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