Ittah Yoda is an artist duo consisting of Virgile Ittah and Kai Yoda. Their first solo show together as a collective, ‘I Say Mango, You Say Salmon,’ is currently on view at Annka Kultys Gallery in Bethnal Green, London. This title reflects both the colour palette they use, as well as the challenges of communicating within the duo’s relationship, which is a partnership in both art and life. Japanese-born Yoda and French-born Ittah come from vastly different backgrounds, yet these seemingly opposite personalities complement each other and find harmony, not unlike the Yin Yang. The pair’s work incorporates both Japanese and French sensibilities, bringing to mind the 19th century Japanese influence on French culture known as Japonisme. Having met while attending the Royal College of Art, the two now share a studio and a home in South London. We spoke with them over tea about their work new show, what drives their collaboration and the challenge that is finding a balance in such a relationship.

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“We made the work to have the viewer as the focal point. To create an experience.”

I first visited Ittah Yoda’s studio in Peckham with gallerist Annka Kultys, who had first shared their work with me online. The images on their website did little justice to viewing it in-person. Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by the three-dimensionality of what they describe as ‘wall pieces,’ which I had assumed were paintings. They consist of layers of transparent mesh fabric, separated by aluminium frames, each of different colours and painted not with brushes, but with squeegees and gel transfers — techniques more common to silk-screening. Some pieces have thick applications of silicone, adding to their sculptural quality. All are in pastel colours: shades of salmon, beige and lilac. A small detail is left unfinished in each of them, a decision that mirrors the Japanese Wabi-sabi philosophy of beauty, which celebrates the imperfect and incomplete.

In their new show, these wall pieces  are accented by several sculptures, a mobile and two lounge chairs where visitors can sit, relax and enjoy the view. The installation creates a soothing and elegant atmosphere that requires to be experienced in person to be fully appreciated — quite the demand in the age of the Internet.

The movement of the viewer within the space takes central importance in the exhibition. Kai says they “made the work to have the viewer as the focal point. To create an experience.” As such, the work is difficult to communicate through photographs. “You have to be in the space and spend some time with the work,” he explains. Virgile adds that they “tried to develop the notion of position and materiality to give an experience to people, and not just an object.” It is with this in mind that they put the loungers in the gallery, to invite people to really let go and experience the work.

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“We had an ultimate desire to work together, but we didn’t choose it. It just happened.”

Kai tells me that “people were surprised when they saw the work and it would look totally different than in the image.” What appears on a screen may be much different from the reality. “I will like shows I saw on the internet in Berlin or New York more than the shows I attend in London. But then when I would go there and see them in person, I wouldn’t even like it,” he says. Indeed, documentation, particularly in the form of photographs on artists’ and galleries’ websites, as well as on social media, has become more important over the past decade, in great part due to the ubiquity of the web.

Even curators are prioritising representation of the works over the show itself. Kai mentions how “an organiser offered us a show, and they said ‘don’t even worry about what your work looks like in person, just worry how it looks in documentation.’”

Before combining forces to become Ittah Yoda, the pair were both students at the Royal College of Art in London. Virgile was studying sculpture while Kai had just finished his degree in photography. He was looking for assistants to help produce his new work, and received dozens of applications. One of them was Virgile’s. He took an immediate liking to her, but at first was hesitant to hire her, as she was still a student. Yet after one day of working with Kai, he decided to take her on. “Other assistants were lazy and would stop after a couple hours, but Virgile was excited and wanted to stay and keep working,” he explains.

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“Through making artworks, there is an ultimate desire to be accepted and loved.”

The two were then producing vastly different works. Virgile suggests she “was living in a past time” with her old work. “I felt like I couldn’t progress any more, so collaboration with Kai was an opportunity to develop and push my ideas further.” At university, a jury told her that while her work was interesting, maybe figurative sculpture was not the right medium for her. At first she didn’t understand what they meant: “I just wanted to follow the same pattern of pleasing my parents and be accepted into french culture.” Kai was also deeply familiar with that feeling: “I was trying to please my dad through photography,” he says. “But my tutors told me that maybe photo wasn’t for me”  

Through their working relationship, their practices began to change, gradually developing into a fully collaborative one. On their decision to become a duo, Virgile says, “we had an ultimate desire to work together, but we didn’t choose it. It just happened.” Yet, although their decision felt like a very natural progression, it was also a carefully thought-out career decision.

Previous to their combined identity as Ittah Yoda, the duo had several shows as Virgile Ittah and Kai Yoda, where much of the work was produced separately. After a group exhibition at Nicodim Gallery in Bucharest in 2015, the curator advised them that there just isn’t enough time to work together as well as separately.

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 “Sometimes we think we are copying each other’s work, but in the end we don’t know whose idea it is.”

It is also at Nicodim gallery that they met artists “who were very focused on making art for the market, and making their living from being an artist.” Having just applied to residencies in Berlin and New York for one year each, Kai and Virgile had to decide between supporting themselves through residencies and grants, or through their work alone. It was then that they decided to embrace that reality, to work as one and to adopt the name Ittah Yoda.

Collaboration is not without obstacles, especially when eccentric and divergent personalities come together, but this pair seems to somehow find the right balance: they have a small fight once a day, and a big fight every couple of weeks. Kai explains that “while in many ways we are different, in many ways we are similar. We both have similar traumas, and similar triggers. We both feel like we don’t belong where we grew up.” This gives a comfort in each other they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Virgile grew up in France, with a Tunisian and Moroccan heritage, and struggled to feel fully accepted in French society. Similarly, Kai’s Japanese and Swedish background left him feeling partly rejected from Japanese society. “Through making artworks, there is an ultimate desire to be accepted and loved,” they both say.

At first, it was difficult for them to find a routine, and sharing both a studio and a home means they can be together for up to 24 hours a day, with the inherent risk of driving each other crazy. So they established a rule: they wouldn’t spend more than two to four hours together in the studio per day. Virgile will come in the morning and Kai will come in the evening, with a couple hours of overlap. “Normally we both have headphones on, and we won’t talk to each other,” says Kai.

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Virgile precises that “our nature is not made to follow a routine and we love unexpected things.” Spontaneity is indeed central to their work. Working as a duo also allows them more freedom to express themselves and try new things without fear. “When I’m working by myself I’m like ‘this is so scary’, and I become more protective of my work.” But as a duo, “they don’t see me as an individual who made it, so I feel less afraid. This feeling of ultimate freedom is quite amazing.” The pair has also become much more open to influences than before their partnership. “We are very inspired by things we see online and Facebook, of other artists, so I think the work is very much of this time,” they explain.

Within this strong collaborative process, authorship also gets confused. “Sometimes we think we are copying each other’s work, but in the end we don’t know whose idea it is.” says Kai, adding: “I don’t feel like our work is really my work… sometimes I think it’s more her work or more my work, but it’s really neither.”

This ambiguity of authorship and identity seems quite contemporary, and is reflected in the unclear gender and ethnicity of the name Ittah Yoda. They seem to indicate a movement towards a society in which the need to have a well-defined and fixed identity is less important, a tendency assisted in part by the internet’s social and networked cultures. “Things are changing,” explains Kai, “and the pace of change is getting faster.”

“Maybe we are continuing this collaboration because we thought that on our own we wouldn’t have made enough good, relevant or strong work, whereas together we can strike a perfect balance,” the duo concludes.

Ittah Yoda’s exhibition runs until the 5th of March at Annka Kultys Gallery

Words by Aric Miller, all photographs courtesy of Annka Kultys Gallery, installation shots by Damian Griffiths.

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