Miwa Yanagi: Grandmotherly Love - Art Collector

Issue 49, July - September 2009

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Miwa Yanagi casts a grandmotherly eye over young women as they face the usual set of repressive social and familial mores. Yet not all grandmothers are full of warmth and understanding for their charges; indeed, as the fairytales tell us, some are far more sinister, writes Edward Colless.

If you saw Juliana Engberg’s epochal Melbourne Biennale exhibition back in 1999, you’ll no doubt recall Miwa Yanagi’s stunning, hallucinatory photographic mural installation Elevator Girls. The subjects of these photos were those immaculate young women who – dressed in the mandatory skirt-suits and white gloves, which impose a primly uniformed and deferential anonymity – are a ubiquitous feature of contemporary Japanese department stores and office blocks.

In their unblemished courteous poise, elevator girls are the pure embodiment of Japanese consumer and corporate etiquette. Throughout Yanagi’s palatially extravagant, incandescent but airless hypermodern foyers or arcades of granite, marble, chrome and coloured glass, replicant squads of these woman idly loiter, assemble, lounge and even sprawl in uncomplaining disarray. With no trace of anyone else around, these vast spaces – digitally morphed, mirrored, stretched and multiplied to impossible distances – acquire a neon-hued aura of poignant abandonment: a twilight zone in which the girls have nothing to do other than daydream. The faintest shadow of curiosity or restlessness moves across their doll-like cosmetic masks. Yanagi described this world as a mixture of desire and nightmare with no past or future.

This series of monumental photographs, produced over five years and begun in 1993 when the Kyoto-trained artist was only in her mid-20s – and was relatively isolated even from the artistic boom of the new wave of Kansai (Western Japan) – deservedly propelled Yanagi into international exposure. This year, she’s Japan’s representative at the Venice Biennale with the series Windswept Women: The Old Girls Troupe. At an overwhelming scale of four metres tall, the series features fantastic female colossi, from slim teenager to voluptuous grandmother, clad in cheesy loincloths with exaggerated prosthetic breasts. Propped up in ornately kitsch keepsake frames, the photographs could be family portraits. Yanagi has draped the Japanese Pavilion in an immense black tent, so that (as in fairy tale encounters with ogres) you could be trespassing on these nomadic giants’ sanctuary. The five semi-naked characters that make up Windswept Women tower over desolate Dali-esque landscapes, rearing up like an enraged Godzilla or like Goya’s giants battling each other at the end of time. But, with their feet fixed powerfully on the ground despite the stormy weather around them, Yanagi’s women instead gesticulate in a triumphant, carnal dance. How did Yanagi get to this apocalyptic, mythological world?

The cycles of work subsequent to Elevator Girls have increasingly given voice and vision to those internalised passions of young Japanese women, lingering in the tender traps of consumerist approval and the repressive deportment of familial or social decorum.

For My Grandmothers, from about 1998 to 2001, Yanagi recruited female models through her website, with email and then personal interviews, prompting them to imagine themselves as grandmothers, 50 years into the future. This wasn’t simply an exercise in generating positive attitudes towards ageing. The Japanese grandmother-figure, the omamori, can traditionally be a type of mascot or guardian, a magical companion through life and a projection of one’s possible future. The scenarios that Yanagi created out of her models’ speculations are vivid fantasies of personal fulfilment and despair, captioned by evocative fragments of pseudo-autobiographical confession that range in their theatrical poise from exuberance to serenity. They are all the more dazzlingly otherworldly because the young women, altered through make-up and digital postproduction, model their own fantasies of old age.

Mika, for instance, stands like a priestess wrapped in a tumbling white robe on a rocky crag before a measureless blue-green sea, surrounded by her children or acolytes, a dozen or so water nymphs playing or paddling about the shallow pools of a rock shelf. In another image, Sachiko sits alone and slightly frail, but supremely confident and elegantly self-composed, enjoying a meal in first class comfort on a jet that she has hopped on at random. “I was trying to escape from the sun,” her caption declares, “but now I was the one chasing it.” She gazes with an elusive expression of anticipation out the window into a brilliant, cloudless blue sky that we cannot see but which lights her face with a soft sheen of happiness.

In striking contrast, Yuka does not go easy into that goodnight. Speeding across the Golden Gate bridge on a clear summer’s day in the sidecar of her young biker boyfriend’s Harley, with a cigarette between her fingers, she throws her head back in a wildly ecstatic laugh. Her long dyed red hair lifts in the wind and flicks upward like tongues of flame. A gold front tooth glints in the sunlight. “Oh, my tooth?” she remarks. “Let’s just say it’s a little ‘reminder’ of my big payoff in Vegas last year.”

More recently, Yanagi has turned these fantasies into darker psychic scenarios, shifting into black and white photography as she draws on the hermetic mystery and cruelty of folk and fairy tales: Rapunzel, imprisoned in an attic by a maniacal dwarfish character in a girl’s nightie; Gretel, minus Hansel, gnawing on the finger of an unseen figure’s outstretched and arthritic, withered arm.

A gothic morbidity, with details from Japanese horror movies, infused her 2004 exhibition at Tokyo’s Hara Museum, in which the guardian grandmother had been transfigured into a sinister, sadistic crone. But there’s an untailored, almost blasé treatment of prosthetic special effects in these images (no digital work here) that makes these images even more macabre. These sadistic witches are played by female children, evidently wearing latex age masks, who are battling with or tormenting other little girls. It’s a world exclusively of captive female children, who turn on each other to play out their unnervingly threatening sexual desires.

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