critical essays

Contemporary Heidi

Recognized early on as an important installation artist in the 1980s, Chie Matsui adopted video as her primary mode of expression in 2000. But as Keiji Nakamura has so accurately pointed out, there is a sharp distinction between Matsui’s work and the flood of recent video works. Her work seems to have emerged as a result and development of contemplating installations of the past. 

In Matsui’s pre-2000 installations, objects with a variety of textures were distributed around a space, and in order to suggest subtle connections between them, it was necessary for the viewer to walk around, attempt to link fragments of meaning and feel their way around to grasp the overall image. These works were not only visual, they required the viewer to experience them with all their of senses. As a result, Nakamura lauded Matsui as the only artist in Japan who used installations as a method of self-expression in the truest sense. He defined the characteristics of the format as follows: “…the idea of not differentiating subject from object, form from content, or art from life is better suited to the installation. The installation is a non-modern or ultra-modern method for a supra-Western attitude.”1

In other words, it seems that what Matsui attempted to do with her installations was recover the complex relationships between different elements and the sense of a tangled whole, which had been inevitably lost in the search for analysis, reduction, and systematization during the modern era. By arranging many objects side by side, and also occasionally adding writing, Matsui intentionally obscured the meaning of the work, inviting the viewer into a coherent world, and using the work as a mechanism for perceiving with the entire body. 

Though in Matsui’s video work, the viewer is not asked to move into a space, the dangerous circumstances, in which Heidi staggers around in a completely defenseless state while threatening to fall, involuntarily trigger a sense of urgency in the viewer, causing them to become agitated and even stiffen up. While this effect on the physical body is something that strongly connects Matsui’s videos and her installations, it is also a characteristic that separates her work from many picturesque video works that appeal solely on a visual level. And by manifesting latent temporal elements and incorporating sound in her installations, Matsui’s video draws us into a complex and multilayered world, demanding not so much that we look at it, but that we live it. What we experience here is, perhaps, the primordial form of a world that it has become difficult to truly feel due to the demands of an analytical, ordered system. 

HEIDI 44, the first in a series of video works, is not an allegory for the little girl who lives in the Alps. Instead, by making an allegory out of the narrative framework of Heidi, Matsui sets out to reconfirm the original state of the world that we live in and create an “allegorical vessel” that allows us to experience that world and our connection to it. And the state of the work, as Matsui said in the ’90s, functions as a “channel” flowing between two separate consciousnesses, or a device for escaping the trap of individual uniqueness. 

Mizuho Kato 

Curator, Ashiya City Museum of Art & History

1. Keiji Nakamura and Chie Matsui, We Never Went Out on a Date (Chie Matsui and Roba-Film), November 1, 2005. Originally published in Alfred Birnbaum, trans., Out of Place, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1993, p. 111. 

Note: This is an edited and revised version of a text that originally appeared on a leaflet for the exhibition What Is the Real Nature of Being? (Ashiya City Museum of Art & History, January 12-February 24, 2008). Mizuho Kato is now the Visiting Associate Professor at the Museum of Osaka University.