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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Three Doors to the Past, Present, and Future: in conversation with Cindy Mochizuki
Wednesday, July 29, 2020 | Yani Kong


I met Cindy Mochizuki when I attended the artist talk for her residency at the Burrard Arts Foundation, culminating in her most recent installation work, The Sakaki Tree, a Jewel, and the Mirror (2020). The work brings out her gifts as a fortune teller and builds on Japanese myth, light, shadow, ceramic art, and puppetry. Not to play too much into the destiny of it all—but when I entered the gallery, Cindy’s eyes met mine in a warm and familiar way. I don’t want to say that she knew I was coming, but when we spoke, it felt like she already knew me. 

For years, people have been telling me that I must meet Cindy Mochizuki because my research interests in aesthetics are akin to her work which thinks across multiple timelines: Asian and immigrant diasporas, ghosts, and the monsters that are left behind in storytelling. Her large body of work is nourished by the histories of Japanese-Canadian communities in British Columbia and Japan, and her multimedia installations, animations, clay work, and performances reach through time in the creation, gathering, and telling of stories that cross generations and places. 

Mochizuki’s work hangs time on a lattice, where memory radiates outwards and carries much tapped and untapped potential in its constant hum. In the video for the performance Sue Sada Was Here (2018), the artist activates texts by Nissei writer Murial Kitagawa (1912-1974), developing her essays and poetry into scores of experimental movements performed by second, third, and fourth generation and mixed-race dancers in the historic Roedde House in Vancouver. The resulting work binds past and present time, and creates a haunting atmosphere as the performers appear to climb into Kitagawa’s skin, filling Roedde House with her creative presence. In Fortune House (2014), a series of one-on-one performances in Koganecho, Japan, Mochizuki traded intimate readings in exchange for the querent's “monster stories”, tales that she would form into air-dried clay figurines born out of the fears, dreams, and nightmares that the participants left behind in the studio. Mochizuki’s work is both sensitive to memory and prone to the future, gathering history with both force and delicacy to rest it like a film on top of the contemporary. 

Many of our mutual friends have experiences with Cindy’s unique capacity as a diviner, meeting their life partners or accomplishing specific goals after being told by Cindy that they would. At her artist talk at the BAF, she spoke of activating the figures of The Sakaki Tree as divination objects, where close contemplation of the objects allowed for participants to uncover their own pasts and futures. My own reading with Cindy—save for the fact that it took place virtually—followed a more traditional tarot reading structure, beginning with a wish or an intention that I held in my mind while she shuffled. She says readings such as these puncture windows into time, casting light to small future vignettes. As I write this, I’m still searching for how to make sense of this new clarity. The interview below took place after my reading with Cindy, where through correspondence, we collaborate and reflect on time that is at once creative, processual, and anxious.  


I read as if I’m reading you a film; the images I read are pictorial and also textual in the sense that I’m looking at sounds and letters as the cards get laid out. The eye edits and makes choices on how the film is read. So in this way, I see divination as an extension of my artistic practice as a shape-shifting of time, and more importantly, a way of sharing a story.


After the reading, I was left with a sense of how my life is organized in time or—perhaps by time—and you managed to lift a kind of skin away to reveal a whole range of potential. Change, as you described it to me, was manageable and followed a natural progression. Somehow, the tidier structure of my reading left me feeling a bit confused (even as I felt relief), if only because I had been thinking of how to tie this reading in to a discussion about art, which almost always provides me with a more abstracted experience of life. I wondered, how does the reading you gave to me fit into a discussion of your work as both a diviner and as an artist?

Recently, I was interviewed for an audio project based out of Ottawa and they were interviewing on the concept of  “change” and I had spoken about how when I read there is a way to which the divination experience takes a shape in time. I spoke at length about “time” especially in relation to now; in that I wonder if‘“time” is an inward moving staircase at this time and that I should change the format of how I read. I currently read (as I did for you) from a Western calendar month timeline (January to December) using 12 cards and carry on with the following year in the same way. I read as if I’m reading you a film; the images I read are pictorial and also textual in the sense that I’m looking at sounds and letters as the cards get laid out. The eye edits and makes choices on how the film is read. So in this way, I see divination as an extension of my artistic practice as a shape-shifting of time, and more importantly, a way of sharing a story. Did you find that in the reading I gave you that it had a filmic quality? Or a series of snapshots that you can piece together? 

I think it did have a filmic quality—like the presentation of the shape that things could take. Is it strange to say that I have a small amount of anxiety in “knowing”? Something like a lingering question of whether these potentials can be fulfilled… and if my knowing about them will force the shape in some way. On the other hand, because your reading for me was so focussed on career development, I also had a sense of relief in hearing that somewhere there is an image of achievable success. So yes, a filmic quality and then an anxiety over whether I was happy to have seen the movie…

Somehow the uncertainty that some forms of art cultivate provides a kind of space for reflection on a given subject, or a world event; one or many ideas. In your oeuvre, a piece can house multiple stories at once, and I wonder how you imagine these stories crossing? For instance, in The Sakaki Tree, a Jewel, and the Mirror (2020) at the BAF, you tell the story of the Goddess Ameratasu, who retreated to a cave, and in doing so shrouded the sun for those on Earth. You gathered the delicate bodies of Gods who waited outside her cave, both in tactile sculpture and shadow form, and you used the same space as one to perform public readings. 

In that work, there is the stretching of parallel timelines: Ameratasu’s, the puppets and shadows, and the readings you give for your spectators. How do these stories contribute to each other in the piece? How do spectators’s readings cross with the life of the artwork? Do these lifelines ever form a dependency on the other?

I am interested in transforming the gallery space so it can hold multiple forms of practices and social encounters. Perhaps it becomes expanded to hold objects that tell stories that can shift time and allow for multiple layers of times to co-exist. The installation called forth the story of Amaterasu through what we saw in the space—the puppets and their shadows—and also our shadows as we approached them and as other viewers criss-crossed the paths of light. The installation then became activated by me and the new deck of cards I made for the show: it became an altar for divination. For the Sakaki Tree exhibition I created a set of rituals to perform that allowed for the querent to tap one of the thin branches that held a puppet. Each puppet correlated to a number that made up the Asian star map in the sky, and I read three puppets that were selected: one to represent present, one to represent past, and one to represent future. I think for those that experienced the intimate one-on-one reading—that their interpretation of the installation changes. Maybe this is the dependency you are talking about in that the exchange of divination gave the work another invisible layer of meaning.


The Sakaki Tree, a Jewel, and the Mirror
 (2020), Mixed media installation, silkworm cocoons, mohair fleece, traditional Japanese rayon bunka thread, and porceline. Photo Credit: Dennis Ha.


In your works that draw your art and fortune practices together, I see you as a message collector, where you make an exchange of art and fortune with your sitters for the collection of their future stories. Do you see your art and divination practices as separate in any way? Or given that your capacity as a diviner blends so beautifully with your capacity as an artist, do you find these as seamless practices that are necessarily intertwined? Is there any point at which your practices as artist and fortune teller diverge?

I see them as one in the same in the sense that they both utilize a part of thinking and imagining which echoes both in my practice and in the way I read and open up space for a stranger. There are similar types of engagement that I work through, maybe they are performative, that exist in both divination and art making. However, for practical reasons, sometimes the hat of the reader is on and it has nothing to do with art making. I am purely just reading for a client. A few times, I will get invited to participate in an exhibition or residency and the curator that I work with is interested in entering or opening up a space where the divination and the art making can co-exist. Examples are Magic School (2017), Fortune House (2014 in Koganecho and 2018 at the Frye Art Museum). You can also say that at BAF I offered readings on select days out of my own desire to try the new deck of cards I made for that piece. 

I talk about a process in my artistic practice called “a calling”, mostly when I do work where the research and the materials are not visible to the human eye. Maybe they are working on the archives, maybe it is when I’m seeking out information from Japanese-Canadian elders who have agreed to tell me stories about their past. I never know what will materialize, what will surface. But there is a gentle nudge or a “calling” that drops in or leaves messages. I can be sitting in an archive and I think, “Is it coincidence that this one letter appeared to me?” out of all the material housed in the archives and stayed with me to become the work Rock, Paper, Scissors (2017). The letter I’m referring to is a yobiyose, which is a calling letter that Japanese-Canadian settlers sent back to their families in order to call them over to Canada or the US before the war. I was doing work in Yonago, Tottori around this island called Kayashima and created a radio documentary around this place as a fiction but as a process of callings: through strange encounters, messages, people, the artwork realized itself along a strange four-year process. I think in that instance, something else was calling me to find the clues, and I think in this instance or example, I could see that the artist and fortune teller/message seeker merged. 


All of your monsters
, Koganecho Art Bazaar Fictive Asia Communites, Koganecho, Yokohama, Japan, 2014. Curated by Makiko Hara. Detail of clay monsters in exchange for readings. Photo courtesy of Koganecho Bazaar


At your artist talk at the BAF in February, you talked briefly about the figures in your work being formed of (or as?) divination objects. In the work you describe above, it seems your research process performs a gathering of these objects that you guide as they unfold for you. Maybe Tarot cards fall into this category too, since they have their own sequence of unfolding information that depends specifically on your relationship to their workings. Can you tell me a bit more about these objects and their significance in your work? And perhaps, you could describe their importance in terms of some individual pieces; I’m thinking of The Sakaki Tree and the clay monsters in Fortune House (2014) in Koganecho, but please feel free to expand. 

The puppets in the BAF show were described using the term “divination object” because like the Tarot cards, I am fascinated with how objects can imbue a story or the capacity for change. In my work around memory and history I came across the writing of Leo Spitzer who talks about a testimonial object as something from the past which holds multitudes of memories and phases in time. He quotes in the abstract of his text, Testimonial Objects: Memory, Gender and Transmission (2006), “Inspired by Roland Barthes’s notion of the punctum, we read such testimonial objects as points of memory—points of intersection between past and present, memory and postmemory, personal and cultural recollection. They call for an expanded approach to testimony, one in which a consideration of gender can play an important interpretive role. Testimonial objects enable us to consider crucial questions about the past, about how the past comes down to us in the present, and about how gender figures in acts of memory and transmission.” So I’m interested in what the objects transmit. I’m often looking at objects from the past…but in this case I’m more and more curious about objects in the present, and from how via their syntax in space can create certain tensions, openings, portals, possibilities. The clay monsters in Fortune House were made after readings with residents in the Koganecho area who left behind a monster story in exchange for a reading. I felt the need to have to “leave behind” the weight of these monsters. I would quickly use air-drying clay to model out what was spoken to me and made a little altar of them. They were little, but powerful and very strange. That weight and anxiety can be heavy, and so as a reader it’s important to deposit that energy someplace and it can transform or dissipate. 

Something that I think about often in my own work is the creation of time documents, which, similar to the divination objects that you described above, can cast time in different directions by the ways in which certain art objects can guide our awareness. In an extreme and polarizing case, I had this experience viewing Christoph Büchel’s piece Barca Nostra (2019) in Venice last year. Büchel had dredged a recovered fishing boat that had been carrying an average of five migrants per square metre, becoming a coffin for more than 700 bodies when it collided with the Portuguese freighter attempting to respond to its rescue.  The artwork demanded attention similar to a gravestone, but also had the effect of throwing the viewer’s awareness backwards through time to the site of trauma. I think of this as working a little like a psychological time machine, where there is a cruelty that occurs as it enfolds the viewer (maybe even implicates them) in that painful history. This is a contentious example that doesn’t speak for all works. As a point of research and thinking, I have mainly dwelt on the action of being swept up in time, and the radicality of art to position the viewer in multiple periods, even while nothing moves. But it does occur to me that divination offers an undoing to this, or rather, as a practice, it unfolds the reader and delivers them to a present or future context. I wonder if you can speak a bit about time, and describe how (or if),  in the context of your work, divination is able to collect the viewer/querent and move them through time and space?

I think divination does undo the sense that you are just passively watching. I think it requires the individual who takes part to actively do the work, and make sense of time in the now and into the future. Also, it allows for the viewer to make sense of the past—maybe that we are constantly revisiting those doors of past, present, and future. And that the past, present, and future doesn’t necessarily appear to us in that order either. In my work, there are projects which are not linked to divination and that invite us to think about time and space. In the work that I create around the Japanese-Canadian experience, or works directly related to the internment of my family and their lives—I feel like in that moment I am constantly shuffling through the past and future. How do I appear and make it as an artist in today’s context, to revisit this work and how is it re-presented in the gallery? What am I trying to conjure from the past, or from those parents and relatives that have passed, and can no longer tell me things in the present? This is not divination…but it surely is a process of navigating a sense of watchful listening and trying to work with delicate materials—people’s lives—and to stitch them back into some kind of a narrative, installation, or story. It is a fine balance of ethics and aesthetics, and I’m constantly questioning my role in the structures around the work that will enforce meanings. 

In projects where divination literally is working with the viewer/querent, I find that we will often focus objectively outside ourselves. As if we have slipped out of time and are standing above a pool of water with many things floating to the surface. And as we both struggle to make sense of this, I think there is a way of moving back and forth between time and space. So rather than time being one object, in the process of divination, it becomes something we can look at from afar and then return back into. 


Fortune House
 (2014), Koganecho Art Bazaar Fictive Asia Communities, Koganecho, Yokohama, Japan. Curated by Makiko Hara. Detail of one-on-one performances.  Photo credit: Paul Mundok


I want to move the conversation towards time in the context of lockdown—maybe how this period of insularity affects our relationship to the past and the future. During lockdown, I haven’t felt led to take any refuge or comfort in art or even in my scholarly practice. I feel a little held in stasis, and I have to admit, I had a small hope that my reading with you would help to propel me out of this suspension—at least to say there is a future. But as days go by, the present spools out both in front and behind me, past and future melt away and I just have “the right now”. Will you speak about your capacities as a reader in this context? And how, if at all, has this unspooling present tense affected your art making practice? 

I think this time of lockdown has forced me to really think about the present and what I am capable of—and in this time, I am not able to do all the juggling and multi-tasking that I was able to do before the COVID-19. It’s made me open my eyes to the amount of labour that went into keeping up the practice or way of life I had prior to this. I have done a few readings during this lockdown and mostly people focus on “What can I focus on now while we are in stasis?” and in that sense, time becomes almost like a spiraling staircase or a conical seashell. It’s not a linear or non-linear movement of up and down and left and right, but it moves inwards. And maybe this makes us feel like we are not moving but spiraling. 

In some ways, I feel I have gone quite inward, that this time I’m thinking very much about my past lived experiences and though I have anxiety and anticipation about the future and what that might look like, I too am just capable of ‘“the right now”.

The above conversation was conducted by Vancouver based writer, researcher, editor, Yani Kong.  Editorial support by Juilee Raje. Special thanks to Cindy Mochizuki for engaging generously in the conversation.

Top/front image: Sue Sada Was Here, Roedde House, Vancouver, BC, 2018 Video Installation part of Memories of the Future III, curated by Katherine Dennis. Photo credit: Rachel Topham Photography