a shell game | kai-awase

A Shell Game was made for Babel on the Beach from items in the Middle Shore collection, curated by Lara Farina. The game came from my efforts to match up the collection items in Omeka with Lara's bibliography.

Every collector’s work has to have a starting point and for me it was the item labeled “Cards,” which is a haiku from Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959):

playing poem cards
they’re all so beautiful –
bent on winning.

Poem cards (or karuta) are a variant of mono-awase (what are called “matching games”), popular for centuries in Japan. These ones are from the Edo period, 1618-1688, but poem cards go back as far as the Heian period, 794-1185AD, when they were played in ferocious competitions at court. Halves of poems were given out on a card, and had to be matched with their missing brethren. kai-awase (the shell matching game), was a similar activity, but was played using elaborately painted clam shells. The shells were separated, painted, and then the game’s aim was to join them back together. Shell-joining sets, a full set containing 360 pairs of clam shells, were expensive and often included as part of a wealthy woman’s trousseau.

This “matching” activity was on my mind because when I looked at Lara’s original collection, there was an accompanying bibliography but the images were uploaded and displayed by Omeka in a different order, so I (as a non-medievalist) had a lot of trouble figuring out what matched with what. Some were pretty easy to figure out (there was only one reference to haiku, for example), and some I was able to match up using Google image search. But not everything is on the Internet, and some of the images were inscrutable to me.

Naturally I assumed this was Lara’s diabolical plan all along, and that she’d inserted the poem cards reference as a clue. And from there it just all fell out, until what I was left with was a matching game.

In an attempt to synthesize some of these themes (cards, fragments, shells) I've made a click-and-drag game in which cards with Kanji on top must be dragged on top of the corresponding image (clicking on the kanji gives the word translation as a clue). When a kanji card and picture are matched, they turn into a shell, and a poem line is generated. The lines are generates as follows:

Clicking on the red word will take you to a google image search for that word combined with "medieval."

When the puzzle is complete, a box pops up with a string of shells displayed in the order they were solved. Clicking on the "restring" button will reset the puzzle, producing a new shuffled deck of Kanji and a new poem.

click here to play