scholarship-holder antonia hirsch

Antonia Hirsch was born in Frankfurt am Main. She studied at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and lived in Vancouver, Canada, from 1994 to 2010; since then, she is based in Berlin, Germany. As part of her art practice, she combines raw materials of everyday objects with abstracted forms, especially from digital image and communication technology. Her works range from small-scale objects to extensive installations and make use of both sculptural and media formats. The artist’s bodies of work are often accompanied by book projects that articulate—in parallel to her work in the studio—her interest in scientific and philosophical questions, such as how quantitative, spatial, syntactic, or representational systems intertwine with sensory perception to ultimately enable an understanding of our world.

In 2022, when Japan reopened its borders after the pandemic’s travel restrictions, she embarked on the first of two planned trips to Japan, funded through a travel grant by the Hessische Kulturstiftung. In the interlude between these two trips, she talks with Gregor Jansen, art historian and director of Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, about her experiences on her first field trip.

Gregor Jansen After having traveled to Japan, Roland Barthes wrote a book called The Empire of Signs. That was in 1970. Yet, even today, his semiotic adventure in the Far East remains preparatory travel reading for some. He himself said that he was “indifferent” to the real Japan; that for him, it merely supplied material for his theoretical-linguistic “game.” How did you feel now, surrounded by signs? What was your reason for wanting to travel to Japan?

Antonia Hirsch Having been there for the first time now, I realize that I must have been looking to be mystified, to find myself in a situation in which I could rely far less than usual on linguistically communicable knowledge.

The concept for my research trip was to trace Kansei engineering, a design strategy articulated in Japan in the seventies. Kansei engineering applies particularly to everyday objects and aims at eliciting an affective response from users, for example in the design of a car whose radiator appears to be smiling. This design strategy is now ubiquitous worldwide and has become typical for the current form of capitalism.

A travel grant from the Hessische Kulturstiftung is completely open. You organize everything yourself, there is no one to welcome you or look after you at your destination. Like many Europeans today, I generally travel and get to know new places with a certain routine composure. But Japan was different for me: since I don’t speak the language, I was reduced to trying to comprehend my surroundings by way of images, shapes, gestures, and so on.

Gregor Jansen Your expectations and experiences, your sense of exclusion are quite typical. In Japan you are newly born and learn to reinvent the world, to explore its meaning—which the photos that you took as a kind of visual diary and that you have shown to me reflect beautifully.

Antonia Hirsch Of course you know what all of this is like based on your own travels to Japan! This experience of feeling lost is remarkable because on the surface, everything seems very familiar and similar to what we know in Europe or North America. Moreover, everything is so neat and tidy, conveying clearly that there are rules and systems—and here we come back to Roland Barthes: one recognizes both practical, for example administrative, and semiotic systems. And in recognizing them, there is an expectation to be able to penetrate them, to comprehend them. But to me it often seemed as if I was witnessing everything as if through a screen: I never felt fully immersed in what I was experiencing.
As a result, when I travel it is ultimately not about the acquisition of something like facts, but rather about adopting a kind of attitude or experiential mode—in other words, a way of operating on a sensual, affective level.

Gregor Jansen When you talk about the affective aspect of Kansei engineering, it makes me think of wabi-sabi. Both concepts are indicative of a culture that seems familiar and yet is completely different.

We are bemused by Asian visitors who incessantly photograph everything, but then we catch ourselves, wide-eyed, chasing the next great picture in the midst of their seemingly perfect world of things and nature; a world that is essential and pure, but also full of poetry, deep melancholy and characterized by spiritual yearning. That is what your photographs show, too. Do you agree, or do you have a different take on this?

Antonia Hirsch The philosophy of wabi-sabi is quite evident in Mingei, the Japanese folk art movement of the early 20th century. The fact that you connect Kansei engineering with wabi-sabi is interesting. Because both phenomena aim, albeit in very different ways, at an affective relationship with objects. In Japanese arts and crafts, this is often expressed through the evidence of the human hand, the imperfect, and also a material impermanence. Industrially manufactured products developed according to Kansei engineering strategies, on the other hand, are slick, and officially, there is no such thing as decay for them

Gregor Jansen According to Leonard Koren, the term “wabi” originally expressed a sense of despondency and joylessness, of feeling miserable, lonely, and lost. Today, wabi can perhaps be compared to Western romanticism in its reveling in melancholy loneliness. Combined with “sabi”—which expressed cool detachment and a withered quality, but also patina and maturity—the difficult-to-translate conceptual compound wabi-sabi was created, describing the perhaps quintessential feature of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Antonia Hirsch Exactly. The affective quality of industrially produced objects, on the other hand, lies in a desirable perfection and sometimes also in an aspect of cuteness, as in all things kawaii. What I find fascinating is how an everyday product, say a hairbrush, has, in addition to its aura as a commodity, the capability to reflect something like a society’s collective emotional disposition. It’s interesting to note that kawaii, which celebrates a childlike innocence, is a post-war phenomenon in Japan. I would propose that, at a societal level, the attraction of kawaii was at least partly fed by the experience of violence during the Second World War. In this respect, Japan has interesting parallels to Germany in that, on the one hand, it perpetrated terrible atrocities, and on the other hand, it had to suffer much violence itself. The fact that this experience gave rise to an incredible longing for innocence is not necessarily edifying, but it is possible to see the logic in it. I think something similar took place in Germany, but before World War II. In May 1945, for example, in a lecture before the Library of Congress, Thomas Mann elaborated on his idea of an “interiority protected by power” (“machtgeschützte Innerlichkeit”). His was an attempt to critically examine this ostensibly typical German inwardness. We know this mindset from the context of romanticism, for example, and it could be considered, as you just mentioned, as a parallel concept to that of wabi. Yet Mann situated it in a political and historical context, namely as a precursor to fascism: This is something that strikes me as frighteningly resonant with the current state of affairs when you think of phenomena like filter bubbles; the pandemic seems to have merely reinforced such tendencies. During the time of the pandemic, I caught myself inadvertently perceiving direct human contact as potentially dangerous, and apparently, I wasn’t alone in this. The type of exchange that went unchecked, however, was that of commodities, of things. At a time of reduced social contact, it is perhaps objects of all kinds, including or especially consumer products, through which we connect and ground ourselves emotionally. This is actually what I am exploring in my work: How objects—through their formal and material qualities—promise to satisfy emotional and creaturely needs, thereby casting light on social conditions and dynamics.

Gregor Jansen This is apparent in your art, but also in the photographs you took in Japan. There, you’re mainly concerned with the world of things. Among your photos there is, for example, a multi-part typology of Japanese traffic cones. And then there is also this glass screen that you mentioned at the beginning. Figuratively speaking, one could think of it as a lens, like your photographic lens, which on the one hand enables seeing, contact, but on the other hand also separates. It makes me think of Shintoism’s spirit world, according to which there are no things on earth without a soul. Eight million deities, it is said, populate the Shinto world: the kami. Really everything is alive, even in the hectic chaos of big cities—we just lack the glasses (lenses) to see this animistic side of the world; we slide off its surfaces. We very much separate spirit and matter, but in your art, I get the impression that you are exploring Western kami, like in your works Black Echo or in Bob. Through your eyes, we see things as part of an epistemological system, but not as an explanatory model. Do you agree?

Antonia Hirsch It’s interesting that you bring up the subject of spirits! Although I really know very little about them, regardless of whether we are talking Shinto spirits or any other kind. However, I have for some time now, been wrestling with three object categories—the talisman, the art object, and the commodity. These are each totally different from one another, but they have something in common, and that is the aura attributed to them. And since you brought it up, instead of speaking of an aura as a force that transcends the material, one could also say: this object is inhabited by a spirit, it is somehow animate. Although from a Western perspective, that’s a bit too new-agey for me. But you’re right, Black Echo in particular refers, though indirectly, to a spirit world. The work is not only inspired by the screens of our contemporary mobile devices, but it also refers to such historical instruments as “occult” black mirrors, which were used to contact spirits in 19th century Europe as part of the spiritism movement. Similarly, pre-Columbian Mesoamerican black mirrors made of obsidian, so-called smoking mirrors, were symbolic objects intended to enable the user to see and be seen in the spirit world.

So if I may rephrase your question as to whether explanatory models can become apparent through my artworks, I would say: I hope so. It actually is a paradox. Because explanatory models are something like a rational reflection of what can be perceived by way of the senses. I try to manifest these explanatory models in themselves—and their ideological distortions—by means of my objects. But in doing so, my goal is also to make things sensually accessible again.

Gregor Jansen I agree, because your work aesthetically lives up to everything one might demand of it; sensually it allows for astonishing modes of perception on precisely the levels you explained; it is intellectually ambitious and at the same time encompasses the spiritual, metaphysical, and irrational. The Japanese are, by contrast, very emphatically enthusiastic about a world of things that seems to know neither gravity nor substance. A world in which everything, including food, is created to facilitate gestures and ceremonial acts. “One must not bring a sensitive soul to Japan,” Nicolas Bouvier said in 1976. And Roland Barthes’s travelogue concludes with the words “there is nothing to grasp.” Both statements can be seen as the quintessence of happy encounters.
That aside, I wish you sensitivity for your second journey and many encounters with people of all stripes, never mind the ghosts. Be sure to share your impressions after your next trip! Thank you, Antonia, and have a good time in the unfathomable realm of signs.

Antonia Hirsch Thank you!