Melon Cream Soda Float, the title of Fumi Ishino’s new project, might appear at first glance as a mis-translated word jumble or stream of consciousness poetry to readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture. Japanese readers know it’s the name of a popular neon green, melon-flavored soda drink with ice cream on top that’s sold in Japan at places like McDonald’s, and they call it by one word, “meronkurīmusōda.” Some online translators even suggest that the term “cream soda” in Japanese refers only to ice cream on top of this flavored melon soda. There’s a triviality to this name that feels superficial—just as artificial as the components of the drink itself. However, by naming his project Melon Cream Soda Float, Ishino capitalizes on the quotidian humor of the translation between Japanese and English to playfully reveal something very simple and profound: everything—even language—is artifice. Just as meronkurīmusōda, once translated, loses the specificity of its meaning, all words, symbols, and visual ephemera are merely signs, pointing to something we may struggle to fully articulate and, perhaps, to even fully see. Melon Cream Soda Float investigates this idea while it also unpacks the artificiality of our post-globalization world.
Born in Hyogo, Japan, Ishino moved to the United States as an adolescent. Since then he has lived in and between both places as a self-described alien and minority. Like his previous body of work, Rowing a Tetrapod, Melon Cream Soda Float deals with living in-between—in-between cultures, in-between languages, and in-between homes—in which neither the American environment, where he currently lives, nor the Japanese lifestyle, in which he was raised, feels entirely familiar. In a world where nothing is familiar, everything is in translation, and in this work Ishino is our translator, presenting us with the often confusing, overlooked aspects of our daily lives. In Melon Cream Soda Float, this liminal condition becomes a metaphor for the inadequacies and failures of our conscious minds to truly comprehend what we overlook. Through his focus on them, Ishino seems to argue that these banal aspects of our lives are influential and powerful, offering us more insight than we have otherwise given them credit for. These objects shape us on a subconscious level.
In one photograph, green carpeting covers three-and-a-half stairs flanked by a light baseboard, behind which ferns emerging from a black background delicately suspend themselves like wallpaper. One rogue leaf mischievously reaches outside its wooden boundary to touch the carpet, so that what at first appears to be two-dimensional space collides with the three-dimensional interior represented. Because of Ishino’s flattened aesthetic, these crossings of dimension occur throughout the series, which reminds us of our role as viewers, which is to translate, mediate, interpret, and assign meaning—to intellectually give dimension. They also serve as personifications of the ways in which intangible concepts of human invention—such as political borders, to put it in a very contemporary context—have become physical projections of great import. These obscure symbolisms outline the phenomenology—the structures of consciousness, the means by which we discover how we know what we think we know—that shapes our daily lives, regardless of the creator’s cultural heritage.
In another image, Ishino seems to ask the viewer to consider what happens when we remove the object or sign entirely, leaving behind its trace as the only visible reference to its existence—that is, its literal outline. This reminds us that what we see is not the object itself, but the representation of the object. Humorously, Ishino places a little paperclip on the edge of the frame, referencing human intervention on a mass scale by mediating the image with a plastic object produced en-masse. While we can interpret moments of clarity in numerous ways through each image, his work focuses more intently on the collective whole that the photographs create together. Nearly all these photographs lack a formal perspectival position. Their fragmented nature points simultaneously to the confines of culture and to the underlying commonality that these odd puzzle pieces of our lives—from the fast food we consume to the cellular composition of our bodies—truly form the core of our conscious existence. Presciently, twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote, “We are all mediators, translators.” Melon Cream Soda Float is Ishino’s translation of our twenty-first century culture through its veneer of vivid artifacts.
Ashlyn Davis is the Executive Director & Curator at the Houston Center for Photography.
Fumi Ishino lives in Los Angeles, CA, and completed his residency at Light Work in September 2018.