In the episode "The Travelling Swamp" (Tabi wo Suru Numa) in the anime TV series Mushi-Shi, a lake mysteriously appears and disappears over time in a rural part of Japan. The ‘spirit doctor’ Ginko is contracted to investigate the phenomenon, and soon discovers that the sprit of a young woman Io has fused with the lake. As a child, this woman identified so strongly with the lake’s desire to become one with the ocean, that she drowned herself in its sorrowful mass. True to Japanese folklore, she has achieved a new post-human existence, reincarnated as something beyond her corporeal state.
This tale of a woman’s subsumption within a body of water is a constant of feminine mythology the world over. In its quasi-universal guise, the woman who ‘returns to water’ speaks of women’s wombic dimension. In "The Travelling Swamp", this young girl who never gave birth becomes a maternal figure by embracing the lake. In doing so, she is carried by the lake as if in a womb, plus she carries the lake as if it is her child. When Ginko finally sees Io, he finds her body is itself a translucent mass, like a watery shape cast in human form.
Kazuna Taguchi’s recent portrait series (seven works from 2008) belies a similar slippery spirituality. Her poised compositions and their careful rendering do not depict watery bodies, yet their fragile moulded forms suggest volumes for outlining a notion of post-human portraiture. Assembled from fragments of found images of multiple faces and bodies – an eye from here, a nose from there, a hand from somewhere else – Kazuna enacts a complex merger of sourced reproductions, drawn textures, and photographed surfaces. The result is an apparition of ‘someone’ – but in contradiction of the history of portraiture, this person never did nor never will exist. Like Io in "The Travelling Swamp", these viscous glycerine mannequins have been conjured by Kazuna into the realm of the momentarily visible.
Such an approach to portraiture could be viewed as symptomatic of current times. Online self-networking trends like Facebook construct a repository of the Self, wherein one can generate oneself purely through the act of documenting oneself. While this suits an American-centric self-obsessed consumption typical of the ‘me’ and ‘I’ generations, Kazuna’s approach embodies a more considered reflection on the Self typical of Japanese approaches to the subject. By not existing, Kazuna’s portrayed women present themselves as masks of those who might exist. Like a mirage of the human-centric self, they offer themselves to the viewer yet reveal nothing about ‘themselves’. This is not a perverse act. Indeed, it is a strangely comforting sensation to be entranced by those who do not exist.
Perceived within a Japanese cultural context, Kazuna’s women can be read as contemporary reconstructions of Woman as depicted historically in prints from ‘The Floating World’ realm of the Yoshiwara ‘pleasure district’ during the Edo era. Much has been made of that epoch’s relation to post-war threads of Japanese culture, and it would be simplistic to connect Edo prints and Kazuna’s portrait series solely because she is a Japanese artist. Rather than a historical locus, ‘The Floating World’ can be reinterpreted as a fluid domain which allows for bodies to disengage from life and thereby become momentarily freed from humanist enterprise. From archetypal Edo prints of geisha sex workers to bishojo in manga over a century later, the image of Woman in Japanese culture is less objectified as a definitive attainment of feminine pulchritude and more a fleeting moment of their transitory beauty. Just like the rare appearances of the watery corpus of Io, beautiful women are water-marked with an elegiac appreciation of their transitory value. Kazuna’s portraits are pools of womanhood vibrating with this phantom ambience.
Unlike many other contemporary reinterpretations of this bishojo syndrome (much of which creates an ideal visage usually as a proxy for the artist’s persona), Kazuna’s portraiture is acutely aware of how the surface of her images determine her figures. In one sense, her work is the result of graphic procedures more aligned with the industry of illustration than the academy of painting. Her portraits obfuscate signs of their brushwork, and their proto-photographic sheen makes some of the portraits feel like pages from a magazine fashion spread. But in another sense, the ambiguity of their ontological surface – is it a photo or not? is it canvas or paper? – positions Kazuna as an artist who is not primarily satisfied with obvious readings of her outcomes. That ambiguity is replayed in the ambivalent fusion of glossy bishojo content with the hazy gauze of their presentation. The compound result problematises the status of the women’s depicted form.
Kazuna’s early works which derived from similar processes emphasised their status as montage. Faces are decorously staged with objects against black voids to highlight their theatrical collage. By contrast, her 2008 portraiture series of standing women depicted from the waist-up fuses disparate parts into the apparition of a whole. Seemingly human and vaguely occupying an infinite realm of grey, her recent figures pose less for a theatrical spot-light and more for a documentary lens. This tantalizing tension between virtual beings and actual representations recalls the scenographic mode of documentation employed in daguerreotype portraiture. In the daguerreotype’s primitive beauty, the anthropological impulse to capture and record a figure before the camera lens almost indirectly caused aesthetic effect. Kazuna’s images resonate with that approach, bearing a most unforced aesthetic sensibility.
Through this peculiar forming of women, Kazuna’s portraits foreground the act of distilling to ‘freeze’ her figures. Their melodramatic posture is heightened in a manner that hauntingly echoes late 19th C photographs of women interred in insane asylums. Swimming in a fog of grey, the women appear simultaneously lost and trapped within the frame. Again, the blur between identifiable content (the women) and their representation (their photo-painterly rendering) queers any simplistic reading of the image. Kazuna’s portraits could be anthropological documents of women suffering seizures, fits or lapses; they could equally be stable women stylistically ravaged through the photographic process.
We could term this effect a ‘friezure’ – seizure in frieze. As visible beings of post-human portraiture, all of the women appear to be in the act of becoming something else – something other than or beyond themselves. Caught in the moment, their faces evoke varying degrees of trauma – catatonia, withdrawal, delusion, desperation, mania, shock. Sometimes this capture of their petit mal and grand mal seems fatalistic, other times liberating. It is always disturbing: this ‘friezure’ is portraiture put to the service not of romantically defining a person, but of clinically demonstrating the inability to define the Self. Two portraits are in fact doubled – ghosting themselves as if to reinforce this inability attain be a holistic Self. At every remove, these women are marked by being somewhere else. Their presence is more ectoplasmic than photographic.
This is why Kazuna’s elusive creatures squirm like they are interred somewhere within the fluid granular epidermis between the glass and the print. The gorgeous ocean of wavering focal graduations across their form and visage – organically ordered in each print – is less an arty visual effect and more a graphing of the emotional aura of each woman. Arguably, there is no real background, mid-field or foreground in these prints. In place, there is the mirage of depth created by the women’s ectoplasmic aura. Their grey surrounding void and the surface of their bodies and faces amalgamates multiple energy fields – emotional, psychological, spiritualist, materialist – into a dimension of ethereal existence. Their torsos-with-heads hover like liquefied ghosts emerging from a swamp of ‘swimming grain’.
Ultimately, I am most impressed by how Kazuna’s portraits deny ocularity – despite their scintillating visual surfaces. Because after all that I have described in terms of their posture, appearance, formation, apparition, embodiment and gesticulation, I am left with an overwhelming sensation of these women’s muteness. While their eyes attract my contemplative gaze, it is their lips and mouths which erotically entrance. By this, I do not mean that their feminine allure satiates a desire to possess their corporeal form: Kazuna’s women are no mere passive retainers of flirtatious ingenuousness. Rather, I mean that their mouths are the epicentre of these creatures’ post-human existence: they all seem ready to say something, but language is either denied them or refused by them.
If humanism is the trumped-up celebration of humankind’s triumph of communication, then post-humanism entails a detournment of the belief in such communicative feats. Kazuna’s women remind me of the divide between intelligent rational speech (or, we could add, the simplistic rhetoric of contemporary art when it becomes literal and prosaic) and the inability to speak due to being overcome by emotional trauma. Thus, Kazuna’s women do not say a word. Silent sirens, they sing their profound muteness.