Remembering the artist Seiko Mikami (1961-2015)
The news about Seiko Mikami's death comes as a shock. We lose a friend, and we lose one of the most important artists exploring the conditions of being human in a technological world. In Mikami-san's case, *this media and technology-related work extends over more than two decades* during which she realised a series of works that are as few in numbers as they are complex in their conception. These works deal with the encounter between humans and technical systems, and with the possibilities of self-reflection offered by technical interfaces. Perception and sensation are the guiding topics of these works: what does it mean to hear, to see, to feel? Seiko Mikami constructed installations in which it was possible to see oneself seeing, to hear oneself hearing, and to get a sense of the extended tactile space in which we move around today. And, in her most recent work, Mikami-san offered us a speculation about the sensations of a machine system that observes us as we are looking at it in the gallery space.
She inherited this reflexivity from a tradition of 20th century art that includes Naum Gabo presenting the virtual sculptural shape of a spinning metal rod, Marcel Duchamp exploring the act of viewing by spinning disks and spheres, and Nam June Paik, who she had met in the 1980s, and who was a master of appropriating and reinventing media technologies. Unlike these artists, Seiko Mikami was not concerned about the conceptual status of art, or about its autonomy. For her, art was the realm of creativity that allowed her and others to ask questions and explore aspects of human existence that do not fit into the formulas of functionality, productivity and innovation. This might be the paradox of Mikami's work: that as much as she used and developed, together with her collaborators, new technological systems and advanced solutions, her interest was never in the technology, but only in its potential to elicit, mediate and reflect human experience.
People who met and worked with Seiko Mikami will remember a fine, always courteous and friendly person who was as generous in sharing her ideas and insights, as she was diligent when it came to the details that were important to her. Her years as a young artist in New York City gave her an independent habit and mind that was unusual for a Japanese woman of her generation, and that has been inspirational for many students and younger artists that she later worked with at Tama Art University in Tokyo. Nowhere else her presence and inspiration will be missed more urgently.
Early experiences with complex technical systems taught Seiko Mikami, over the years, how to combine the most advanced technical development work that she enjoyed especially at the Canon ARTLAB and at Yamaguchi Center for Art and Media, with a pragmatism that made her installations affordable to build, easy to ship, and easy to set up. Part of her success in the last decade, and a sign of her great creativity, has been the fact that her installations, incl. the impressively complex “Gravicells” (co-authored with Sota Ichikawa) and “Desire of Codes”, would fit into a few crates and could readily be adapted to the available exhibition spaces, without losing any of their aesthetic power and finesse. -
The robotic camera system of the “Desire of Codes” installation observes the visitors and processes their video images into the multi-facetted projection of a virtual machine eye. *The data-base stores all of the portraits* and mixes these images with live feeds from webcams all over the world. But when the system detects no movements in the space, apparently alone and without human observers, it falls into an enigmatic dream state in which a darker tone of images and a rumbling drone of sounds create a somber and melancholic atmosphere that might be an autobiographic foresight, but it might also be a vision that Seiko Mikami left us with, namely that the technological systems not only expand our *intelligence*, but that they also inherit our sentiments. Mikami-san gave us opportunities to reflect both on the nature of technology, and on the nature of humans at the beginning of the 21st century. That reflection will have to continue without her now.
Berlin, 27 January 2015