Interview with Ai Kijima

*featured image: Erehwon”, 2002, fused and machine quilted, 44 x 64, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

Ai Kijima, is from Tokio, Japan. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she’s now living and working in New York.

Kijima is known for her chaotic and unusual textile collages, where she manipulates and entangles different materials, from children’s bedsheets to vintage kimonos. She juxtaposes and superimposes hundred images of faces, landscapes, objects and pop culture’s icons to express her personal and poetic vision of the world.

“Erehwon-detail”, 2002, fused and machine quilted, 44 x 64, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

Born and raised in Japan, the artist also lived in large cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul, Chicago,
and New York. Here, she experienced and integrated different cultures acquiring a multicultural
mind and a deep respect for other ways of being, as she says.

This wealth of experiences and points of view is fully present in Kijima’s works, where different styles and contents coexist. In her uncommon and original representations, cultural judgment is suspended. Instead, everything coexists and is integrated into a fluid and skillfully orchestrated narrative.

Ai Kijima studio in 2021, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

You use heterogeneous materials to create your works, for example sheets that reproduce images of contemporary popular culture alongside vintage kimonos. How and why do you combine these materials, which in terms of appearance, history, culture and sensitivity seem to be so distant or almost irreconcilable?

I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan and ever since I was very young I have always been obsessed with textiles. I rode my bicycle to the fabric and craft shops in my neighborhood and spent many hours there looking at fabric. I was fortunate that there were so many wonderful stores near me with great selections of textiles, not only from Japan but from the US, Asia, and Europe.  Also, the neighborhood I grew up in is well known as one of the city’s best antique districts. There were many antique, vintage, and second-hand stores specializing in Japanese, Asian, European, African, and American collectibles. I would regularly stop by these stores after school and spend hours happily exploring and looking, just as much the fabric stores.

I have now lived outside of my home country for more than half of my life. I first spent a school year in mostly white, rural, Wisconsin in the U.S.. Then I moved to larger cosmopolitan cities like Chicago, NY and Istanbul. I have been lucky enough to experience so many diverse ethnicities, beliefs and cultures. Because of these experiences, in my view, a mass produced printed Superman bedsheet is just as important a signifier of a culture or an era as a vintage “hippy” style neon pink floral dress from the 1970’s is. And an antique hand woven silk kimono is every bit as significant as either of these–they all have a powerful story to tell. All of these ways of using fabric have value to me so I am not hesitant about juxtaposing elements from distinctly different times and places if they can help me to create a visually striking piece of art.

“Game Point Infinity”, 2011, fused, machine quilted, 41 1/2 ”x36 1/2”, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

“Diamond Pop Quilt”, 2018, fused and machine quilted, 20 1/2 x 20 1/4″, copyright Ai Kijima

Your quilts, full of images, references and colours, have a strong visual impact and suggest endless points of observation and interesting interpretations. Doesn’t all this abundance risk making the audience feel overwhelmed? What do you think?

Having internalized more than one culture, it is my hope that I have succeeded in gaining a more complex way of seeing, to both expand my visual vocabulary and, importantly, grow a deeper respect for others, for other ways of being. In my artwork, I am interested in communicating the perception of the world I have gained through my varied life experiences. Just as my various viewpoints and lived experiences co-exist within me, the juxtaposing subjects contained in my work co-exist in a fluidly exquisite corpse style. I am an individual with a multicultural mind, but of course I am also very aware of how Japanese culture has shaped the deepest parts of myself.

When I create art, I must be true to my own vision. I happened to have a life full of experiences of diverse cultures and, for me, it seems very natural and not overwhelming at all. It is not my intention to overwhelm anyone, only to share my personal perspective, to give others a chance to step into my mind and my way of seeing, if only for a few moments.

“Protect”, 2016, hand appliqued, hand embellished, 48″ x 40″, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

“Hello”, 2010, fused, machine quilted, 53”x100”, copyright Ai Kijima

What is the connection, the link between the use of a traditional, intimate and artisanal technique such as quilting and the pop, serial, contemporary subjects typical of the cultural industry created by mass media?

To me the link is preserving and valuing cultural artifacts of all kinds. Soon after I moved to Chicago to attend art school, I began obsessively collecting vintage clothing and household materials, including kid’s bedsheets and pillowcases with cartoon characters printed on them. I knew their value from my prior experience antiquing in Tokyo and I loved the bold, eye-popping imagery of the characters, pop icons, and patterns. In my mind these kinds of fabrics hold a special historical importance within the context of our disposable-prone society. I want to rescue them before they disappear. To me they are cultural artifacts from the 20th and 21st centuries that are worthy of preservation.

Giant Legends”, 2011, fused and machine quilted, 50”x72”, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

In Japan, the sense of regret over wastefulness, with the high value placed on reusability, is deeply rooted in the culture. The concept that all things have a soul is at the center of this view. We respect and strive to reuse something instead of quickly discarding it. Two Japanese folk textile traditions which exemplify this idea are boro (mended and patched textiles), and sakiori (rag weaving). This philosophy in the culture and collective unconscious of Japan is a strong guiding force within me. It has led me to use primarily second-hand materials, a category that offers me marvelous choices! Bedsheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, scarves, tea towels, handkerchiefs, aprons, kimonos, movie banners, clothing and more, find their way into my art.

In this sense, I believe I am following the folk tradition of quiltmaking in which the old time quiltmakers in the west saved and reused every bit of precious material, no matter the source, whatever was available in their community or household, to make their quilts.

According to some critics, the productions of mass culture encourage the public to have fun without thinking, through narratives that seem to have the sole function of entertaining by cancelling the critical capacities of the spectator, making him passive and infantilised. With your collages, by subverting the typical rules of main-stream narration, you manage to create a moment of rupture and use characters and stories from mass culture as an opportunity for critical reflection. So this sort of counter-narrative can have the effect of encouraging the viewer to take a conscious attitude towards the work they are looking at. Is this your intention? Do you find yourself in this reflection?

One of the philosophies that I think my work embodies is that I personally don’t make value distinctions between what they used to call high vs. low culture. I don’t see different forms of the arts as being in actual opposition, but it is true that many of the arts called “entertainment” often encourage a more passive mode of engagement whereas many of the arts called “fine arts” tend to demand a more active mode.

What I try to provide is a way for viewers to engage that is neither strictly passive nor strictly active, a balance of both approaches that uses their opposition to amplify their strengths and cancel out their weaknesses, giving you a wider range of ways to engage. Neither “fun without thinking” nor “thinking without fun”. It’s true that my works, because they are collages, interrupt a linear single-narrative approach that entertainment often uses. Instead I present interconnecting, overlapping, and branching narratives that undermine the very idea or importance of narrativity and ask you to instead make some choices about what stories you want, to make decisions about what you think is happening and what you think should happen next. Choosing what to engage with or how to engage may be unnerving or challenging for some, but I am also there to do some work for them, to guide and help them, with familiar or nostalgic characters people know and love, lively and interesting colors and composition or surface textures, humor, dreamlike fantasy worlds–all pleasurable and sensual moments that a viewer can just enjoy, moments where they aren’t required to do all the heavy lifting themselves. To me these textiles, their colors and characters, already have value so I’m not trying to make them better or raise them up. I want to keep or showcase their inherent cultural appeal while still showing that they can be used for another purpose. They can be used to make models for other ways of perceiving, thinking, and behaving–other ways being, other ways of imagining.

Burn It Up”, 2006, fused and machine quilted, 104”x 91”, photo courtesy of David Ettinger, copyright Ai Kijima

Burn It Up-detail”, 2006, fused and machine quilted, 104”x 91”, photo courtesy of David Ettinger, copyright Ai Kijima

Burn It Up-detail”, 2006, fused and machine quilted, 104”x 91”, photo courtesy of David Ettinger, copyright Ai Kijima

What criteria do you use to choose the titles of your works? Is there an image that prevails over the others or a concept that holds the whole collage together and that inspires you for the title?

It is important to me not to shut down opportunities for imaginative engagement by giving titles that tell a viewer what they should be thinking, so my titles are intentionally ambiguous.  Normally I just pick an open-ended image, character, or text that’s in the work and use it as the title after I finish the piece. For example, “Night Is Young” was titled after an advertisement fabric banner by a beer company that I used in the piece.  My intention is to present a non-objective, eclectic yet balanced vision in which all the imagery in the work is presented equally, so any title that is too interpretative, something that could be misunderstood as the key to solving the work, would undermine that goal.

“Night Is Young”, 2006, Fused and machine quilted., 75″ x 136″, Photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

“Night Is Young-back”, 2006, fused and machine quilted, 75″ x 136″, copyright Ai Kijima

If I asked you to look back in time and identify, among your older works, the one that you feel is furthest from you today, which one would you choose and why? What role has this work played in your artistic growth?

In my twenties, I was focusing on plant dyes and hand weaving. In this work, Echo, I pieced my weaving fragments of wool, leather, feather and Indian tussar silk, with raw edge fabrics and added random stitches with threads, and strips of fabrics. This work was my attempt to create a unique painterly visual appearance. The techniques and materials I used then are quite different from what I do today, but I think this piece still has a particular expressive quality that is uniquely my own. I always love to combine different textures and materials into one piece so I continued in this direction in my later works.

“Echo”, 1999, Hand weaving, pieced and embellished, wool fleece, feather, leather, fake fur, kimono, silk fabric, cotton fabric and thread, 48” x 66”, Photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

A work or project to which you are particularly attached?

I don’t really have stronger or weaker attachments to my works, just different kinds. Sometimes when I look at a piece I move into the fiction or fantasy of it, just like anyone else might. Sometimes there are private symbols–a kind of personal mythology in a work that has emotional meaning that is just for me to know. Certain works are different technical, formal, or conceptual challenges that I set for myself, places where I grew through rising to meet those challenges, learning new approaches or skills, so when I see them I think about that. And some works just remind me of where I was and what my life was like when I was making them. For example, I lived and traveled in Turkey for several years, exploring the history and making of textiles in that region and making many works there from the fabrics I found at the flea markets that pop up on the weekends or at shops specializing in antique textiles in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. When I look at the pieces I made from the scarves, clothing, donkey bags, carpets, embroideries, mats, kilims, trims, sequins, beads, rhinestones, buttons and notions I found there, it takes me back to that special time in my life, to who I was then, what that world and time was like, and how my life is different now.

“Cake White Palace”, 2004, fused and machine quilted, 49”x108”, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

“Cake White Palace” detail, 2004, fused and machine quilted, 49”x108”, photo courtesy of Ai Kijima, copyright Ai Kijima

What is the source of your inspiration today? What are you working on?

I traveled to India for the first time two years ago, before the pandemic started, visiting the workshops where women make beautiful textiles on traditional looms. Since then it’s been my dream to go back there and continue exploring and learning more about their culture and their arts. I’ve been learning about and collecting textiles from India for a while now, but I’m not really sure how I am going to use all these beautiful fabrics yet. I’ve just been looking at them in my studio and thinking about what would be the best way to present and celebrate their inherent beauty,  while still somehow creating something new, but making sure to show my deep respect for their ethnic heritage by preserving it within the work.

Maria Rosaria Roseo

English version Dopo una laurea in giurisprudenza e un’esperienza come coautrice di testi giuridici, ho scelto di dedicarmi all’attività di famiglia, che mi ha permesso di conciliare gli impegni lavorativi con quelli familiari di mamma. Nel 2013, per caso, ho conosciuto il quilting frequentando un corso. La passione per l’arte, soprattutto l’arte contemporanea, mi ha avvicinato sempre di più al settore dell’arte tessile che negli anni è diventata una vera e propria passione. Oggi dedico con entusiasmo parte del mio tempo al progetto di Emanuela D’Amico: ArteMorbida, grazie al quale, posso unire il piacere della scrittura al desiderio di contribuire, insieme a preziose collaborazioni, alla diffusione della conoscenza delle arti tessili e di raccontarne passato e presente attraverso gli occhi di alcuni dei più noti artisti tessili del panorama italiano e internazionale.