what little girls want: the art of miwa yanagi

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch
old breast against young breast.

–Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel,” Transformations

miwa yanagi, rapunzel, 2005.

miwa yanagi creeps me out–in all the good kinds of ways. her images carry the capacity to go from surface to psychological in lightning-quick speed, and what lay in the subconscious afterwards folds into complex unease with a lingering, distinct aftertaste. cursory on-line research into her newest body of work provides three titles describing the same set of images, all apt in one or more ways: fairytales; the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging; and the incredible tale of the innocent old lady and the heartless girl.” whichever phrasing you choose, this third body of her photographs follows seamlessly where the last left off, and her visual problem-solving mingled with her confidence in her questions and critque makes her among the most interesting and provactive image makers today.

the japanese have a phrase for women art photographers, and it is not one that they should be entirely grateful for: onnanoko shashinka, translated literally as “girlie photographers.” as the first wave of established japanese photographers begins to make way for the new second wave, women have been struggling to make work that is both personal and collective, meaningful without being minute. and while work by female photographers is being produced, there is irritatingly little infomation or exposure of it. the lack of interest, press or support of contemporary female photographers in japan has been in part because of the concerns choosen to be explored in their art gets snidely referred to as “women’s work” and is subsequently dismissed. miyako ishiuchi‘s photographs catalog her mother’s articles of clothing and ephemera, as a daughter tries to understand her relationship to her and to herself through personal (nearly sacristral) objects she wore or carried on her person. michiko kon deals in still lifes constructed entirely of foodstuffs. gloriously decadent, humorous and grotesque, they are still made of items that a woman bought at a market, which are ingredients in a meal, that to a japanese mentality is to be served and prepared for a husband and family.

i have never liked the notion of women vs. male artists of any sort. women-only shows, while they serve a purpose, feel like a half-hearted attempt at artistic affirmative action. equality has never come about through polarity. the fact is, the playing field has never been level, and all that’s ever mattered–male or female–is the work. photography, because of its relatively late entrance into the art scene, has been perhaps the greatest democracy of all the arts (whether or not you read about it speaks to something else). ishiuchi’s photos are delicate, eerie and truly personalized, intimate documents. kon’s are among the first photographic images by a japanese photographer that i ever became infactuated with (and whatever happened to her anyway? has she made anything since the mid-1990’s?). that said, miwa yanagi makes altogether different kinds of images. different from women. different from men. different from anything i have ever seen. miwa yanagi is an artist whose questions give way to more questions.

yanagi first found herself championed by a transvestite japanese photographer,yasumasa morimura, who had been making a splash re-enacting art historical scenes and inserting himself as an obvious asian-male-made-to-be-westernized-ideal-of-female. he introduced her work to a curator of a major deutsche bank exhibition, held at the kunsthalle in frankfurt. her work was shown along the same walls as cindy sherman, nobuyoshi araki, jeff wall, miyako ishiuchi and morimura.

her first series, elevator girls, is startling to look at and is seductive in its deliberately sleek and polished sensibility. but when i first saw them i did not understand what i was looking at, and faced with the cultural roadblock, stopped at the surface.

elevator girls, 1996-1999

i did not know what an “elevator girl” was, and wasn’t aware of any overreaching cultural critique going on in the images. there are times when i assume that if i need to be given too much information about the context for a work, or why it exists, then the work becomes about the information and not about the work itself. i tend to think that these pieces fail when the explanation is more interesting than the visual. but happily in yanagi’s case, her visuals are always thought through, well executed and the context is necessary, and necessarily engaging.

noriko fuku describes elevator girls as those who:

…wear beautiful uniforms called “royal fashion,” often created by famous designers, and they receive special training where they learn to bow and speak with an exaggeratedly feminine tone of voice: “welcome to our department store. we appreciate your visit here today. this elevator is going up now and stops at all the floors upon your request. the second floor is for designer brand dresses for ladies. are there any customers who would like to stop here?” when the door opens, she says, “please mind your step.” another elevator girl is usually standing outside the door, also wearing royal fashion. the elevator girl inside the elevator smiles and bows to the girl outside, as if saying, “i am handing over my customers to you, please take care of them.” elevator girls stay in their tiny cells repeating the same speech and gestures hour after hour. only beautiful young girls are hired for these positions. for the previous generation, this was a highly desirable job.

without this information all i saw were sleek, surreal examples of consumer culture, and was completely oblivious to the specific critique on that culture the images were made to provoke. as i read in interviews and articles, i began to glean that this first work was possibly not meant for a wider cultural audience than the japanese (though her successive work would contend mightily with more collective themes), and that what it would become was yanagi’s first stab at puncturing this feminine bubble that exists in japan, the one that sets out all the acceptable options for a woman’s course in life and what her expectations can and should be for the duration.

white casket, 1998

i trust yanagi’s images in part because her line of questioning is evident and continually surprising: what can young, educated japanese women expect for their ambitious lives lived in large cities, post-education but pre-marriage? what does it mean to define oneself through sheer consumerism? is one doll different at all from another? is life as an elevator girl like living in some terranium, existing as a perfect moving object in a kind of fishbowl? how does one escape? does one escape? is collective identity a kind of murder, a form of sought-after suicide? in interviews, yanagi comments on the varities of female experience in japan, chief among those she questions are a group deemed “parasites.” parasites are women who choose to stay living at home with their parents while spending all of their considerable salaries on fashion. the relationship’s dynamic perpetuates itself because both parties think they are doing good deeds by living under the same roof: children think they are being good by watching over their parents and just generally being there, and parents feel a reason to live in continuing to take care of them. yanagi has said, “they stay home and spend all their money buying what they want. prada or hermes, japanese women consume all brand-name products. the industry does best in japan thanks to these women.” with no real cultural comparison in the west, the finer points of her criticism of this aspect of daily life was completely lost on me. once i had read the context which to a japanese would be self-evident, the photographs pulsed with their intended meaning.

in this interview, yanagi describes how her experience with her models from the series elevator girls began to generate fodder for her next work, grandmothers.

yanagi: in the process of making the series, i had the opportunity to talk with models who were in their twenties. it was interesting. they want something for their future. but they have a hard time expressing what they want as if their desires were subdued or locked inside…japanese women think they have to be lovable and liked by everyone around them…they 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.
wasaka: 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. i think that occurs after they feel liberated from the age issue.
wasaka: does that mean that they don’t care anymore 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.

misako, 2002
in your arms i used to listen to
that song which i will play again tonight
oh hazy moon
how many more nights are yet to pass
for this desolation to cease.

it is with her grandmothers series where yanagi began to fully come into her own. she had begun elevator girls as a performance piece, switching to photography when she became frustrated by the lack in the piece’s capacity to give her full authorial control. as if hitting a wall from such strictures, she turned around here, and gave up some of that rulership and found that it took her places it could not have with her absolute direction. using some of the models from elevator girls, and procuring others through an on-line advertisement she placed, she found stories within stories of what young women dreamed about becoming when they were older, once freed from their perceived obligations to family and society. artist and girl went hand-in-hand, teasing out the dreamed-of-life and what it might look like. using a combination of aging software, latex and makeup, yanagi brought the young into lively agehood. the women were asked to compose something that the reflective, experienced older woman would say or think.

ai, 2004

i know people in this neighborhood talk behind my back and say that my fortune-telling is fake.
i don’t do this to get a bit of money from these kids, i’m not that desperate or bored
i’m just here waiting for one special customer: my successor.
since she’s not attracted to the past or anxious about the future,
i leave it to chance that someday, she’ll enter through this shattered doorway.
after she takes my place, i’ll live quietly, discharged from both my hopes and regrets.
how many more dull fortunes do i have to tell
i can’t help feeling pity for these innocent girls.
their lives will be just like their mothers,
chronic boredom interrupted by disappointment and disillusionment.
can’t believe that they come here to confirm that.
i’m fed up with their girlsih secrets,
made rosy only by their shallow expectations and cheap dreams.
i’ll only take five more customers today.
oh, this girl is about to cry.
there’s no use for tears, sweetheart.

the result is a compelling battery of images, myriads of self-directed destinies and specifically wished-for futures; a truly realized and collaborative work. perhaps because the piece wouldn’t be complete without it, perhaps because it was too good a self-portrait opportunity to resist, yanagi included herself in the retinue of old ladies:

miwa, 2001
for ten years
i have looked after many children
every time
i embrace a new child
we all embark upon our journey together
at eighty
the long journeys across many mountains and rivers have become difficult.
still, i keep going
with the thought
that my children will exist
in the farthest reaches of this earth.

yanagi could be speaking about all the women she encounters while researching and producing her many images. or she could mean the women she hopes are touched or changed by the ideas of possible futures they could embody, if only they could see themselves within those possibile potential selves. or further still, the children may be the actual works themselves, taken out of japan, department stores, and foreign art museums, and held in the mind’s eyes of millions who come in contact with them, and by extension, with her wish for herself and a changed world.

her grandmothers series was well-received, shown in europe, japan and america, and included in a book of her work and interviews. it was reviewed as a series that viewed aging and feminity in a positive light, and the context for the reviews rarely delved anywhere near yanagi’s larger critique of banal and repetitive existences most japanese women live in today.

her newest body of work, the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging, begun in 2004, picks up some of the more sinister strands that her previous works had flirted with, but had not fully given voice to. to my eye, it is her most darkly compelling and aesthetically full-rounded work to date. in all her previous images, the final product is presented in lush, large, and luminous display, some photographs reaching 70×280″ in size. heavily digitally manipulated, extroidinarily detailed, we are engulfed as viewers into her mise-en-sc√©ne. these new images are smaller (but not small, exactly, measuring about 40×40″), classically printed black-and-whites, and still deal with a female-to-female dynamic, but in the well-known terrain of the fairy-tale.

gretel, 2004

i cannot find much information about this series, and am frustrated, as i often am, about the lack of information concerning newer work by pioneering japanese photographers. what i do know about the series i found in a recent issue of asia art pacific magazine. the review tells that yanagi reconstructs fairytale scenes from western tales as well as from gabriel garcia marquez’s erendira. she casts girls between the ages of five to eleven, and records them as both a girl and an old woman. the end result, in the handful of images i’ve seen (and want desperately to see in person), is chilling, unsettling, and utterly engrossing.

snow white, 2004

i quoted from anne sexton’s book of poems transformations at the beginning of this post. that particular tome was sexton’s dabbling into tales-told-slant, and yanagi’s rendering of girl-into-old-hag, innocence thwarted, and the cycle of youthful curiosity giving way to trials, self-discovery and redemption has much in sympathy with sexton’s treatment. in both the little girls aren’t all as innocent as they seem; evil witches are misfortunate shrews who wear their life’s regrets on their sleeves; both wield a certain power and horror; both are one in the same.

erendira, 2004

yanagi’s new series of work is being show from august through october at the hara museum of art in tokyo. i do not know whether it will come to the states or not, but if you have the means and opportunity to see it, i highly suggest you do so.