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Kazuko Hohki:
Objects Of Contemplation
A profile by Claudia Orenstein
[image above]: Kazuko Hohki, My Husband is a Spaceman. copywrite Timothy Nunn


One of the most abstruse websites on the Internet is surely that of the Borrowers International Network, or BIN (see below for link). Its self-description as a ‘humble attempt to try to introduce you to the unique culture of / Borrowers who are small people living underneath the floorboards, first documented / in the book The Borrowers by Ms. Mary Norton’ doesn’t quite do justice to the compelling ‘Bobjects’ and ‘Binstruments’ listed for sale, such as a Teaspoon Guitar, made of ‘spoon, wire, nuts & bolts, rectangular metal tin,’ available for £1200, a Boltophon, made from a ‘coat hanger, rubber bands, bolts, key,’ £1500, something called Lab, made from ‘shoe polisher, test tube, cotton wool, clothes peg, nail, £600, and a piece labeled Mental, constructed of ‘cardboard box, milk carton, hair bands, computer part, padlock, £350 – all intricately assembled miniatures. The website is part advertisement and part on-line extension of performance artist Kazuko Hohki’s latest show, Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers, winner of a Total Theatre Award and a Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005, and scheduled for further tours in the UK in 2006.

Hohki, who was born in Japan, but has been living in England since 1978, has an eclectic body of artistic work, which includes her recordings and performances as founding member of the rock group The Frank Chickens, four books in Japanese on her experiences living in England, and work as a director and performer both on stage and for television, film, and radio. Her recent series of live solo shows have used puppets and performing objects of various sorts alongside video and simple computer animation to illustrate both personal and slightly surreal tales about intercultural experiences. Hohki sees her shows Toothless and My Husband Is a Spaceman – which have been in her repertoire for several years now – as a contemporary form of the kamishibai (literally ‘paper theatre’) performances she saw as a child in Japan. Popular from the 1920s to the 1950s, kamishibai performers rode to villages on bikes with small stages on the back used to display a series of images illustrating their tales. Stopping at strategic spots, they gathered children with the sound of wooden clappers and sold them candy while entertaining them with picture-storytelling. The form is comparable to other traditions like the Indonesian wayang beber and the Italian cantastoria.

Hohki’s shows are for adults and are anything but two-dimensional in style or content. As in kamishibai, images illustrate the tale, but here those images may be puppets, other objects, or filmed or computer-generated ones, and Hohki retains a central role as storyteller. Both Hohki’s stories and the means she uses to tell them adapt kamishibai to a contemporary sensibility.

In My Husband Is a Spaceman, Hohki transposes the Japanese legend of The Crane Wife into a contemporary intercultural – indeed interspecies – love tale. In the original story (which Hohki tells at the beginning of the show, to the accompaniment of a stop-motion video projection of the making of origami cranes), a man who has saved a crane later marries a mysterious woman. She tells him never to peek at her in her room at night, but one evening curiosity gets the better of him, and he discovers her in her true form – the crane he saved. She flies away, never to return. In Hohki’s version, Hohki herself plays a Japanese ‘OL’ or ‘office lady’, who saves a duck and later meets an Englishman who lives up to her every ideal of England, drawn from childhood readings of Wuthering Heights and Winnie the Pooh. He eventually marries her and brings her to live with him in a beautiful English country house, where they drink lots of good English tea. But this anthropologist-husband is away all day and works in his study all night. Lonely and suspicious, the OL peeks in on him to discover that he is the duck she saved. This, however, is no ordinary duck, but a being from outer space, whose true form is more like an amoeba. He is as much playing the role of Englishman as she is playing at being an English wife. This contemporary tale questions the nature of love and the role images and stereotypes of others play in our daily lives.

To illustrate the OL’s humdrum life before her love affair, Hohki lifts a briefcase up to a video camera, and the small office she has crafted inside is projected large on the screen behind her. With this model, she demonstrates the OL’s boring daily routine, moving back and forth between making tea and making photocopies. A similar device illustrates the OL’s adventurous climb to peek in at her husband’s study window. When the husband first appears at her door, he is a large nose on a hat, which Hohki manipulates as she speaks with him. Throughout the rest of the piece, the ‘English’ nose continues to stand in for the husband – now on a coffee cup, now on a pillow.

Hohki’s illustrations for her tales aren’t straightforward, but provide ironic commentary on the story and its characters. When the OL first imagines she might have fallen in love with the duck she saved, a video shows an awkward dance between an animated Hohki and duck as they raise their arms/wings and legs in comic unison. The video shows the OL’s attempt to understand in concrete terms what such an unusual love affair might be like. In Hohki’s work, the presentation of 2D, 3D, filmed, and real objects offers an opportunity for us to think through complicated ideas by means of images. Sometimes these images reveal themselves as stereotypes or turn romantic notions into comedy. By turning thoughts into tangible visions we can look at objectively, however, Hohki allows us to evaluate them from a more informed perspective.

Hohki takes these ideas one step further in her latest work. Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers is a site-specific piece, refitted for each space that houses it, so that spectators move through the backstage areas of a theatre to discover the objects on display. These strange objects, crafted by Mervyn Millar, are the evidence Hohki (in the role of scientist) has collected to prove the existence of Borrowers, who have been stealing her Prozac. Here objects once again tell a story, but this time one that leaves the viewer to discover its full details. While many of the objects seem utilitarian and lead us to question their use, they reveal a further secret, one that lies in the Borrowers’ incurable habit of borrowing: because theses small creatures borrow all they need from us humans, they are free to spend their lives creating art.

In Hohki’s innovative and humorous performances, objects tell the story. Her open presentation of them allows spectators to contemplate everything these forms have to communicate. The Borrowers’ Binstruments and Bobjects may, on one level, exist as Hohki’s evidence for our connection with small, legendary beings — yet another intercultural and supernatural relationship in her work. But they are also works of art that invite us to re-evaluate all the objects we encounter in our daily lives and imagine the tales they tell about us.





Kazuko Hohki’s future plans include:

Oh Doh

A new site-specific promenade show along the Kings Road, commissioned by Chelsea Theatre as part of their Sacred season. The show will be developed over the summer and autumn with work in progress performances 12-15 September and performances of the completed show 30 January -2 February 2007.


Wuthering Heights
A new adaptation of Emily Bronte's classic novel. The show will be created in collaboration with Colin Carmichael of BRIAN. Co-commissioned by Birmingham Rep, Farnham Maltings, The Nuffield Lancaster and BAC, the show will be developed over the summer and autumn, with scratch performances in London and Birmingham before moving to full production, presentation and tour in 2007.


London Season
In September & October 2006, Kazuko will present a season of her work in London. This will include a month long residency at Duckie, a collaboration with the Frank Chickens for Home at the Theatre Museum, and a retrospective at BAC during Octoberfest as part of the venues 25th anniversary celebrations - Kazuko will present performances of Toothless, My Husband is a Spaceman and Evidence for the


Existence of Borrowers.

Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers
Will be touring the UK in late autumn 2006 and early spring 2007.

My Husband is a Spaceman
Will be presented at the Powell Street Festival in Vancouver in August and at the St James Cavelier Centre for the Performing Arts in Malta in December.




For further information see www.kazukohohki.com

For the Borrowers International Network see www.borrowersreunited.com

 

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