In her latest exhibition, Midst, Megumi Shauna Arai uses soft, subtle metaphors to address the many, often ambiguous layers of her Jewish and Japanese heritage.
While trained as a photographer, Megumi Shauna Arai often combines sculpture, fibers, and exercises with culturally significant materials to emphasize this splintering complexity. Her latest exhibition, Midst at Seattle's Jacob Lawrence Gallery is a series of photographs of bodies suspended in water exhibited amidst three installations referencing Japanese folk practices for honoring sacred space. In a piece in one room titled "did you not know, I was waiting for you?" a hobo bag with elements of Japanese stitching stands propped up in cinder blocks like flowers in a makeshift vase. In another piece titled "Interior Frontiers," sets of rice straw rope resembling a crown of thorns hang from the ceiling and entryway and wrap around the entire space. In another piece, " simultaneously (the border of a great belonging)," a similar rope connects two small boulders like a tin can telephone, but hangs loosely without the tension one might expect.
While each piece in the show has a very specific origin, there is an open-ended-ness that allows viewers to float through the gallery and gather their own meaning. I spoke with the artist to learn more about her process of making the work, and how her own sense of identity fits into it all.
Jon Feinstein: Your work has taken a variety of forms over the years: portraits and landscape photographs that hover between "art photography" and lifestyle/editorial genres as well as sculpture and work with fabric and fibers. It feels like your practice is continuously evolving. How does that play out in your show at Jacob Lawrence Gallery?
Megumi Shauna Arai: The work I have made over the past several years has culminated in this show. It takes a while to distill concepts in a physical, conceptual and emotional way. It’s true, I am constantly exploring different materials and what is consistent are the questions and ideas that interest me. I am originally trained as a photographer but while working in photographic form, I was incorporating touchstones in regional crafts and practices related to my multicultural upbringing.
These nuanced materials containing historical connotations are, for me, rich with metaphor. There is a poignancy in re-contextualizing traditional craft in order to explore connection and belonging. What does it mean to belong? If everyone is searching for belonging, does that mean we don’t belong? How is the narrative of belonging and not belonging dictated and can we upend this narrative to create space for new understanding- one that gives definition to the seeming peripheries, borders, edges. What if this existence is “in the midst”– the center of it all?
Feinstein: In your bio, and in our past discussions, you mention how your Jewish and Japanese ancestry, and more specifically, how having grown up in Seattle and Tokyo has been impactful to your practice. Can you talk a bit about this as it fits into this exhibition?
Shauna Arai: I think growing up between two countries and two cultures has instilled within me a feeling of being other. I subconsciously carry a feeling of not belonging. Whether this is real or imagined at this stage in my life, I am always searching and I think about who else searches and why they must search. Making work about this and creating a narrative where the search is the norm manifests for me a way to find openness and meaning.
Feinstein: Did your recent move to New York City influence or shift how you think about/make work?
Shauna Arai: I love how it feels like a meeting place for all the world. I feel normal in that context.
The diversity of people, unfortunately, is not mimicked by the binary economic structure that now exists in the city. New York is both an inspiring and exhausting place. What seems possible, your capacity to dream expands there, coupled with a hardcore reality check that humbles you. A right-sized ego makes me so open to learning and experiencing. New York puts me there. The amount of information and knowledge in that place is endless! But you know, I should be honest, I moved to the city for love, not for work, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into!
Feinstein: You also mention how your draw to assimilation and resistance, othering, and social disconnection is a consistent thread in your work – how does this play out in this exhibition?
Shauna Arai: These ideas are intrinsically linked to the nature of belonging, which I explore in this show.
Feinstein: The main promo image for the show is an abstract floating figure – they hover underwater their sex/gender is unclear (and not necesarily central to the image) and it's also unclear whether the person if floating on their stomach or back. What's the story behind this image?
Shauna Arai: This image and all the photography in the show are of abstracted bodies navigating in water. This is a search for form, the process of becoming through sight, through a perception of self and a reality of the other takes place in the cropped and fragmented bodies. The water and light reflecting off human form conspires into a reality of consciousness, a notion of self that can be lost with an uprooted movement through space. In this way, I am investigating how it feels to exist in a place of searching, these images are intended to put the viewer in that same realm.
Feinstein: Can you tell me a bit more about the exhibition title (Midst) and its importance to you, to this exhibition and to your larger practice?
Shauna Arai: Midst is the center of it all. It is a space that encompasses the now, among us and within us.