Elizabeth Essner is a curator and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
When artist Aya Ito first moved to Thailand from Japan in 2006, she did not speak the language. Eager to connect with others, she found herself instead using onomatopoeia, or words like crackle, buzz, and smack that are derived from the sounds they portray.
However, as Ito explains, in Japan onomatopoeia is also a means of everyday language, giving voice not only to sounds but sensations and feelings, which are often encapsulated into a single word repeated. Waku waku is the heart-pounding sense of anticipation. Niko niko is an apple-cheeked rosy smile. Japanese onomatopoeia can almost be thought of as the spoken equivalent of emojis: seemingly simple and cute on the surface but layered with the intricacy of human emotion—akin to Ito’s work itself.
“If I hadn’t moved to Thailand, the concept might not have come to me, because I wouldn’t have had a problem communicating,” Ito explains, having discovered that her Thai compatriots intrinsically understood what she has called onomatopoeia’s “universal language.”1 This concept became the basis for her work: the sound of an emotion translated into a visual language of movement. A sense of linguistic exchange was perhaps already in her lexicon as Ito’s cultural roots are in Japan, her life is in Thailand, and her skill set is steeped in the Western-born kinetic sculptural tradition.
Ito, previously known as itoaya professionally, learned of kinetic movement during a 2004 trip to New York when, visiting museums, she discovered Alexander Calder’s (1898–1976) foundational language. While still an undergraduate studying design in Tokyo, she began experimenting with his intricate technical precepts. Ten years later, Ito began her MFA in jewelry design at Bangkok’s Silpakorn University. There, she discovered the field of contemporary jewelry and reignited her interest in what Calder has called the “close alliance between physics and aesthetics.”2 Ito’s knowledge widened to include kinetic sculptors George Rickey (1907–2002) and Tim Prentice (b. 1930), as she created intricate miniature studies to understand their work.
However, Ito was also compelled to draw from a vastly different source. During her graduate studies, Ito returned to Tokyo and found herself in the famed Ginza shopping district, drawn to a crowd gathering at a shop window. Inside, the artist saw an enormous fluffy animatronic polar bear cuddling her cubs, its movement delighting the crowd. “I loved to see other people smile because it made me smile, too,” she says.
One can’t help but think of kawaii, the Japanese-gone-global cultural phenomenon of cuteness, which, as the enchanted crowd demonstrated, is as much a feeling as it is an aesthetic. Ito’s work operates at this unlikely intersection where kinetic’s sensory and kawaii’s emotional affect meets resulting in a new kind of body language.
Atty Tantavit of Bangkok’s ATTA Gallery, which represents Ito’s work, sees it as a bridge between jewelry and a wider context of contemporary artistic practice. “Jewelry for her is not a static object, but rather a vehicle to create memorable experiences,” Tantavit says. “Even though she studied the masters’ work at the beginning of her career, Ito has created her own language of expression.”3
In 2019, I curated Ito’s first solo exhibition in the US, Body/Motion, at R & Company. Launched during New York City Jewelry Week and grounded by a handful of historical jewelry pieces by Rickey, we were half a world apart as we planned the exhibition.
When Ito’s work arrived in New York, it was a revelation. To feel its delicate balance of brass and paper, and more importantly, to wear it and fuel its movement, offered a rare sense of embodied wonder.
This included Ito’s waku waku series, which depicts heart-beating excitement. The smallest piece is a brooch, worn on the heart to capture its growing thump in a radius of white paper discs hung on a brass framework. Halolike headwear follows, rendering even the subtlest nods into currents of movement.
As Japanese jewelry writer Makiko Akiyama points out, Ito’s work aligns with the way dots, stars, and occasionally flowers are drawn around comic book or manga characters to visualize feelings or sensations.4 Indeed, the largest waku waku sways in a full-body circle as a kind of dancing aura. When worn, a shallow breath, a shrug, a powerful gait, are all precisely translated into ripples and waves that capture not only its wearer’s motion but their emotion.
The face, of course, is our most outward expression of feeling, and niko niko plays on the flushed cheeks of a smile. Pink circles are its signifier, Calderlike and kawaii at once. When worn, they sway across each cheek or become connect-the-dot pendulums that radiate from left and right. As the series shifts from wearable adornment to bodycentric mobiles, rosy dots shrink to become clusters of pink paper paillettes. Together, these symbolize the multitude of smiles ignited by beloved sakura, or cherry blossoms, whose color they mimic. Joy is the feeling embedded in niko niko, but, like sakura, it is fleeting, calling to mind the aesthetic of ephemeral beauty traditional to Japan.
Recently, Ito has moved into new forms. Nyoki nyoki’s depiction of sudden growth—like a mushroom popping up overnight—is translated into hand-powered mobiles that conjure thoughts of magic wands. The artist’s most inventive new piece is kuru kuru, based on the onomatopoeia for spinning. While kinetic sculptors rely on the atmosphere to activate their work, Ito creates it through wearing. Made during the pandemic, kuru kuru covers the face with pinwheels to harness the wind; in Ito’s words, to bring “their smiles back to their faces.”
1 All quotations by Aya Ito are from interview with the author via email, 6/12/21, 7/23/21. ↩
2 Alexander Calder, “A Propos of Measuring a Mobile,” unpublished manuscript, October 7, 1943. Calder Foundation archives. https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/518, accessed 6/21/21.↩
3 Atty Tantavit, interview with the author via email, 7/10/21.↩
4 Makiko Akiyama, interview with the author via email, 7/17/21.↩