Art Criticism and Writing | MFA Program

Thursday May 2nd, 2013
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What Lies Beneath: Kohei Nawa’s “Pixcell Deer #24″

by Victoria Potucek

Kohei Nawa, "Pixcell Deer #24," 2011. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The term Pixcell is derived from both “pixel” and “cell”—the most basic building blocks of the digital and the organic. Japanese artist Kohei Nawa has been working with his unique artificial glass medium, called Pixcell beads, since 2000, using them to address the discrepancies between exterior and interior, perceived and actual. Hundreds of crystal clear beads coat a once living, now taxidermied deer, complete with a full and proud rack of antlers.

I am initially struck by the austere image that the freestanding deer sculpture presents. It stands, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by ancient Japanese screens that are coated in natural imagery. Nawa’s Pixcell Deer #24 (2011) is a solitary figure emanating a cool, silvery light in an otherwise warm, golden room. But its magnetic attraction quickly ceases when I realize what lies beneath the bubble-covered skin. A deer, once living, breathing and feeling, is now stuffed, frozen and silent. From afar, the stag deceives viewers into believing that it is simply a sculpture, an inanimate object that was made from nothing into something. The realization of being tricked, as well as being confronted with what is essentially a carcass, disturbed and repulsed me.

Nawa himself confronted the difference between perception and actuality during his work on his “Cell” series. By purchasing taxidermied animals and other objects (ranging from dice to emus) online, Nawa was forced to reconcile what was presented as a pixel-based image with what he received as a cell-based object. The deer is traditionally considered a messenger for the deities of the Japanese Shinto faith. Nawa repurposes the ancient Kasuga Mandala (the compositional motif of a white deer turned toward a mirror that sits on its back) to create his own harbinger of deception, which communicates the release from physical reality in preference for images.

Nawa, "Pixcell Deer #24," detail.

His focus on the space between perception and reality, or what might be called illusion, inspires ominous feelings. The outer layer of things, the skin, is the most immediately attractive portion of the work, but it also physically and metaphorically distorts what lies beneath it. A single bead, similar in size to a fortuneteller’s crystal ball, rests in the slope of the deer’s spine. As the largest Pixcell it is the easiest to peer into, but grotesque fun-house-mirror images form within it. My own twisted and bent reflection mixes with the contorted features of the deer into a vortex of light and color. The glass eyes of the stuffed animal are near human eye-level; a dark and piercing stare hangs beyond the fractal divide.

Reflections force a viewer to both look and be looked at. But this often leads to forgetting the divide between what is presented and what is seen.

By covering a surface of an object with transparent glass beads, the existence of the object itself is replaced by a ‘husk of light,’ and the new vision ‘the cell of an image’ (Pixcell) is shown. -Kohei Nawa

Knowing that I was both staring at, and being stared at, forces me to reevaluate the relationship that was forming between this art object and myself. Is then this deer that lived into adulthood before being killed, stuffed and sold, still a deer? No. Now this animal exists solely as an image—pixels made of light and color created by its new, artificial skin. The living animal was translated to an image on a website, repurposed into a sculpture, and then recreated as a hybrid physical-image. Nawa’s use of the Pixcell beads on everything great and small, living and dead, imposes a sense of neutrality that breeds uncertainty in my mind. What is nature in the technological age? Are we people or are we images of people? And finally, will the human eye eventually lose the ability to tell the difference? By not giving answers to my many troubling questions Pixcell Deer #24 forms a chasm of worry in my mind that stirs an instinctive reaction—fear.

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