Unbuilding Walls Solo Exhibit

Modernism West/Foreign Cinema
San Francisco, CA
Mar 30 — May 31, 2017

ALEXANDMUSHI: Unbuilding Walls exhibit.
Modernism West-Foreign Cinema, 2017.

San Francisco based conceptual artists, Alex Nichols & Mushi Wooseong James designed an experiment to uncover a common language that connects us. For this exhibition they present the work of The Portable Studio as it travelled through the three international cities of San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin.

The idea for the Portable Studio began in 2015, when Alex & Mushi met on the streets after Alex was evicted from her San Francisco studio by tech companies. Rather than remain studioless, Alex & Mushi fabricated a “Portable Studio” to bring onto the streets. Alex & Mushi invited the public to step into this 10’x10’ white gator-board box. There were only two rules: no talking and no touching. The Portable Studio is a neutral territory zone, for communication and connection, not just a tool to understand but a tool to experience.

Walls are going up in America and around the world. A physical barrier between people is expanding and being fortified. People feel divided and they don’t know how to find common ground. In Berlin, Alex & Mushi found a city still struggling to come together, decades after the wall fell in 1989. In Tokyo, the cultural walls are crumbling as women feel increasingly comfortable expressing their individuality. “Through their art, Alex & Mushi are removing barriers and taking down walls,” said Martin Muller, owner of Modernism Gallery.

Unbuilding Walls is a radical look at what connects us as individuals rather than what divides us within society. Alex and Mushi believe that, “if we are going to overcome the forces that are working to divide us, we need to rebuild our connections one person at a time.”

Alex Nichols is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer involved in Critical Contact Art. The question at the core of Alex’s work is how the body can become the place of active resistance. Alex is born in San Francisco.

Mushi Wooseong James is an artist-anthropologist concerned with the ‘we’. Born in Korea, raised in the UK and being mixed race forced Mushi to navigate the relationship between self and the other.



Unbuilding Walls: Soraurer Strausse, Berlin. 2016.

It’s a neighbourhood. I sit by the window from the second floor and look out to find someone else sitting by their window with their cigarette looking out. Underneath me on the street I see a Turkish family dishing out plates from their home to the table on the street to eat outside while the children still play. A middle-aged man with long fuzzy hair that I see everyday coming back on his black metal bike. And a series of youth coming in and out of a basement from what seems like an anarchy movement from its posters and flags. We all notice each other.

Celine and Philipp are running around, shifting back and forth, actively playing like children inside the Portable Studio. Once they are done, they tell us, “this is exactly how we met, we were running around, chasing each other, and being silly inside Berghain [a nightclub in Berlin] when we met”.

ALEXANDMUSHI, Portable Studio: Soraurer Strausse, Berlin, 2016.
Archival Pigment Print
59 x 88.5 inches

Unbuilding Walls: Cuvrystrausse, Berlin. 2016.

We carry the Portable Studio on our heads into the open space in front of the wall—Gernot and Salem step in. Gernot and Salem live across the street from this large fenced in space in Berlin. Gernot tells the story of the mural wall. As he tells the story I look at the high metal fence that surrounds the space and at the black shadow of a human form on the brick wall. “There was a lake and trees inhabited by encampments. One night the landlord set an explosion that caused a fire, everyone ran out, the police came, surrounded the place and made a barricade. That night a fence was erected. The Italian graffiti artist did not want the landlord to utilise his work as a potential value to develop the land, in the night he came with a scissor lift and blacked out the paintings. What is left is the shadow.” Behind the Portable Studio on the old brick wall a giant’s shadow crosses casting a black form. It is powerful. It is not the original work-it is the work blacked out. Erasure for erasure. Erase a community erase the work.

ALEXANDMUSHI, Portable Studio: Cuvrystrausse, Berlin, 2016.
Archival Pigment Print
59 x 94 inches

Unbuilding Walls: River Spree, Berlin. 2016.

Berlin. We meet people on the street and they tell us stories. The Berlin river is called the River Spree. A man with a canoe stands on a grey wooden dock, a cigarette hanging from his lip, we are looking across the river. When he looks, he looks far into his past, and as he speaks a layer of his vision is placed over my vision. We are in West Berlin now, looking at East Berlin then. Pieces of the wall still exist and it is in pieces that he puts it together. The distance is not so far. Not what I imagined. “You must picture barbed wire, machine guns and roaming spot lights at night, with men in towers watching. People did swim across this water, I was a boy then.” We are near an old nazi swimming club-now a night club. “It was about the perfect body”, he points to a painted image of a swimmer with pink pastel skin, in an old stripped full piece bathing suit. We unfold the Portable Studio under the trees. The factory across the river is owned by Universal Studios, it was once an egg factory. As a man describes the egg factory I try to imagine thousands of chickens in the seven story building, “did it house chickens or just eggs?” I try to imagine layers and layers of eggs on shelves in dark rooms. I try to imagine a man and a woman swimming across the river in the night, trying to escape East Berlin. They were eighteen, someone is eighteen now jumping in after his soccer ball. The egg factory is still the same yellow tile it once was. And the woman in the box lived behind the Berlin Wall when it was solid. 

ALEXANDMUSHI, Portable Studio: River Spree, Berlin, 2016.
 Archival Pigment Print
59 x 88.5 inches

Unbuilding Walls: Nakameguro, Tokyo. 2015.

I’m in Tokyo and its early morning on the edge of the Nakameguro river. Men walk down the streets in white shirts and black pants, in groups and alone. It looks like a game suddenly, like role playing, maybe because what I am doing feels like a game. They are in a box, the box of a suit and tie, and it feels real to them. We put these boxes on without thinking. On my head is the Portable Studio, its a white rectangle twice my size. Everyone is moving quietly towards work. I am scared. I can’t speak the language, my camera is in my backpack, the river is on my right. I watch my shadow as I walk with a rectangular shape over me. I have managed to find foam core in a tiny art shop I go to often. An old woman owns the store. When I ask for thick paper or when it is humid and hot I say atsui —Thick air, thick paper, hot. She and I move through the tiny space searching for things I can’t give words to. On this day it is Fall, the air is cold and the leaves have fallen. I will walk all day, cross three neighbourhoods with this box on my head, resting in empty streets, but I begin here at the Nakameguro river because it is the place in Tokyo that is calm. A friend meets me under the bridge. She speaks Japanese, and will help me, all night she has been entering small yakitori bars and wine bars inviting people in the neihborhood to come by in the morning. On a piece of packaging paper I have written sentences to describe the project in Japanese. I carefully unfold it and hand it to Junko, the owner of the wine bar. Two rules, no talking, no touching. Please step in. She steps in and encourages her friend to join her by waving her hand and smiling. They are scared. When you’re inside the Portable Studio everything starts to disappear, the white space becomes a world. These two women start to play and laugh, they start to expand in an unexpected way and as I watch them expand I sense freedom. I realize suddenly that inside the box is outside the box. They are free of the constraints of society. People walk by wearing white masks, in skirts with handbags, people are passing and the two women keep playing.

ALEXANDMUSHI, Portable Studio: Nakameguro, Tokyo, 2016.
Archival Pigment Print
58 x 72 inches

Unbuilding Walls: USFCA, San Francisco. 2017.

It’s early in the morning. We arrive to a building on the University of San Francisco campus. As we walk inside we find a dozen and a half students sitting in reception waitin for their unexpected class to begin. We were invited by Stephanie Sears, a professor at USF, to do a workshop with the students in their ‘community building’ class. Stephanie made sure that the students knew nothing, not even our names or what we did. We set up the Portable Studio inside a long room next to the reception. Once we were ready the students came inside in two’s to find a life size white box with two objects, two cameras, and us. Their faces were nervous, their faces were excited. Pair by pair, they entered the Portable Studio. Like everyone who enters the Portable Studio there is an element of awkwardness to begin with. This feeling soon disappeared as we found the students full immersed in each other, in active play and exploration.

Only at the end of the class, once we had revealed ourselves to the students, and once we had said goodbye to them, Stephanie reveals something to us in return. She paired students that do not normally communicate with each other in the class.

ALEXANDMUSHI, Portable Studio University of San Francisco, 2017. 
Rice paper mounted on acrylic, video underlay, custom box.

Unbuilding Walls: Pier 96, San Francisco. 2016.

“You gotta make sure you’re always looking 360 or you’ll lose a leg or an arm”, the manager gives us a run-down before we begin. We can barely hear anything. It’s where all the garbage goes to be recycled in San Francisco. A factory of handful people and heavy machinery. All I hear is a constant high pitch loud noise from the machine that makes being there more than difficult. At least we are all hearing it or none of us are.

Left: ALEXANDMUSHI, Portable Studio Pier 96, San Francisco, 2016.
Archival Pigment Print

Right: CAL EPA, Sacramento.