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May 20, 2004

Postmodern Japanese Photography: Two Fresh Takes From Women

Like many culture addicts, I've devoured my share of Japanese cultural products (somewhere, I read that Japan was one of the top three exporters of culture globally), mainly films, graphic novels, and videogames. Having studied Japanese history and spent time in Japan a while back, I've also been fascinated with their culture and social mores generally, and have thought about a number of the cultural stereotypes: the so-called collectivist thinking and behavior of the Japanese, the effects of lifetime employment, the passion for cutesy kitsch, the obsession with technology in terms of consumer electronics.

There has been quite a bit written recently that reconsiders these stereotypes, such as this book, but what I hadn't seen a lot of until recently was art or photography that reflected the cultural changes in Japan, specifically the role of women. Apparently, the history of Japanese photography hasn't been well documented generally until the last decade, particularly for people outside of Japan, but the last year has seen a major retrospective of Japanese photography...the exhibition catalog for that retrospective is nicely reviewed here, and provides a good historical overview overall.

One could loosely and simplistically map developments in Japanese photography to similar ones in American and European photography -- the use of photography early on for straight documentary purposes, the evolution of a pictorial tradition, the advent of modernism, and then more radical, individualistic approaches that incorporated the viewpoint of the photographer and addressed social issues more explicitly. I'm sure Japanese photography deserves better than this, and I hope (and expect) for more to be written about the subject. In the meantime, I muddle along with my simplistic frames of reference and mostly admire individual photographers such as Araki, Moriyama, Hosoe, and many more.


Hiroshi Sugimoto seascape

More recently, there have been contemporary art stars like Hiroshi Sugimoto that subtly adapt Japanese culture and minimalist techniques to work that hangs comfortably in Western and Japanese galleries globally. The evolution of a postmodern photography that carries the voice of women, and speaks more topically yet artfully to the changes in modern Japanese society, hasn't been as easy to find. So it was a revelation to discover Miwa Yanagi's work, specifically Elevator Girls (which can also be seen in pieces in this preview of her latest book), and My Grandmothers. (some larger images from the latter can be seen here).


Miwa Yanagi image, from Elevator Girls

Yanagi's photographs are closer in look to the work of photographers like Philip Lorca di Corcia and Jeff Wall than they are to many previous Japanese photographers, and interestingly they seem to be more popular in Europe and other countries such as Australia than they have been in the U.S., based on my limited research. On first glance, I can see why they might have had a modest but not huge impact here, as the look of some of the photographs mirrors many of the C-prints being churned out and displayed at U.S. contemporary art galleries. But a closer look at them and consideration of the context in which they were produced is fascinating.

This excellent interview with Yanagi brings out some key points to understanding the appeal of her work...Yanagi talks about the characteristics of certain cliques in Japanese society, and how a strain of conservatism in thinking still underlies the outward rebelliousness and infatuation with consumer culture...and how women are still inhibited from expressing their ambitions. Thus the rationale emerged for the series "My Grandmothers", which depicts women as they would imagine themselves 50 years later:

Wakasa: I would like you to talk about your recent work, the My Grandmothers series. In this series, you deal with women who are free and have a unique personality unlike the elevator girls series.

Yanagi: Yes, but some models are from that series.

Wakasa: What is the process of shifting from restricted women to free women?

Yanagi: I used a lot of models for the elevator girls series. They were like dolls or mannequins because of my control. I switched to photography from performance art because I wanted to control their performance 100 percent. As a result, they became mannequins. In the process of making the series, I had opportunities to talk with models who were in their twenties. It was interesting. They want something for their future. But, they have hard time expressing what they want as if their desires were subdued or locked inside. It's hard to tell when locked. Japanese women today conceive themselves as someone who are lovable. They think they have to be lovable and liked by everyone around them. Especially young women think that they don't deserve to live if they are not like that. As a result, they don't talk openly about their wishes or strange desires even though they had some ideas about who they wanted to be when they were children. In order for them to recall their childhood dreams, they need to be liberated from their youthfulness.

Wakasa: Young women cannot express who they want to be at present because they are young?

Yanagi: Right. But, they can often express what they want to accomplish 50 years later from now. I think that occurs after they feel liberated from the age issue.

Wakasa: Does it mean that they don't care any more about what others think of them when they become senior?

Yanagi: Yes. So, the more restricted she is today, the more free and gorgeous she may become fifty years later in her imagination.


Miwa Yanagi image, from My Grandmother series

The contrasts with American society and the ironies are impossible to miss. In the U.S., consumer culture seems to promulgate an endless adolescence, and the pervasive (suffocating?) influence of baby boomers has resulted in a continuous denial of the realities of "growing old" in popular culture. On the other hand, Yanagi's subjects are so stifled by the expectations for women in their culture that they can only imagine liberation and accomplishment as grandmothers (however illusory).

Superficially, Yanagi's images invite some misunderstanding (at least in a web view) because they seem to take off from typical advertising images of rebellion and success, such as the photograph above. But looking more closely at the series reveals the quirks and the winking postmodern characteristics...for example, the photograph above was shot, not in California, but in a Tokyo studio with a fan blowing the model's dyed red hair...the photograph was then merged with a stock image of the Golden Gate image in the background, implying a rickety quality to the dream.

The interview with Yanagi cited above is also must reading for understanding the dynamic by which Japanese contemporary artists in general have started to be appreciated in their own country and abroad (Yanagi apparently had no understanding of the contemporary art market or that there might be a market for her work prior to her first show in Germany eight years ago). You can also read more about Yanagi and other interesting Japanese artists featured with her in a group exhibition, "Chameleon Dreams" that came to the U.S. two years ago...here's another good summary.

Finally, a more modest discovery is Mayumi Kimura, whose exhibition, "Interchangeable Disturbances", in her words "...center[s] on the desires and fantasies of a wedding cake figurine who dreams about becoming a truly unique and powerful icon someday. Her magical transforming energy comes from her dissatisfaction with her identity as a determined object.".


"Queen Masque", Mayumi Kimura image

Though I've admired the work of artists like David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons, I have to admit that I have a limited taste for "figurine photography" in contemporary art, but I find Kimura's four galleries of photographs of her wedding cake icon irresistible. And though she doesn't speak about Japanese identity or the issues of women explicitly, it's easy to see in her wit and her photographic scenarios some connections to the themes that an artist like Yanagi has addressed more explicitly. Fun stuff, and thoughtful too. I love the last line of her statement: "Her never-ending exploration into her identity adds more and more personas to her surface, yet, ironically, her new personas persistently keep her on the wedding cake."

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I like the elevator girls photo a lot... it's nice and clean -- and the colors are wonderful...

Posted by: Bob at May 22, 2004 4:58:31 PM

Bob, thanks for the comment...Miwa Yanagi has a book out now that has a number of images from the Elevator Girls series that I'd love to get...but it's awfully expensive...

Posted by: Robert at May 23, 2004 10:58:08 PM

i just found this blog by doing a google search for japanese photography...thanks for the wealth of information! do you know of any other interviews with contemporary japanese photographers? i was thrilled with the yanagi link... and are you aware of nazraeli press?--they seem to be singlehandedly trying to introduce asian photographers to western audiences.

Posted by: stacy at Jul 6, 2004 2:51:01 PM

I love the work of Miwa Yanagi, very inspiring and funky in its style, any information on this artist please email to me...brillient!

Posted by: DJ-BOOMA at Mar 19, 2005 3:59:38 PM

any thoughts on mariko mori? her work, which is featured in publications alongside the artists listed above, has me baffled. i've read extensively and critics either seem to think her indeed a creature of spirituality and enigmatic grace, or a slave to the aesthetic and a phony. anyone agree or disagree?

Posted by: abby at Apr 13, 2005 10:16:58 PM

I love Araki and Sugimoto and I'm happy to discover now Mayumi Kimura, for many reasons

Posted by: miguelangel at Jul 6, 2006 10:45:20 PM

i like them. they're pretty world. XD.

Posted by: gena | shibu at Mar 20, 2007 12:38:22 AM

Interesting interview with Yanagi.

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