An ambitious residency and touring exhibition project A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling was the result of a cultural exchange of two artists between the UK and Japan, undertaken to celebrate the 150th anniversary of formal links between the two countries. Tokyo-based artist Mio Shirai and London-based Erika Tan, each spent the summer of 2008 in the others country of residence, undertaking a journey of discovery to unpick what cultural connections exist between Japan and Britain, and what separates them.

The resulting commissioned film, video and photographic installations were first exhibited at Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in 2008 as part of UK-Japan 2008 & Japan-UK 150, two major festivals marking the anniversary of trade and cultural links between the UK & Japan. The commissioned works subsequently toured to BankART 1929, NYK, Yokohama in 2009, to coincide with celebrations marking 150th anniversary of the opening of the Port of Yokohama.

A Gift to Those… takes its title from the life-story of one of the earliest known explorers, Ibn Battuta. In 1325 the Moroccan Battuta began exploring the limits of the known world and spent 30 years travelling some 75,000 miles, gathering knowledge about cultures and countries other than his own. Battuta dictated the story of his travels to a fellow scholar, which took the title ‘A Gift to Those…’ and also known as simply ‘The Journey’. The two artists followed in the footsteps of the Iwakura Mission from Japan which arrived in England 1872 to gather information on education, technology, culture, and military, social and economic structures of Europe. The artists created works that combined observation with speculation, whilst examining our ability to comprehend the world through travel, exploration, and cross-cultural comparison. Allusions to the historical and the symbolic recur throughout the exhibition, reflecting back or forth in time to understand the present.


Erika Tan’s new works were presented under the collective heading ‘Made in Japan’. The works explored the expectations that travellers bring; the iconic images associated with Japan; the different assumptions that Japanese culture is based upon; and the physical and psychological mechanisms that allow it to function. Her opening work, ‘The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart’ is an array of reworked and new images of Mount Fuji – arguably the best-known pictorial symbol of Japan. The mountain has been the subject matter for Japanese landscape painters for centuries; it is also one of the most photographed sights in the country. Here, Tan creates an inventory of the different ways it has been portrayed, to ask whether we can see past others’ representations of a place. Are we always tied to seeing the world through our predecessors’ eyes, and to their prior perceptions? How far is it possible, moreover, to fully inhabit a worldview other than our own? Tan originally trained as an anthropologist, and her work asks what we can readily ‘import’ into our own experience from other cultures, what can be slowly assimilated, and what must remain alien.

The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart is a meditation on apriori knowledge, the encounters with the unexpected and the inevitable impossibilities of reconciling representation, experience and expectation. Mount Fuji or Fuji-san comes to play a central role in this work, and the title refers in parts to the mythological tale of the fate of the faithless or unworthy pilgrims. The work consists of 13 video works, several hundred donated drawn images, compiled or composite Mount Fuji’s, and other elements such as topological type puzzles, viewing mechanisms and LED signs.

Made during the 2-month residency the work includes donated drawings, compilations, live footage and animations, 13 video works, donated drawings, digital prints, sculptural objects, wall design, LED signage.

The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart, Lost & Found, Osage Gallery Singapore; There is no Road, LABoral, Gihon, Spain © Erika Tan and courtesy of the artist
The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart, Lost & Found, Osage Gallery Singapore; There is no Road, LABoral, Gihon, Spain

Mio Shirai’s short films and installations draw upon traditional folklore and myths, and popular stories that we all learn as children. Her films retell these stories and myths for an adult audience, imbuing them with a sense of the uncanny and absurd – a feeling of being “out of step”, in her own words. Shirai’s new short film, Forever Afternoon, re-creates a section of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘Alice’ is a story known worldwide and it has been suggested that there are many references and mathematical concepts in both this story and later Through the Looking-Glass. 

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland language becomes instrumental in constructing aspects of the protagonist’s identity, including the way in which the narrator equipped Alice with a certain kind of thinking. The double-coded narrative reflected both at the textual and identitary level are merged into one, thus augmenting the fluid character of the fictional text; Lewis Carroll manipulates both her appearance and musings in a playful and paradoxical manner. The free-floating signifiers and the language puns contribute to the blurring of the various boundaries within the text and to the arbitrariness with which the story unfolds.

Indeed inspired in parts by the locations featured in her film. Shirai allows us to re-read ‘Alice’ in a new way, as a parable of how we experience and assimilate alien cultures and places. Here, Alice – played by Shirai – has to learn the rules of engagement of a strange yet familiar place, rules which are logical, and yet different to our own. The film was shot entirely in locations which Carroll knew and visited in the North East. Mio Shirai is a rising star in Tokyo’s art world, having recently shown in the city’s largest public gallery, the National Art Centre and has shown extensively in New York.


A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling is a Fountain project co-curated by Keith Whittle and Alistair Robinson, and produced in partnership with Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, BankART 1929, in association with P3 art and environment and The Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Subsequent stagings of The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart have been in Lost & Found, Osage Gallery Singapore; There is no Road, LABoral, Gihon, Spain.