- Chisato Minamimura
- Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology
- Arts Council
For Arts&Heritage’s Meeting Point 5 programme, six museums and heritage sites have been selected to work in partnership with artists to commission a new work of art inspired by each venue. Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology in Reading is one of these sites, who is working with the artist Chisato Minamimura. Chisato has created a new visual vernacular performance film for the commission, which enables audiences to experience myths and beliefs of ancient Greece and Egypt with all five senses.
Created in partnership with the Museum, Hesychia – which is named using the Greek word for ‘silence’ – is a film which will be projected onto the ceiling of the museum. Viewers will experience smells and tastes of ancient Greece and will wear Woojer™ straps which use vibrations to provide another way for people to experience the sound in the performance.
Visual vernacular is a type of physical theatre which combines movement, gestures, sign language and facial expressions to convey meaning.
“It has been amazing to work with the Ure Museum; their vast and precious collections are fascinating and are such an important archive. I hope my installation in the space sheds a new light on this collection, allows more people to engage with the exhibition and offers a physicalised representation of these ancient artefacts.” – Chisato Minamimura
The installation will be complemented by Greek and Egyptian artefacts from the Ure Museum collection which tell stories about silence and sounds in the ancient world.
The performance combines elements of myths including the Greek story of Medusa, who was said to have been born a mortal and transformed into a monster, and the Egyptian deity Bennu, said to have played a role in the creation of the world.
The artist also took inspiration from ancient Greek beliefs around the stars and constellations, and audiences are encouraged to view the work lying on the ground, to mimic the viewing of the stars.
Amy C. Smith, Curator of the Ure Museum and Head of the Classics Department at University of Reading, said:
“This is going to be something which most of us have never experienced before, catering to all of the senses. It’s been really eye-opening working with Chisato and being inspired by her intuitions and ideas about the museum and its collections.”
Hesychia will be on show at Ure Museum in Reading on Friday 30 September at 5.30pm, including a Q&A with artist Chisato Minamimura. Tickets are free and can be booked via Eventbrite.
“’Hesychia’ uses visual vernacular to make the work equally accessible to both Deaf and hearing audiences. It integrates this accessibility into the work itself instead of creating stand-alone versions for different audiences.” – Michael Kitchin, Chisato Minamimura’s producer
A&H commissioned the filmmaker Pascal Vossen to work with Chisato Minamimura on a ‘making of film’ for Hesychia, capturing the artist’s process.
The Ure Museum conserves and displays art, archaeological artefacts and archives relating to the ancient Mediterranean cultures, for the purpose of research, education, and enjoyment. As part of the Classics Department at University or Reading, it supports all academic disciplines and provides free and open access to all who would benefit from its resources.
Ingrid Swenson freelance curator, visited The Ure Museum to view Hesychia, a Meeting Point commission by artist Chisato Minamimura.
The Greek term Hesychia roughly translates as stillness, quiet or silence, but more specifically it indicates a state of inner peace and spiritual tranquillity achieved through contemplation. Chisato Minamimura – a Deaf artist who works in performance, choreography, and digital art – chose this word as the title for her installation at The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology.
Perhaps best described as a micro museum, The Ure Museum is home to one of the most important collections of ancient Greek pottery in the UK. These and related items in the collection are contained within a modest gallery space situated within the Classics department at the University of Reading. First time visitors will be struck by an almost uncanny and instantaneous sense of disconnect between the gallery space and a typically institutional, and otherwise unremarkable, corridor complete with notice boards, staff identity photos and wayfinder signage. As we cross the threshold, we enter a world of glass vitrines filled with exquisitely made and decorated objects alongside photographs and information panels to help unlock our understanding of ancient culture.
Like most small museums, The Ure is characterised by a sense of stillness, but not of disengagement. The exhibits here act in such a way as to draw the viewer in. Through the observation and contemplation of their form, materiality and the abundant decoration teeming with ancient myths and stories, each exhibit creates a visual explosion for the imagination. For a University Classics department, the gallery provides a place where ancient text can come alive through the material evidence provided by these artefacts. When Minamimura was invited to develop her commission, she was instantly captivated by these objects. From her lived experience perspective as someone who has been profoundly deaf from birth, she saw an opportunity to engage hearing and non-hearing audiences on a journey to explore two Greek myths – of Bennu and Medusa – in a non-verbal multisensory experience. She enacts these stories on film through a form of storytelling known as visual vernacular (VV) – a unique and highly expressive physical theatre practice that uses elements of mime, gesture, and sign language. As with most VV, the storyteller is dressed simply, usually against a black background and does not use props so that the narrative is conveyed by their movements and facial expression alone. But in a break from VV convention, the artist is filmed against a white background, in different lighting effects and wears three solidly-coloured changes of clothes in black, white and red.
Visitors encounter Minamimura’s installation in an area of the museum that is normally used for student seminars. A video screen is mounted horizontally onto the ceiling underneath which are three mats and headphones for audiences to view her 9-minute video work while down on the floor. At the launch event and for the first week of installation, the room was filled with the scent of frankincense. Viewers were invited to drink a small amount of red wine on entering the space and were also given the opportunity to wear a Woojer strap. This device, also known as a haptic strap, is worn on the upper body and synched to film being watched enabling the viewer to feel sound. Often used by gamers or when listening to music, the wearer experiences heightened sensory immersion, something that here Minamimura builds upon with the addition of wine and scent.
In the installation area, Minamimura also selected nine objects from the collection that were decorated with elements from the two myths. Bennu is an immortal heron-like waterbird that died and was reborn each day in accordance with the rising and setting of the sun and played a role in the creation of the world. The Medusa story of an evil snake-haired monster who has the power to turn mortals to stone with her gaze, is one that is perhaps more familiar today. But Minamimura, wanted to tell us her backstory and how her transformation from a beauty to a hideous gorgon was the result of the god Athena’s jealous rage with Medusa after she was lost her virginity when she was raped by the sea god Poseidon. Mindful that the objects on display were created in a pretechnological, polytheistic and animistic world, it was important for Minamimura to communicate the ancient Greeks’ profound connection to their physical environment. These objects were not admired and appreciated for the reasons that we do today, but because they bore the symbols and images that were at the very core of their beliefs and creation stories, and it was through these that the world was understood. She wanted to explore and interpret these dramatic myths and situate them in the context of everyday lives of their original makers.
The film intertwines the two stories of Bennu and Medusa, and Minamimura uses her skills and training in dance combined with VV to become an exquisite storyteller creating visualisations of narrative, sound, and the passage of time through movement and expression. In the edit, additional footage and camera effects such as colour filters, slow motion and blurred focus, are used to distinguish scene changes and as emphasis for specific dramatic moments.
Stories are held in the memory as entities rather than played-out narratives. Whether personal, folkloric, mythic, literary or historical, a story can be recaptured in the mind as if suspended in a moment rather than something that must be unravelled through linguistic description. For many, our thoughts – and especially perhaps our dreams – are comprised of image, shape, atmosphere and emotion rather than an internal monologue or an account of actions. Minamimura recognises that for the hearing population, communication is guided both by non-verbal as well as spoken interactions, and suggests that perhaps an ability to understand without speech is suppressed because the aural dominates over the other senses in much day-to-day activity. She describes the human sensory experience as being represented on the five points of a star. Everyone’s star is personal and different. It isn’t a matter of Minamimura’s star having four points, but rather that her fifth point is enabled and created by the four others. In Hesyschia, the artist not only presents the opportunity to experience a work which employs all five senses, but one that has been inspired and informed by her consideration of the objects and beliefs of an ancient culture, whose lives were in many ways more connected to the fullness of the sensory world, experiences being directly felt without our contemporary reliance on technological filters or enhancements.
Artists have often been drawn to objects from the distant past that seem to possess secrets they want to unlock. This provides fertile ground upon which to attempt to reach back across cultures and histories to think about what it is that connects us rather than separates us. In John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, the young poet who is near his own death is enthralled by the beauty of the ancient vessel and its narrative decoration. He addresses the urn as if a sentient object:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
There has been much discussion about how to unpick Keats’ precise meaning as he conjectures on the activities in the scenes adorned on it. But scholars and critics agree that for Keats the power and beauty of the silent urn and the story it communicates is both cold and passionate.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
As in Keats’ poem, Minamimura’s Hesychia is characterised by contrast. Notions of stillness, quietness and silence are toppled by the artist’s powerful VV performance combined with the film effects and editing. As we lie on our backs – a position of rest and sleep – we are taken on a wordless time-travelling journey where the artist endeavours to capture the spirit of two ancient Greek myths through the five senses alone. The narrative she builds, aimed at both hearing and Deaf audiences alike, is one that is woven together and comes alive through our imagination.
– by Ingrid Swenson, 2022
Chisato Minamimura is a Deaf performance artist, born in Japan, now based in London. Chisato has created, performed and taught internationally, including three years (2003-2006) as a company member of CandoCo Dance Company. She has been involved in aerial performances with Graeae Theatre Company, London’s Paralympic Opening Ceremony and Rio’s 2016 Paralympic Cultural Olympiad. Chisato approaches choreography from her unique perspective as a Deaf artist, creating what she calls ‘visual sound/music’. Alongside international artists working in sound, projection, vibration and animation, Chisato often uses mathematical scores to create choreography, enhancing the experience of dance without music.
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