Critical Analysis of “Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs?” (2009-16)

In this blog post I will be expanding upon my previous analysis of Aki Inomata’s series, Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs? that can be found in this blog post. I have chosen this work as I find not only the process fascinating, but also the subject matter as well as the intention.

The following are my photos taken from the Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital exhibition that was on display at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science in Sydney recently. There were only three examples of the series displayed in front of a video on the work.


Images of ‘White Chapel’ from Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs at the Out of Hand Exhibition (2017)

Inomata goes into great detail for her works. Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs? Is an ongoing series of 3D printed hermit crab shells, each with their own unique structure to them. Each different series of structures represent different contexts. She had already had hermit crabs as pets, and was intrigued by the role their shells played as ‘shelters’ when compared to what a human definition of shelter would be.

In her biography statement on her website, Inomata states that her “art results from working together with living beings” (2015). She sees reflections of humanity within other living beings and vice versa – and interchanges the roles of living beings with humans in her work, offering new perspectives on being human and rediscovering the self. This is evident when looking at her series of hermit crab shells which make commentaries of social and architectural networking; how human sociality reflects the architecture that surrounds her and how the architecture influences the social.

Images from Why Not Hand Over a “Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? (2010-2016)

The idea for the exchanging of shelters of human-like structure to the hermit crabs came from observing  a similar land-exchange between nations in Tokyo:

“My idea for this piece came about when I participated in the “No Man’s Land” exhibition that was held at the French Embassy in Japan in 2009. This work was inspired by the fact that the land of the former French Embassy in Japan had been French until October 2009, and then became Japanese for the following fifty years, after which it will be returned to France. I was surprised to hear this story, and associated this image with the way that hermit crabs exchange shelters. A piece of land is peacefully exchanged between two countries. ” – Aki Inomata (2015)

The hermit crabs, in this sense, seem to take the role of refugees, “crossing over national borders”; changing the appearance of the shelters to represent cities from around the world, and gifting this ‘land’ to the creatures. After exploring this concept, Inomata moved on from exploring the ideas of land exchange from human to living being, and began to explore other social dynamics that humans have placed into architecture, buildings and homes. Having grown up in Tokyo and traveled around the world, she compares the theatrics of structures in her home city to those of Western society, even questioning the mimicry of the architecture and what it means for a social identity. An exemplary work of this would be the one included in the exhibition – White Chapel.

In her travels to Western countries, Inomata tends to observe the world around her – the culture and architecture, noticing the way that Tokyo cultures tend to borrow or appropriate these styles in their own locality.

“I ask myself, “Are we japanese living in a mimicry of western world?” For me, these imitation, or I would say reproduction or rearrangement of Western-style architecture seem to reflect identities of postcolonialism inside of Japanese people.” – Aki Inomata (2015)

She plays with this concept in White Chapel, using the model of a wedding chapel found in Japan built onto the model of the Hermit crab home (or ‘shelter’ as she calls it). She cites the wedding chapel as one such example of the way the Japanese appropriate Western culture. The chapel is mostly a facade; lacking extreme details like those found in the Christian-affiliated churches and chapels of the West. This is chapel is for aesthetics only – no religious affiliation and now worship takes place here: it is a place for weddings only. Most Japanese weddings seem to be held in the ‘Christian’ style – in chapels that mix architectural designs from the Gothic and Romanesque cultures of the past.

The purpose the shelter serves is temporary – before long, the hermit crab will move on from this shelter and move into another one, before becoming populated again with a different hermit crab. It seems that like the superficial facades in Tokyo, the hermit crab shelters are also rather frivolous.

That’s not to say that the process of making these shelters has been easy for Inomata, though. There was quite a lot of trial, error and research that went into being able to convincingly replicate the structure of a hermit crab shell in a way that the crabs would not reject them.

“The first time that I made this piece, I only gave the hermit crabs spherical shapes, but they ignored my “shelters”. Using CT scans, I studied the natural shapes of hermit crab shells, and by printing out the 3DCG data using 3D printers, I was able to create “shelters” that the hermit crabs would move into.” – Aki Inomata (2016)

Hermit crabs can be quite fussy with their shelters – the shells need to be the perfect size for them and the insides of the shells need to be shaped in a way that the hermit crab is able to retreat into if needed. They are quite complex – something which Inomata overlooked in her first iteration of the project.

To overcome this, she did some more research and was able to develop a way to replicate the shells in a way that the hermit crabs would accept. She used a CT scanner to capture the highly detailed 3 dimensional renderings of unoccupied seashells that her own hermit crabs had previously abandoned. She used these scans to then create digital 3D “castings”, which her own designs would then be modelled on to. For her prototype works, she based the designs on apartments in Paris, Home based architecture from Tokyo and city architecture before moving on to specific structures. These structures were then 3D printed with clear 3D printing resin using a technique called stereolithography (or SLA). SLA builds layer-by-layer using liquid resin which is exposed to UV light which solidifies the resin into polymers. It is a very long process, with some smaller prints even taking more than 24 hours to complete.

The final outcome is a usable and acceptable shell that the hermit can choose to move into (or even be forced into). Hermit crabs are nomadic – once they outgrow their shells they move onto bigger ones, however other crabs may eye off another’s shell and decide they like it more and fight over it. A smaller crab may move into a shell abandoned by a larger crab. This results in a trading of shelters, which Inomata compares to the way humans may treat land ownership – while embedding the land with culture and history.

“Hermit crabs change their shells one after another, in order to accommodate their growth. Sometimes, they are even forced by stronger hermit crabs to swap shells. Inspired at an exhibition at the French Embassy in Japan, in which she participated in 2009, AKI INOMATA started a project in which she had hermit crabs move into shells of her own making. Based on CT scans of real hermit crabs’ shells, she creates artificial 3D-printed shells with the cityscapes of various metropolises around the world, such as Manhattan in NYC. Through examining the transformation of hermit crabs, which change dramatically in appearance through moving from one shell into another, INOMATA questions where our own identity lies.” – KENPOKU ART (2016)

“Why Not Hand Over a “Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? (Sea)” installation view of KENPOKU ART 2016 Photos: Keizo Kioku and Shizune Shiigi



Week 13-15: The Final Work: “UNITY”


I was absent during week 13, but the boys used the time to work out some of the technical sides of the work. They managed to get the sound working through the laptop, and get all the footage of the hands aligned together and working properly.

We met up in week 14 on Thursday, so that we could set up the last of the project, look over the artists statement and discuss our presentation.

I must admit that the final work did resonate with me and I was happy with where we got – especially given the difficulties we had throughout the semester of settling on a concept and the technical issues that followed.

While setting up the TO Glen advised us to use a second laptop with a splitter so that we could have 3 larger projectors and do away with the crappy Qumis entirely (yay!). A bit of tinkering with the set up and some re-alignment later, and the work looked fantastic. We added some decent speakers so that we could actually hear the sound playing.


Unfortunately we did have some sound syncing issues which were the result of using two separate laptops without the ability to start all 4 sets of footage at the same time – if we were to change one thing about the work, it would be to figure out a way that this wouldn’t be an issue and that the sound was more effective.

I personally felt that the work stood as a metaphor for our own journey of creation – that we had our differences, so we started again with a blank canvas and worked together to create something fun and interactive by stripping the layers back and working with our skills and what we learned from experimenting. This fuelled our narrative, which I then turned into an artist’s statement.

When discussing, we thought about how our work represented the following:

“We decided to include a variety of symbols to act as the basis of our work. Using hands as a symbol of being able to recognise a person (2nd to a person’s face); the black background acts as a simple and even playground for all the hands; the different forms of tapping representing the diversity of people, each with a different beat and rhythm, but ultimately all playing as one; and the large hand in the middle in the shape of a fist acting as the heart of the entire group constantly beating with everyone around it. The purpose of the blocking of different hands is to show that people come and go, whether it be someone known for a long time, or someone new entering.”

I then went and deduced the main points from our discussion:

  • Black background a ‘playground’ blank canvas to build upon from the imagination
  • Hands work together to create something together
  • Unity through diversity – differentiality creates something unique and wholesome
  • Large hand in centre is the ‘heart’; keeps time and direction, the common ground that pulls everything together
  • You can block the hands but they are still heard – you cannot stop the noise and you cannot hide all the hands at once by yourself – the hands are not oppressed by your presence or by you trying to silence them


Which we then turned into our final artists statement below. Overall I’m glad I stepped back and gave the group work another chance, while my vision for a final project was vastly different to what we ended up producing, I was still very happy with the final result.


Media Projection

Will, Mackenzie, Robert, Chloe

The world is a connected place, now more than ever; across continents we have the ability to collaborate and create.

We start with a black canvas – a playground where we can build from our imaginations. We can use this canvas to tell stories, to design, to make art. We start from nothing – we put our hands together and produce something tangible to be seen and heard.

UNITY Explores the result of many hands coming together to construct from the bare. It is a story of uniting our own experiences, our skills and our imaginations to forge something new and unique: using our diversity to form something wholesome, and to illustrate this story to a rhythm. It proclaims that creativity cannot be silenced with intervention if we come together.

The centre is the heart – the starting point on our canvas, the guiding structure that keeps time and gives us direction – the motivation. It composes the overall beat – with the surrounding hands cooperating to build multiple layers.

You can try to block the hands but the others are still present – they are still heard; you cannot stop the noise, and they are not oppressed by your presence. You cannot silence them.

People may come and go – but with a blank canvas, diversity, and creativity, you can collaboratively build something unique and different each time you come together.

UNITY uses multiple projections timed to a solid beat to create an immersive and interactive story-telling experience with the audience. The audience member may try to place themselves in the scene, to obstruct or to support in the collaboration.

Week 11: On Jamming/ Push and Pull

Our task for this week was to disagree.

Considering we’d already been doing that all semester, I feel like we’d sort of already come to an impasse, and then we had finally begun to understand each other and not really feel like it was necessary to disagree any longer. Instead we retreated to the classroom, away from the studio, and decided to work on expanding our concept.

In order to fulfill our task we decided to split up into pairs and work on two different concepts, and then debate our concepts at the end. We needed to keep in mind a narrative for our concepts so that our art told a story.

I’d just been out a few nights prior shooting the night sky and my mind was sort of still wrapped up in the stars – literally. I decided to work with this and the feeling I got when looking at the stars by combining it with the work we’d been doing in the weeks prior and work with our shadows.

The image I took that I decided to separate into layers and have us ‘flying through space’ with.

My concept was to have us sort of flying through space, layering the stars so that as we walked amongst the different projectors, we would be placing ourselves in space itself. It would add another dimensional layer and maintain interactivity.

This was challenging to say the least, and did take a lot of the workshop time to figure out how to divide effectively. I ended up having to make each layer move slower for the ‘further’ away it was supposed to be, and making each layer become bigger to give the zooming effect. You can see the two stars layers in these videos:


These were layered over the background, which was projected from the roof so you couldn’t walk in front of it:


I added some effects to the stars to make them look twinkling and then to the background layer so that it looked like the galaxy cloud was blooming.

Unfortunately when we put all 3 together it didn’t look very effective as the Qumi projectors just weren’t powerful enough to handle the images, so the background was overpowering while the stars were very faint.

We did like this concept, and the other half of the group saw narrative potential within the work. Not only was flying through space appealing, but there was also the unintentional story of light pollution that we told with the piece. By standing in front of the lights and interfering with our bodies, it was a sort of metaphor for the way that human obstruction was ruining the night sky – the more you obstructed it, the less stars you could see – which with light pollution, the more human interference with lights, the less stars were visible as they had to compete for brightness.

By the end of the workshop time though, we decided that it wasn’t a strong enough concept for us to continue going with it so we agreed to form a group chat online so that we could work together over the next week and come up with something new.

Week 10: Presenting your work

Our projected work: 1. What it looked like on the wall. 2. The background.
3. The cut out figures that were overlapped.

This week was fairly short and straightforward. We were very short for time this week in terms of experiments – and as we had kept changing our ideas in the previous weeks, we hadn’t really settled on a solid concept yet. We decided to just present the optical illusion from last week with the figures in front of the lake. People seemed to like the work, however the common point of feedback was that they have already seen this sort of illusion in our previous work – and that we now need to work on a narrative and a way to expand our projections and interactivity to actually mean something.

We got to look at the work of other groups too – we weren’t the only ones who’d really been struggling to find a solid path, and some other groups seemed to know what they wanted to do and had settled on a narrative right from the beginning and were pretty far along.

Not to worry though – we always have next week to continue blocking it out!