[This was a short profile for Monday Magazine published in Autumn of 2004. I'd hoped for further chances to write about Emi's work, but she moved to Montreal shortly after this was written. Victoria's Brown House Collective, of which Honda was a member, continues as of this writing, notably through the work of Scott Evans)
Circuit Boards and Bacterial Amoeba
Inside the curious world of Emi Honda
Midway through speaking with local artist Emi Honda, a milestone emerges: her first electric shock.
“It was one of those fake digital clocks . . . the kind where the numbers flip down,” says Honda, recounting how as a child she dismantled the clock and, having exposed the mechanisms, plugged it back in to see them in action. It seems a suitable starting point for an artist whose work is a curious preservation of the childhood urge to take things apart, coupled with the improbable wish that afterwards, they should go on buzzing with life.
The world of her often gadget-like sculptures is full of this kind of ad-hoc animation. In one, tiny plastic plants inside a fishbowl seem to bend in a breeze at the push of a button; in another, circuits decorated with pompoms surround and mimic a minute patch of moss. Props, toys and salvaged technology combine to create objects that conjure the contradictions of both cliche and everyday life: the projected intelligence of machines, the precarious delicacy of junk, and the uncanny transformations of nature.
Honda, now thirty, grew up in a relatively rural part of Japan, studying traditional academic painting during her college years. A breakthrough took place in a more industrial setting—the city of Osaka. “I found a monitor that was cracked,” she recalls. “You could see inside it to the circuit board, it was very dirty.” Fascinated, Honda took it home and went at it with pliers. This led to her first sculptures: miniature environments set inside boxes, which Honda reads as a reflection of her compact living space at the time.
She observes that her work is very sensitive to her immediate environment; a move to Victoria in 1999—and many months spent gardening as a means of relating to newfound isolation—led to the presence of natural forms in her work, which has since been seen around town In group and solo shows at Rogue Art, Ministry of Casual Living, and others.
Having recently installed herself in a new house, Honda already has work everywhere: over the mantel hangs a floating city of sorts, an amalgam of soldered circuits and twinkling lights which grows more enigmatic as daylight fails. The contrasts in the piece—between cuteness and ruin, wistfulness and intelligence—seem very timely. When asked the usual questions about influences and themes, Honda is reticent . . . but does comment on a paradoxical sense of futuristic nostalgia, as embodied by the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner or the animated epics of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).
Honda also talks about photographs—she has produced two books of sumptuous colour pictures of her living environment and artwork, often delightfully blurring the boundary that distinguishes one from the other . . . as well as the way photographs of sculptures become artworks themselves. Circuit board and bacterial amoeba represent the poles of her artistic continuum: information and intent are everywhere, but nowhere specific. Things generate and regenerate unpredictably. "Environmental concerns are part of my work, but it's also more complicated…" Honda muses, gazing about the room at finished and unfinished stems, networks, organisms. Pausing, she offers a suitably prosaic conclusion. "Cities grow, too.”
[Emi Honda’s work can be seen in the Interface show at the AGGV until September 5th]