Dreams of Japanese Women: Miwa Yanagi


My Grandmothers/YUKA (2000) by Miwa Yanagi
H1600 x W1600mm Lightjet Print

(this article first appeared in the may 28, 2007 issue of newsweek international)

Female Forms

In Miwa Yanagi's striking photographs, Japanese women waver between society's expectations and their own deepest desires.

Miwa Yanagi was feeling lost. It was the early '90s and she had recently earned a master's degree from Kyoto City University of Arts. Short on money and ideas, she took a job teaching art history, but felt guilty about not making art. During her commute each day, she observed uniformed young women operating elevators in big department stores. Then one day, it hit her: she might have been wearing a suit, but she wasn't any different from those elevator girls. She was playing the role of teacher, just as they were playing their parts. "I thought, everybody was trying to meet others' expectations in this society," she recalls.
That revelation prompted her to create a stunning series of mural-size photographs called "Elevator Girls." Featuring expressionless, identically clothed models posing in futuristic, hollow buildings, the images―among the most striking in Japanese art photography―mark Yanagi's artistic breakthrough. With the smooth surfaces and glaring colors of advertising or fashion photography, they display an "astonishing combination of architecture and individuals, as well as a meticulous, perfect technique," says Friedhelm H tte, the Berlin-based director of Deutsche Bank Art, which has collected dozens of Yanagi's works. The bank's entire collection is now on view in Yanagi's first U.S. solo museum show―a rare feat for a Japanese artist―at New York's Chelsea Art Museum (through Aug. 25).

Yanagi, 40, draws inspiration from what she calls the "strange contradictions in Japanese society." On the surface, Japanese women have come a long way, enjoying successful and diverse careers. But women are still expected to play "a certain role," says Yanagi―namely wife and mother. She recalls that when Hakuo Yanagisawa, the cabinet member in charge of improving the country's record-low birthrate, referred to women as "child-making devices" earlier this year, there was only a minor uproar. "I guess because that's what people think," she says. Michiko Kasahara, chief curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, where Yanagi's solo show is planned for next year, says the artist is a master at depicting the modern feminine dilemma. "She captures the ambivalence and absurdity of being a woman in this mass-consumer society," she says.

While working with models posing as elevator girls, Yanagi found many of them had trouble expressing their immediate feelings. But, interestingly, they had no problem discussing their distant futures as old women. "Somehow, when liberated from the age issue, they felt no pressure to be appropriated," says Yanagi. That insight led to the vibrant and often hilarious "My Grandmothers" series, in which Yanagi uses digitally altered photography and special-effects makeup to depict young women 50 years from now. She let women describe how they picture themselves in old age, and "realized" those dreams. Red-haired "Yuka" (2000) is seen speeding away with a young hunk on a motorcycle. "Mineko" (2002) poses as an adventurous traveler, while "Hiroko" (2002) appears as a proud S&M queen with her granddaughter. Yanagi recognizes that these are not typical retirement plans; half the people she interviewed said they pictured themselves as "sweet old women surrounded by adorable grandkids," she says. But those are the ones she avoided. "I'm looking for my idea of an ideal grandmother."

Everyone wants a piece of her now. In addition to the Deutsche Bank collection show, some "My Grandmothers" works are currently on display at Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen, Germany (through May 27), the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York (through July 1), and Tokyo's Shiseido Gallery (through June 10). A couple of "Elevator Girls" are on view at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, through May 27, too.

Still, it's her most recent series, "Fairy Tales," based on popular children's classics, that may be her most universally accessible. Shot in black and white, the photos, in which preteens play both pretty young girls and witchy old women, are often scary and violent, just like the original stories. But Yanagi lets the girls fight for themselves, liberating them from traditionally passive roles. In "Snow White" (2004), a little girl who doubles as the stepmother hands her reflection the poisoned apple. "She reinvents the [famous] tales and gives them new life," says Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of photography at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where her Deutsche Bank show will travel next February. Throughout Yanagi's work, "her vision of young and old, of societal pressures on women to conform, of thwarted and realized dreams, begins to emerge."

Yanagi is especially interested in women's ambivalence about aging. She calls Japan "a big grandma nation," in which women live longer than either sex in any other nation, an average of 86 years. More and more, older women are influencing Japanese lifestyle and culture. Yet the country also has an almost obsessive subculture of little-girl worship, apparent in anime and manga books. "The two extremes―what a contradiction, right?" she says. As she has begun to expand the grandmother series to non-Japanese women, Yanagi has discovered that the contradiction is not unique to Japan―virtually guaranteeing that she'll never run short on ideas for her art.

(c) 2007 newsweek, inc.

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