Mouhitori, Japanese for “someone else,” is the artist moniker of Tamaki Ono and Kiyohito Mikami who live and work in Onomichi. Nesting in the southern part of the country, near Hiroshima, this coastal hillside town squeezes between the slopes and the water. Back in the days of its original settlement, the hill was the preferred place to build. Hugging the mountain and couched in tall trees and shrubs, the old town offered a great view and environment. But times change – and the once thriving community of the Yamate district, with its timber frame houses and steep narrow staircases, dwindled away, one by one, leaving abandoned and rotting buildings behind. Soon enough, the area became known for its undesirability, its derelict houses serving as monuments to demographic change and the city’s transformation and commodification. As the area lost its vibrancy and vigor, living in Yamate also changed.
But this decline was not without potential for “someone else” and now Mouhitori explore the shunned district with an eye for transformation. While long-standing residents patch up the remains of their houses with scraps of plywood or sheet metal, the wild and unruly vegetation is eager to reclaim the rest of the hillside. Where buildings see a string of tenants moving on, vines and roots burst through windows and floors as part of an organic remodeling. Works like “Momoshima Window” or “Scab” invite visitors to witness this natural reclamation. The artworks open windows, remove protective covers and allow a deeper view of the transformative process. Through the duo’s lens, abandoned buildings become the sites of natural infiltration. The city still lives and breathes – only differently, organically.
Mouhitori’s art in Onomichi is “inconvenient,” they claim, because it “is essential to incorporate the special situation that is peculiar to Onomichi.” This makes their art decidedly site-specific, forcing viewers to be on-site to appreciate and understand the art. “It makes us indecisive, and often incomprehensible,” the artists add, appearing proud to challenge contemporary notions of virtuality and media use. Their art arises from the location, from its specific naturalness or urbanity. It inhabits the previously abandoned site and engages in the process of transformation. Eager to broaden the scope of their project, Mouhitori have invited other artists to collaborate in local workshops to re-invigorate the once desolate Yamate district.
But Mouhitori also take their artwork and approach abroad. In Prague, as guests of the city’s International Contemporary Art Festival, they took to the town and saved an inner city ruin from its sad and sorry state. By covering it in a printed wood-panel exterior, they masked the decay and reclaimed the building as a site of urban engagement through art, a work that in and by itself drew attention to the transformative nature of inner city environments.
Similarly, when visiting Geneva this September to attend the Utopiana workshop, the artists found the perfect spot for their site-specific art. Geneva, after all, faces the opposite problem of Onomichi: As it is densely populated, public space is crowded and natural intrusion next to impossible. Taking inspiration from what is left when things change, the artists decided to embrace the void that is part of transformation. While Onomichi sees nature taking over where people leave, Geneva has banished nature and unused space from the city. The Alps are close – yet built over or merely serve as a backdrop to urban existence. With this in mind, Mouhitori decided to create a room in a house that holds an echo of this oh-so-close natural element. An unexpected rock as a reminder of the glacial ur-state of the Geneva valley, a valley now governed by human life.
Mouhitori consider urban spaces negotiations of change. They use the void to create a new and emergent reality, while the scab – a protective covering – allows for new forms of life to find and reclaim the abandoned space. This of course also relates and refers to our own modern-day urban surroundings. Look around you and spot the signs of the changing city. And if you get the chance to visit Japan, take a walk around Onomichi before the mountain reclaims Yamate for good.
Text: Lars Schmeink
All images: Mouhitori