Le Monde is one of the first projects carried out in France by artist Mana Kikuta. Since then, she has been commissioned by the Centre National des Arts Plastiques for Les Regards du Grand Paris, amongst others. But back in 2015: a student freshly arrived from Japan to study photography in the city of Arles, the country was new to her. The series both accompanied and now embodies her adjustments to a new land as well as a new language.

With sunlight and a magnifying glass, the artist burns the words she knows from the Le Monde newspaper. The remaining scores form an unfamiliar writing recalling non-Latin alphabets such as Sanskrit or Arabic. Only the words she doesn’t know remain readable, the other ones give way to light resulting in a delicate paper lace created by the news pages.

The making of the work strikes by its precision and meticulousness. The slow and laborious process is apparent, reminding us of the artist’s meditative state while creating the piece. In the video accompanying the images, her voice vocalises the disappearing words in a melancholic litany. Indeed, the production of Le Monde may well have been cathartic for the young woman. As a way of processing the new experience, learning a new language and getting a grip on a foreign reality.

The information featured by the newspaper appears as gibberish. By cancelling out part of the text, Kikuta abstracts the whole page, turning it into an image – a set of symbols in which words are not relevant anymore. Signs overlap through the thin paper, blending with the news images and the alphabet created from the void. The texts from Le Monde, one of the most respected journals in France, become an unintelligible piece. A native French speaker would be able to understand all the remaining words, but they promptly vanish in the newly formed tableau. In that process, the rational, the comprehensible, the coherent disappear, yielding a perceptive picture. The newspaper becomes an out-of-joints composition in which language is powerless because it is unknown.

In this project, the global state of affairs embodied by and through media stands in confrontation with the individual reality of the artist. However, Kikuta’s estrangement in facing a different culture becomes universal again when put in relation to migration processes. Having little knowledge of the language, and living in France for the first time, she felt what every migrant feels: a sense of otherness and displacement. When the word around is hardly decipherable, only hints that allow assumptions about how it works. The title of both the newspaper and Kikuta’s series, Le Monde, literally means ‘the world’, and it is this incommunicability with a new surrounding that the project explores. At the same time the burnt holes are also the mark of her presence in the French cultural environment: the pages are modified by her intervention, making visible her interaction with French culture.

Recalling Ferdinand de Saussure’s thinking, words become non-related signs. What remains untouched on the page forms an incomprehensible image: the words, and world, of the ‘other’. Through the known comes the burning light of southern France: light of understanding, knowledge, the heat of the familiar, the joy of recognising, but also the encounter with a different sun. The erased words form a set of knowledge that the artist can rely on, guardian of her memory. They therefore configure her interpretation of the world around her. Hence, ‘the word’ is reconfigured according to the known and the unknown. And the remaining words are symbols for an arising knowledge, a hypothetic new world. We can indeed imagine that while her mastering of French language develops, more and more words would disappear from the pages, as if she were appropriating, taking in, swallowing these new signs in herself. Le Monde is therefore a process of acculturation, of learning through light and dark moments, until a new knowledge – here French language and culture – is becoming part of her individuality, reconfiguring her identity. Le Monde works, then, as both a rite of passage and an exploration of the relationship between words and conceptions of the world.

FOAM Magazine #60