Hiromi Tsuha: The Nomadic Intruder
Although much of Hiromi Tsuha’s work is strikingly different, there’s one central theme that is always present. In each of her projects, she has rebuilt something where once it was lost. From reconstructing her father’s house to recreating the homes of her friends on the steppes of Mongolia, these pieces of art all tell a similar tale. They are symbolic of home.
Tsuha doesn’t remember the exact details of her early years; what led to her parents’ separation or how she became a nomad. Her childhood was a turbulent one and, although her mother didn’t talk about it much, she gets the impression that her father was ‘not a good guy.’ What she does know is fragmented, yet intriguing.
Tsuha was three years old when her father, a carpenter by trade, left Okinawa for work in Osaka. He urged his family to live with him there, and soon they joined him. However, he didn’t have anywhere to stay, and so the family lived with a friend of his until they were promptly asked to leave.
It was then that the family unit embarked on their nomadic journeys. Tsuha, along with her parents and younger brother, moved from home to home in Osaka. They stayed with friends along the way until they eventually found a place of their own. After the birth of her youngest brother, when she was five, her parents’ relationship broke down, and they separated.
At the time, she accepted that her father was no longer a part of her life. It was just the way things were. It wasn’t until years later, when she was an adult with a life of her own, that she’d truly feel and understand the repercussions of his absence. While she was studying in the UK, she heard the news of his passing. It was a revelation that would change the entire course of her professional career.
Exploring these newfound feelings of loss and confusion, Tshua made a vow to learn more about the parent she barely knew. The decision would take her on a journey to her father’s former home, where she’d get an insight into the latter years of his life.
“He lived in a simple house, next to an uncompleted concrete house,” she explains. “He was trying to build a family home, but he couldn’t finish it. He watched his failure – the half-built empty house – until his death, not able to complete the house for his family.”
Tsuha was working toward an MA at the time, but decided to abandon her original project – although she’d already submitted the proposal – and dedicate her next piece of art to her late father and his unfinished home. She quickly returned to London, bringing with her a radio from his house as a memento. There, she began using building materials to create an original exhibit based on her recent experience in Okinawa.
“I always went to a builders merchant to buy five kilograms of cement [at a time], carrying to school,” she recalls. While the other students were using pencils, paints, and other standard artistic tools, she was bucking the trend.
For her final project at university, Tsuha recorded two sounds to be played alternately – builders mixing cement and rain hitting a corrugated aluminum ceiling. She explains that she was recreating a construction site, which lacked only a builder. A striking statement.
Next, she had the chance to return to Okinawa, and the next incarnation of this idea became her 2008 exhibit, Speakers and Pink String. The aim of this exhibit was clear – she was recreating her father’s house, finishing the parts of it he never did. “I tried to make a house as an artist. I'm not the builder,” she says candidly.
She adorned the exhibit with pink construction string to create the space; using the materials her father knew best. But making the space wasn’t enough; now she had to fill it. This time she recorded voices – that of her younger brothers, her mother, and other people from the area – and played them in the unfinished room.
The separation from her father wasn’t the only aspect of Tsuha’s childhood that inspired her work. Once back in London, she was also to become, in her own words, a ‘nomadic intruder.’ The move echoed the path she had taken all those years ago when she was young. It involved living out of a suitcase and staying in six different home environments. The entire journey took three months or, more poignantly, twelve weeks.
The experience hatched a new artistic idea; Tsuha soon began work on the project, which she fittingly called 12 Weeks. “The experiment consisted in spending a brief period in each house, doing the same methodic actions,” she explains.
“I had conversations with the host. I borrowed clothes to sleep. I measured and traced the room where I slept in. I became some sort of nomadic intruder collecting highlights of daily routine." It was an enlightening way of life and one which reflected a culture she’d previously observed for herself.
"I thought about nomads in Mongolia,” she says. “Myself moving house to house in the big city – nomads are moving their house with them in the vast steppe.”
Using the measurements that she took from each home, she was able to recreate each one’s dimensions by sewing together bits of pillowcases and duvets. She took these makeshift maps of each room to Mongolia and set them on the vast landscape there.
“I wanted to juxtapose both; then I brought the rooms where I measured with me to Mongolia.” Finally, she made postcards out of this exhibit, which were aptly called Bayarlalaa. Each one was symbolic and created to thank each person who supported her.
“Usually you need to feel safe to sleep in a way,” she explains. “So a home should be kind of safe.” For Tsuha, this safe place has always been any place she lays her head. As she puts it, the materials she uses are not mere fabric but symbols of the place she calls home. That is – wherever she so chooses.
Words Charlotte Grainger