Guests among guests

“If you’d feel at home here, you’d know how to take care of it.“ Willimann/Arai, Invitation 2.1: Nakanojo. Photo: Ujin Matsuo

Generous, open, obliging — the term hospitality has very positive connotations. But the relationship between guests and hosts has many different facets. Artist duo Willimann/Arai explores this relationship in its project “The gift exercise.“ This focuses on power relations, mutual dependencies — and about how guests become hosts.


Lea Ingber: You have been working on the theme of hospitality for four years. What fascinates you about it?
Willimann/Arai: Hospitality is complex and ambivalent. We come from different linguistic, cultural, geographical and disciplinary backgrounds. Working together, we have noticed how strongly this shapes our relationship and how we constantly swap roles as guest or host. These roles of course always involve power relations. In many situations, the guest somehow depends on the host. This may lead to conflicts, yet also to a certain humility. We also investigate this role play of hosts and guests in our projects.

Could you give an example?
In the context of “The gift exercise / Invitation 2,“ we lived in Nakanojo (Japan) as well as in Zurich for a few weeks in an empty shop with large shop windows. We asked the residents to lend us all the necessities of life such as furniture or food. In return, we offered them services such as gardening, portrait photography, massages, English lessons. We documented every exchange, with a contract and a self-portrait featuring the borrowed item and optionally its owner.

“If you are no longer a guest, you belong.“ Willimann/Arai, Invitation 2.2: Zurich and Nakanojo. Photos: Willimann/Arai

So you were guests?
Yes, in the beginning. We completely depended on the resident’s support. Soon, however, circumstances were no longer so clear. We still needed their help. But at the same time, we were now also hosts when the residents came into our room and thus became our guests. It was a very complex setting that made many subliminal power structures and their instability visible and tangible. These “tilting moments” are what we are interested in in “The gift exercise.“

How did the idea for The gift exercise emerge?
We got to know each other in Hong Kong in 2015, as part of ZHdK’s semester programme in “Transcultural Collaboration.“ It was a stoke of luck. Although we did not communicate well at first, we immediately connected. Afterwards, we often worked together in art residencies where we were both guests — and where neither of us was familiar with the surroundings. These experiences have inspired us to more closely examine such situations.

During your work you always wear the same clothes, black pants and a white top.
We use this particular clothing to erase our individuality as much as possible. It also helps us to slip into the role of guest or host. These are workwear, so to speak. In these clothes, we are no longer private persons, no longer Mayumi and Nina.

How have previous experiences influenced your relationship as an artist duo?
Our cooperation enables us to perceive our different formative experiences and perspectives much more consciously and to reflect on them intensively. Apart from the differences between us, there are also similarities, for example, in terms of colonialism. Both Europe and Japan have a colonial past that continues to impact the present. Our project “The gift exercise / Invitation 4“ engages with a place where these two stories intersect. Hosted by an indigenous community in Taiwan, we were confronted with the country’s violent and complex colonial history, as well as with our own entanglements. What does it mean to be a guest in such a place as European or Japanese citizens?

For the entire Photo spread, click here (see p. 36).

Lea Ingber ( is a project manager at ZHdK University Communications.
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