I’ve known Jes Kalled for years now. We first worked together at another publication and have been involved in various projects over the intervening years. A particularly fine photographer, writer, artist, filmmaker and all-round polymath, Kalled is one of Tokyo’s most intriguing and inspirational creatives. Recently, I saw her do a live painting evening at the wonderful Yoyogi art space, Gallery Paradiso, and just before we spoke, at a café near Ikebukuro, she was preparing to do another live painting evening at Tokyo Love Hotels, one of the capital’s most acclaimed art-nightlife events. 

Portrait at Daikanyama station with lens crack

Hailing from New Hampshire in the U.S., Kalled has been resident in Tokyo for approximately a decade and her latest ongoing project titled “Swallow” is, according to the artist, “a documentation project that plays with memory and location. The project takes form as a newsletter that arrives in your inbox two to three times a month. Swallow is currently in a Tokyo chapter.”

Poetry and the manner in which we inhabit space, the environment, memory and existence seem to be leitmotifs which run through her impressive body of work. Kalled also recently popped up on my Instagram feed as a model for Asakusabashi-based brand Auba Jaconelli, a label which graced the pages of the July-August issue of Tokyo Weekender. It’s a coincidence, of course, but an occurrence which hardly seems surprising to me now, as our lives intertwine and mingle regardless of logic and probability. 

I sat down with Kalled for the latest instalment of our 8am Coffee With series, and we spoke about art, the desire to create and inspiring artists.

Jes, I wanted to ask how you initially became involved in painting, writing, filmmaking and photography?

I don’t feel like I belong properly or officially to any one of them. I feel like a bit of a stranger in any of those worlds. But I feel in some way connected to any one of those disciplines and sometimes they overlap. 

If you have something you want to express, how do you choose which discipline is the right fit?

It’s not really a conscious choice. It just kind of comes. The medium is the way it starts, I guess. Especially with films. It starts with moving images or dialogue. It’s a living thing which has all these different senses. 

Newspaper maps II by Jes Kalled

Are there any artists, from any discipline, that particularly inspire you?

In 2021, at the end of the year, I took myself to the Mori Art Museum and there happened to be a group exhibit of female artists and I discovered Etel Adnan. She’s a Lebanese American artist and was multifaceted and did poetry and paintings among other things. I’m a quarter Lebanese, so there is some overlap in background. I instantly fell in love with her work. Unfortunately, she had just passed away about a month before I went to the exhibition, but she had lived a full vibrant life, it seems. She has been a really big source of inspiration for me over the past few years. I hadn’t really had any connection with artists before, but when I saw her work at the museum and her poetry, I felt something. I could recognize similarities in my own work: curiosites as emotional landscapes. 

Your artistic output sometimes reminds me of some of Sophie Calle’s works.

I love her. That’s such a compliment. I started doing a documentary project called Swallow and that has allowed me to investigate different vulnerabilities and questions. I love the idea of documentation and when I was reading about Sophie Calle — it all felt very close to me. I’m very interested in personal narratives and the way that we relate to each other in a space. 

Apartment نسيت by Jes Kalled

Has your decade living in Japan had an effect on you and your artwork? 

I guess one of the biggest things is that, perhaps every year, when I begin wondering if I’m going to leave or be here, there’s a kind of friction. I guess I’ve always felt that I wasn’t supposed to be here. So, I’ve wondered if that’s not the feeling we have everywhere. Perhaps we are all here by accident. 

Tell me more about your Swallow project. It’s a strong verb. 

I wanted to create something like Swallow for a long time. But I wasn’t too sure about the name. It is a strong verb. It works as a verb where I’m being swallowed, being immersed in these experiences without control, and also simultaneously having autonomy and swallowing things myself. Being the swallowed and the swallower. But also, it’s a bird. You can fly away and be free. So, there’s this opposition in place as well as movement. I felt like that was a good title for this project of… in part, locating self. 

Feature image: Portrait of Jes Kalled by Kosuke Shimasaki