and French knots, raised bumps of embroidery floss, for dots. The tactility of the embroidered code can be read by feel as well as by sight, connecting maker and recipient directly by touch as well as sight.

Orimo, Migiwa – Code, 2019
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery

Many of the texts Orimo selected are authoritative without explicit authorship, but she reminds us there is in fact a person with emotions and (potentially) ethics reading, analyzing, judging, editing, censoring and generating information that impacts the lives of others. Shot List, while visually clinical and detached, in true authoritative style, is a gruesome document that gives a clue to its specific originators. It is a series of still photographic frames with one line on a long “shot list” illuminated in each frame. Each illuminated line describes in graphic detail a scene officially ordered to be censored from documentary film footage of the effects of the atomic bombs on people in Japan. This program of US government censorship went on for 25 years after WWII. In the right-bottom corner of the final image is a line of letters with a slash that indicates the initials of the authorizing official and the secretary who typed the text, providing  a trace of authorship, an editor, a witness to, and complicity with the tragedy. The companion piece to ‘Shot List”, called “Fuin (Sealed)” shows a toy model of the B-29 plane (used to drop the atomic bomb) dispersed in parts and displayed like artifacts in an archeological dig. Each part has been carefully wrapped with linen and hand-stitched closed. The display appears as a kind of shroud covering bones.

Orimo, Migiwa – Shot List (Censored Film), 2018 (above), and Fuin (Sealed), 2019 (below)
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery


Orimo, Migiwa – Shot List (Censored Film), 2018 DETAIL
Photo courtesy of Susan Byrnes

Sound Drawings (Harvard Sentences) connect the hand to the voice. In small handwritten notes that make them seem almost casual, or perhaps secret, these 720 distinct phrases were developed by linguists at Harvard University for audibility tests for pilots in excessive sound situations so that radio commands could be clearly heard. The phrases are not important for their meaning, only for their syllabic and audible coherence. Orimo reflects in an adjacent grid the images of the sentences’ sound waves when spoken. The sentences are excessively benign, but that quality makes the search for any kind of hidden meaning among them a kind of game. The grid format here refutes a linear reading, instead inviting rereading, and recognition of pattern and difference.

Orimo, Migiwa – Sound Drawings (Harvard Sentences), 2017-19
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery


Orimo, Migiwa – Sound Drawings (Harvard Sentences) detail, 2017-19
Photo courtesy of the Weston Gallery

The works in the exhibition are mute, but they beg the viewer to mouth the words, to speak them in order to hear them. How provocative or dull they are. How they feel to say: are they rhythmic, pleasurable or dangerous, are they painful, the syllables that form the words that make the sentences that contain meaning? Each level of language builds to something, moving from nonsense to consensus – a shaped and shared concept. Language is so familiar that we forget this meaning making happens every time we read, we speak. We only pause when we meet the unfamiliar. Orimo wants to slow us down in order to experience familiarity and dislocation simultaneously, to read into the gaps visible before us.

–Susan Byrnes

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