Manufactured Oasis: The Next Best Thing by Emi Kodama
You can find out more about the artist here.
I picked up this little book at the start of a small European adventure early last year from Boekie Woekie in Amsterdam. It was the start of the trip and so I hadn’t yet run out of money and justifying my purchase was easy; it’s only a wee thing so fit fine in my bag, with a blank white cover and text that immediately felt pertinent. I don’t know why but I’m always drawn to books with a blank cover. It seems to make me more confident that what lies within will be interesting. (In the image I’ve stuck in my hand too, for scale.) The physical whiteness and cleanness of Manufactured Oasis echoes the artificial sparseness we glimpse within: a immaculate sink, painted leaves, shaped hedges and plastic flowers. The book uses images and text from across the globe to explore civilisation’s relationship with the wild. Admittedly, spelling it out like that steals some of its charm - part of the joy here is the fragmentation of the text, the jumps between time and place that leave you disorientated but invite a second reading and a third. You’re never really sure where you are, or rather, where you are meant to be. Through these shifts, sprayed grass in sun-parched Canada is linked to the artist’s mother dying her hair, we seem glimpses of the author but we’re not sure who exactly we’re listening to, and when. Is this fiction? Is this real? That question, I figure, is fundamental here. A framed painting (that I immediately presume to be mountains or lakes) is hidden behind a shirt on a hanger. Nemo the neighbourhood cat explores the yard jungle with no memory of the wild. There is constant tension between a desire for wildness and the eerie comfort of artifice; with every image comes an immediate search for nature.
Kodama isn’t critical of urban/suburban life necessarily but something about the framing here makes me feel claustrophobic. Perfect, unsettling scenes condensed tight into the white page. When I read the words ‘I realize I haven’t seen a field of grass in a very long time’ I start to feel uncomfortable. But I think what separates Kodama’s contemplation of wild and artificial from being condemning is a resignation to commit. It is with hesitancy that Kodama isolates these details. They are intimate spaces somehow despite their immaculate strangeness (the text perhaps, the nostalgia there softening - ) and it’s refreshing to not have the ‘wilderness’ presented as an escape and as a solution. When we are introduced retrospectively to a school teacher prepared at any moment to escape into the wild, with camping gear packed and ready to roll - Kodama hints at a brief sense of fear, a desire to be alone in front of the TV: safe, comfortable, artificial, content. This notion that raw nature is so accessible is presented as faintly ridiculous and the wild waiting beyond a vague threat. Somehow together these fragments of experience go some way to exploring the complexity of our relationship with the wild and the domestic. Most of us, I imagine, sit somewhere on the line between being repulsed and comforted by fake flowers, manicured lawns, framed pictures of mountain ranges we would struggle to enjoy in real life. Real life. You know what I mean. And in this uncertainty Manufactured Oasis shows its strength. It does not feel, to me, that Kodama is pointing her camera at urban environments and shouting and cursing and criticising those with fake flowers on their table. It is not with ridicule that we revisit Mr Harris ready always to leave, or Reiko’s mother preparing a foldable toilet for the end of the World. Kodama’s observations are not cruel. This book is sensitive and quiet, playful perhaps, and these images and excerpts linger for a moment wondering instead ‘isn’t this strange, where we find ourselves right now?’.
I don’t know if this has been a review as such, more of a pondering - but I want to start writing about the things I’ve been looking at as being forced to focus my thoughts means forging something more meaningful from my relationship with words and pictures. I have a good few more texts I want to re-visit from 2018 to get me going but going forward I’d like to offer this kind of interaction out to the world. Perhaps that seems strange, but I know that making things for me is a way in to a conversation. It’s sometimes tricky to know how people read your work, if they will read your work and often people are unwillingly to divulge how they respond. It’s easy to look at something and quickly forget the flesh of it, our attentions so often pulled ten ways at once. If you’ve made something and you want to hear thoughts, let me know - my undivided attention is something I can offer right now, happily, for free. Have a lovely Tuesday.