profile by Claudia Orenstein
above]: Kazuko Hohki, My Husband is a Spaceman. copywrite
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.
Hohki’s future plans include:
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.
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.
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
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