Central to Aki Inomata’s ‘Why not hand over a “shelter” to hermit crabs? – White Chapel’ (2014-2015) are three tiny, delicate sculptures which are based on, and are to-scale to, hermit crab shells. Potently, Inomata’s shells are embellished with designs of Western-style wedding chapels – an intriguing architectural phenomenon in Japan. Critical to the work are the innovative processes involved in its creation, namely 3D modelling and printing. These technologies have not only have assigned Inomata the tools to effectively realise her ideas, but have acted to reconfigure the meaning of the work through its materiality.
This analysis will initially describe the physical aspects of Inomata’s work, followed by an investigation into the technologies and materials used. Next, this analysis will explore Inomata’s process – both in her practice as a whole, and her intentions, investigations and experimentations in this work. This will be contextualized by a brief examination into the use of 3D printing and digital modelling in Art. Lastly, this analysis will identify and critique ideas and questions brought forth by the work. These include ideas around identity, migration and residence, our understanding of and relationship with non-human living things, and the notion of process as a fundamental component of the final work.
‘Why not hand over a “shelter” to hermit crabs? – White Chapel’ comprises of three sculptures on plinths in the centre-front of the work, a video projection on the wall behind, and two photos (printed on circular glass boards) either side.
Central to the experience of the work are Inomata’s sculptures – the three hermit crab shells. The shells sit atop medium-height plinths, illuminated by a glowing base, and encased in perspex. On close inspection (and you’re invited to get close), the shells are strikingly intricate, detailed and exact for such a small-scale. The intimacy demanded of the work dictates that a viewer pays attention to finer elements: the natural grooves and lumps, weathered patches, and barnacles of the shell, and the towers, arches, spires and other iconic architectural elements of the Gothic-style chapel. The transparency of the structures is significant, as we’re able to see through to multiple layers of fine detail, adding even more pattern and complexity. Furthermore, the light from glowing base of the plinth gives the work a visual clarity, as each detail is illuminated.
A minute long video is projected on to a wall behind the three plinths, and is of a hermit crab walking (?) in and out of shallow rock pools near a beach. The video is silent and minimal with no cuts, effects or text. The scale and location of the projection ensures we can’t miss the key element here: the intriguing, lovable, slightly absurd idea that instead of a normal shell, the crab is housed in a tiny, 3D printed model of a shell with an elaborate chapel atop. On either side of the video projection hangs photographs of hermit crabs wearing Inomata’s shells, in a similar beach location. The photos sit behind a glass sheet and are cropped in the shape of circles. Both the video and photos serve to document the sculptures in action, and to draw out the peculiar arrangement just long enough to invite a deeper questioning beyond the aesthetic. Without which the work, it could be argued, is in danger of becoming kitsch.
Inomata’s work is enabled by the use of new materials and technologies. Using CT scans, Inomata was able to study the shapes of real hermit shells, create 3DCG data, and design models. Designs of the western-style Japanese wedding chapels were then added to the shell models, and the final design 3D printed using a transparent plastic.
The materiality of the work as a 3D printed artefact, alongside its subject matter, inserts potent meaning into it. In recent years, innovations in accessibility to 3D printing has ensured it’s heralded as an innovation that’s poised to have significant cultural, economic and social implications (if it isn’t doing so already.) The very idea of this possibility, as we find ourselves amidst rapid change and disruption brought about by digital technologies and connectedness, ensures that the use of 3D printing in is inherently loaded. It’s easy to see how its use could be unsettling – even confronting – as a viewer becomes acutely aware of the proficiency of 3D printing. This is only heightened by coupling technological innovations with the beach and animals, motifs of the natural world. As we observe an exact, even enhanced, replication of a natural phenomenon, deep fears are brought to the fore. As humans, we’re challenged to question: If complex, ancient, and somewhat mystical processes such as the forming of shells can be replicated, what is sacred? What is our birth-right and innate privilege as living beings, if the work of nature can be replicated?
Inomata’s process and practice: How did Inomata experiment, investigate and iterate to create this work?
Inomata’s practice is characterized by an exploration of human concerns such as identity and culture, through use of non-human living things. In her words, Inamata “collaborates” with living creatures  By doing this, Inomata has been able to bring an awareness to humankind, and processes occurring in our societies. For example, in a previous work, French Lessons with a Parakeet (2010), Inomata documents herself doing, quite literally, what the title states. In another, she makes a coat for her dog out of her own hair, and a coat for herself out of her dog’s hair.  By relocating language and clothes, characteristically human concepts, onto non-human living thing, Inomata prompts us to view these ideas, and our human-ness, from a new standpoint. We’re enabled to view our own rituals and traditions with the objectivity of an outsider – and thus faced, perhaps, with the quirkiness and frivolity of them.
In ‘Why not hand over a “shelter” to hermit crabs? – White Chapel’, Inomata continues her investigation of human beings through a collaboration with non-human creatures, whilst also deepening and expanding her project through use of 3D modelling and printing technologies.
Inomata’s process for ‘Why not hand over a “shelter” to hermit crabs?’ began by visiting an exhibition titled “No man’s land” (2009), which explored the history of the French Embassy in Japan. Interestingly, the embassy belonged to France until 2009, then become Japanese, and after 50 years, will be handed back to France. This peaceful transition of national ownership intrigued Inomata, who “was surprised to hear this story…while it is the same piece of land, our definition of it changes.” She likened this process to a hermit crab changing it’s shell (hermit crabs routinely choose or are forced to change shells). This initial investigation into the story of the French embassy in Japan and into the characteristics of hermit crabs evolved into a multi-year project exploring the transience of our identities, the role of residence and national identity.
It’s clear that like many artists, Inomata has enabled this project to evolve through material and conceptual investigations over several years. Inomata explains that CT scans weren’t originally planned to play a role in her process. In her first iteration of the work, she used “spherical shapes” for the shells, rather than a model informed by 3DCG data. But when tested with hermit crabs, they ignored these shelters – so Inomata modified her approach. This iteration not only exemplifies an exploratory approach to art-making, but reveals a signature part of Inomata’s process: collaboration with living creatures. The development proved to be pivotal, as Inomata’s work was then not only physically altered, but injected with the cultural potency of using new technologies.
Inomata’s work has also developed conceptually as her creative research progressed. ‘White Chapel’ is the second series in ‘Why not hand over a “shelter” to hermit crabs?’. In the first, Inomata embedded cities from around the world onto the shells. In White Chapel, Inomata instead focuses on one architectural phenomenon: the proliferation of Western and Christian-style chapels, purpose built for weddings, in Japan – a country with whose Christian population comprises of only 1%. For me, this iteration enhances the work significantly by injecting a cultural dimension, which steers it toward a more complex and truthful discussion of ideas around migration, transience and identity.
Analysis of central ideas:
Inomata’s states that her work intends to forefront ideas of migration and identity – the notion that we’re able to seamlessly reshape ourselves as we cross national borders.  After consideration, I believe the work achieves this goal, but perhaps in the way it intended to. As a viewer encounters the work, it’s difficult to not be struck with the lovable absurdity and novelty of the situation. I certainly smiled and giggled to myself as I saw a hermit crab unknowingly carrying a magnificent church on its shell. But, rather than detracting from the work, I think this quirkiness is well placed. By witnessing the elaborate displays of human tradition – such as represented by gothic church architecture – on the back of a non-human creature, we’re suddenly self-aware of the non-seriousness of such a declaration of identity. Are we not all hermit crabs, bearing the weight of our elaborate “shells”, our public identities, on our backs in name of cultural conformity? That’s not to say culture isn’t an authentic and crucial part of who we are – but rather – that some of our quirks as humans are actually quite frivolous, when stripped of their historic and cultural weight.
For the migrant, who is expected to conform to these quirky cultural norms in a new country, despite perhaps having not willingly internalized them, the constructed-ness of this process is particularly pronounced. Similarly, in movements involving a level of cultural co-opting – such as is in the wedding industry in Japan as referenced by Inomata, and in Western countries in numerous ways – culture is fetishised for commercial interest, heightening our awareness of the absurdity of aspects of tradition and ritual. The humble hermit crab with its 3D printed, beautifully elaborate and culturally loaded shell, is a mirror to our own human behavior – it’s revealed in all of it’s absurd, kind of adorable, glory. We can seamlessly reshape our identities as we move across countries because much of our identities are just ‘shelters’ formed out of our need to belong to a place – not inherent and immovable parts of us. We buy into the historic importance, the pomp and tradition (literally) but really, we have a fluidity and transience, just Inomata’s hermit crabs.
In her work, ‘Why not hand over a “shelter” to hermit crabs? – White Chapel’, Inomata explores mimicry, culture, identity and the human condition. Through use of new technologies such as 3D modelling and printing, Inomata challenges us by perfectly mimicking a characteristically natural, mystical, time-old phenomena – the sea shell –thus prompting us to question our own privilege and relevance as humans. Whether intentionally or not, by dislocating artefacts of cultural tradition such as architecture, clothes and language from humans onto non-human creatures, Inomata unveils our humanness, and our tendency to seek belonging through identity. The adorable absurdity and frivolity of the work, which I find difficult to avoid, serves to bring potency to the work, rather than detract from it. It’s clear that Inomata has been able to create a rich and complex work through years of focused investigation and exploration, and multiple iterations where she was able to meaningfully incorporation both existing and emerging technologies.
 K. Turner, 2010. “Missing the point: Handmade vs. digitally fabricated” (16 August), Ponoko, at http://blog.ponoko.com/2010/08/15/missing-the-point-handmade-vs-digitally-fabricated/, accessed 22 May 2017.