At first sight Makiko Nagaya’s exhibition ‘Moths to/from a Flame’ – a collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, costumes and videos, all steeped in a bleeping, ambient soundscape – can seem just a little too intense given its compacted presentation within a relatively small room. It’s only with the understanding that a major point of departure for Nagaya’s work is London’s enigmatic Sir John Soane Museum that one begins to make sense of how this show is put together, more a storehouse of objects and images than an artistic presentation in the usual sense. Several large, symmetrically patterned paintings cover two of the walls, the remaining wall space being given over to two grid-like arrangements of photographs, one in black and white, the other in colour. A series of watercolour paintings laid flat on specially constructed metal tables divides the room, and these supports are supplemented by other display stands on which are placed a stack of folded kimonos, a series of small ‘formless’ sculptures and another group of paintings on loose sheets. The latter are positioned so that they can easily be examined by an inquisitive viewer.
Nagaya’s works are complemented by video and audio pieces by James Early, Johnny Vivash and Joe Banks. The kimonos and the 19th-century porcelain plates utilized for parts of the sculptures are borrowed elements, used to signify the anonymous labour deployed within mass production and in the execution of traditional crafts. The overall feel of the show may involve the aesthetics of storage but it also keenly suggests a workshop, an active space in which the viewer is regarded as a participant or co-conspirator of making meaning.
If Soane’s house-museum is a key component of the display, another significant source for ‘Moths to/from a Flame’ is Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Nagaya has focused upon a single scene, involving the protagonist’s contemplation of a landscape painting by Symbolist artist Ferdinand Hodler. Several hundred photographs of this part of the film, each bearing an English transcription of a portion of the dialogue, form one of the aforementioned photographic collages, whilst its companion piece documents in beautiful black and white snapshots the making, by Nagaya and her collaborator Peter Lewis, of the first in a large series of paintings included in the exhibition. A further echo of the Hodler painting is to be found in the work lying across the metal supports, watercolours made using the same techniques as Rorschach tests. The larger paintings are especially attractive, whilst also containing what appear to be the heads and bodies of repulsive moths or other indeterminate monsters. Nagaya has translated the film dialogue into visual images, utilising the fold and the hinge as literal and metaphorical references within her work. One is reminded of the use of similar devices within the poetry of Stephane Mallarme, a historical reference that returns us to the Symbolist art works foregrounded in Scorsese's film.
In one sense everything on show can be considered as if folded out or unpacked from Scorsese’s film and, by implication, from Wharton’s novel too. The film becomes photograph and text, which is transformed into painting, and the whole of the space in turn becomes a kind of stacking up and folding in of objects, references and different media, elegantly echoing the famous storage system utilized in the Picture Room in Soane’s house, in which the very walls of the room function like pages of a gigantic book, the ‘illustrations’ being actual paintings by J.M.W. Turner or William Hogarth. The videos and soundtrack are also based on samples from Scorsese’s film, thus becoming one further twist in the complex physical and mental framework with which this exhibition engages.
First published in Issue 120