Mood Is Her Medium

Observer caught up with multidisciplinary artist Mika Tajima in advance of her upcoming Pace show, “Energetics," to talk about making art that taps into the data we create.

A woman wearing pink with a braid tossed over one shoulder stands in front of a large ombre painting
Mika Tajima. Matt Dutile

Data is beautiful, or so the data scientists say. They’re typically referring to visualizations that, if not particularly artful, stir the souls of those seeking informational insights. But what if data could become art? It’s a question multidisciplinary artist Mika Tajima has considered in depth in much of her work, which encompasses performance, sculpture, painting and new media. Her  “Human Synth” animation installations (which informed her “Archive of Feelings” NFTs with Pace Verso), for example, employed a sentiment analysis algorithm that processed social media data to forecast collective emotions. Meridian, a light sculpture, changed in real time to reflect the collective mood, as expressed on Twitter, of specific  geographic regions.

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She’s busy—there’s plenty of data out there to tap into, after all. Tajima has had solo exhibitions at Pace Gallery in Geneva, TARO NASU in Tokyo and Kayne Griffin in Los Angeles and created a permanent outdoor installation (Appear) for the Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum. In 2023, she was part of group exhibitions at Pace Gallery in Palm Beach and Para Site in Hong Kong. “Super Natural,” a solo exhibition at the Hill Art Foundation in New York, will open in May.

A painting of brain waves in shades of green, blue and brown
‘Negative Entropy (Deep Brain Stimulation, Yellow, Full Width, Exa)’, 2023; Cotton, polyester, nylon, and wood, 132″ × 180″ (335.3 cm × 457.2 cm). © Mika Tajima, courtesy of Pace

Those curious to see Tajima’s dynamic works in action don’t have to wait that long, however. “Energetics,” which explores questions of identity and agency in an increasingly tech-driven world through “sculptural, textile and evolving sensorial works,” is opening this Friday at Pace Gallery’s 540 West 25th Street space in New York City and will be on through February 24. Unsurprisingly, transformation and technology are key components of the exhibition, which includes large-scale paintings from Tajima’s high-tech/low-tech “Negative Entropy” series and Sense Object—digital sentiment as art, cast for all time on a 5D memory crystal. As Pace puts it: “With her new works, the artist invites questions of what it means to be an individual within this deep time continuum and, in this contemporary moment, amid the inexorable rise of big data.”

In advance of the show’s opening, we were able to ask the artist a few questions about her process, her thoughts on the melding of technology and art and her choice to incorporate an olfactory element into the show.

Many of your past works have been rooted in real-time change (the price of gold, expressions of online sentiment, etc.). What is it about using data as a medium that appeals to you?

In my work, I think of mood as a medium itself and data is an abstraction of that. I am interested in how our senses and psyche are targeted, whether this is through the physical, visual and spatial or through new forms of technology that are ubiquitous in our daily lives. These particular datasets I am using are mood indicators revealing how various events and geopolitics affect us. For instance, gold is known as a crisis commodity which means that the value fluctuates directly in relation to how stable or insecure people feel during world tensions or events rather than a typical supply and demand cycle. So the rise or fall in the price of gold corresponds to how uncertain or confident people are feeling. Here, gold material becomes an abstraction of feelings. This “emotion” data is then further translated into fluctuating light color and intensity, another sensorial affect that feeds back into the environs.

I also use text-based social media data in a similar way to analyze for sentiment and critique the notion that human emotion is something that can be captured, scored and manipulated through technology. Using technology such as sentiment analysis points to the absurdity and the poetics of trying to capture collective energy or mood through a social media platform. The question raised is where our agency lies when the underlying technology aims to capture and understand who we are in order to control or influence us. The quantification of these expressions manifests sometimes as smoke and colored light as a metaphor for evading capture—both are constantly changing and disappearing. They are simultaneously voluminous, present and ethereal.

Do you have thoughts on how the realms of technology and traditional art might continue to merge? Science informs your “Negative Entropy” series—do you think it can work the other way around? Can art inform tech?

There are so many examples of science, technology and philosophy merging with art concepts and forms. Leonardo Davinci! LACMA had a short-lived program in the late 60s and early 70s called Art and Technology Program, and more recently programs like Cornell Tech’s \Art or MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) bring tech development research and art together. One can connect the dots between these disciplines as reflections of culture and society evolving simultaneously and intertwining. I think technologists and scientists alike use art and philosophy concepts to drive their ideas, specifically seeking how the mysterious part of humanity can intersect with innovations.

A large piece of rose quartz with jacuzzi nozzles integrated into its substance
‘Pranayama (Monolith, L, Rose Quartz)’, 2022, rose quartz, cast bronze jet nozzles, 32″ × 22″ × 15″ (81.3 cm × 55.9 cm × 38.1 cm). © Mika Tajima, courtesy of Pace

Given that you work in so many mediums, what can you tell me about your process? How much research goes into what you do?

My process of arriving at an object or project usually has equal amounts of intuition and deep research. Sometimes an idea is provoked by a news item. For instance, the price of gold skyrocketing during Brexit or a bombing somewhere in the world. Things like this spurred me to think about how I could harness the fluctuation of gold’s value to visualize ephemeral human emotions. Other times, my process is triggered by a material that resonates or gives me a vibe. For instance, I discovered that rose quartz is not only a mystical energy stone, but is also piezo-electric, meaning it can give off an electric charge.  I also come across methods or materials that strike me, like jacquard weaving looms, which are such a beautiful amalgam of machinic and digital technology, intertwining immateriality and materiality and also epitomizing the passage of time as its own obsolescence is always right ahead.

How much of that context do you think people need to really engage with your pieces?

Like with anything, it’s your choice to engage and it’s also up to the viewer how much they want to take in or think about.  In the first encounter, I hope my work is sensorially powerful, which I hope draws people in to want to know more. Isn’t it exhilarating to discover there is so much more to something, like falling into another world?

Scent in art is something that continues to fascinate me. Why did you opt to include an olfactory component to your exhibition at Pace, and how do you feel it enhances the experience?

The foregrounded action is of something burning, dissipating and essentially transforming. Symbolic organic matter is atomized into particulates and gas, which is sensed as a fragrance. I’m using the diffusion, formlessness and ambient experience of vapor as an expression of escape, freedom and that which is unknown and ever-changing. I like that the scent also opens the senses and the mind’s eye. Titled Vipassana, which means “super special seeing” in Sanskrit, the work references traditional smoke divination that allows for the reader to interpret and determine the action necessary to alter the future.

In this exhibition, the self is represented as multiple through surrogate objects, symbolic materials and transmuted data. Altogether this constellation of objects is an expression of our mediated experience of the world. With its meandering scent, this work triangulates or gives a viewer a way to echolocate oneself—determining a location through other known points—you are here.

A painting of brain waves in shades of pink and blue
‘Negative Entropy (Inscape Holding Breath Meditation, Quad)’, 2023; Cotton, polyester, nylon, wool acoustic baffling felt, and wood, 72″ × 55″ (182.9 cm × 139.7 cm). © Mika Tajima, courtesy of Pace


Mood Is Her Medium