Sep 20, 2011

PROFILE | Miwa Yanagi | Not Your Grandmother's Grandmother

Miwa Yanagi, Elevator Girl House B4, C print, 1998

Japan native Miwa Yanagi has contributed surreal and engaging performance work and photography from 1993 and beyond her acceptance into the Venetian Biennale, the Olympics of contemporary art, in 2009. Yanagi spins new concepts within the time expanding Feminist doctrine, particularly the subject of age in relation to personal self value and autonomy. 

The photo above, for example, is from Yanagi's Elevator Girls series. Originally a performance work, the collection covers the homogenizing world of Japanese women who operate the elevators in large scale department stores. The women themselves look like blank canvases harboring no real emotion, much less character. At first glance the group of women appear to be just one woman impressively multiplied over and over with Photoshop, even though they are in fact different girls from an eighteen to early twenties age group hand selected by Yanagi. The artist has complete control over every minute gesture these doll-like girls convey. In Elevator Girl House B4 the women congregate directly under a beautiful and ominous watery horizon, cutting them from the skyward elevator above. The brilliantly hued setting seems dreamlike in nature, when in actuality the backdrop is a Japanese shopping mall. This hotspot of Consumer culture, where flocks of people come to ogle and buy the same products, places the elevator girls directly in the center. Like Manet's bartender at Folies-Bergere, the Elevator Girls are hired to be put on display as mobile mannequins, their actions controlled by their employer or, in this case, Yanagi herself. 

On the other hand, take Yanagi's series My Grandmothers

Miwa Yanagi, Yuka, digital print, 2000

Over the course of nine years, Yanagi conducted email applications to women from an early twenties age group for this particular photo exhibition. Including models from the Elevator Girls series, Yanagi asked these particular women what they imagined their lives in fifty or sixty years. These answers would then be incorporated into the twenty five photo collection. 

Obviously, answers exemplifying "In sixty years I want to be surrounded by a loving family with a loving husband" were the first to be sent to the trash pile. Yanagi's "extraordinary grandmother(s)" are women with flaming red hair with their young lovers whisked into "another universe." They are lesbian partners running back and forth between Japan and Germany or mentors to young prostitutes in the future's openly legalized sex industry. Their expressions range from spiritual and contemplative to enthused and flirtatious. The models used for this series are Yanagi's embodiment of the ultimate grandmother. 

But they aren't actually grandmothers. The models throughout the series are in their early twenties and thirties, aged with an impressive use of Photoshop. The same women from the email applications and even the Elevator Girls series envision (in sixty years) declining marriage proposals from men their present age.

Given Elevator Girls vs. Grandmothers presents a proverbial ping pong match between age and individuality. Female artists presenting feminist ideals is not a new trend, but why does Yanagi portray a strong sense of self grow towards the end of the life of the average blank-faced elevator girl? In an interview with Mako Wasaka, the artist states:
"I had opportunities to talk with models who were in their twenties... 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.. They don't openly talk 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... It's maybe easy to go your own way in America, but in Japan self-centered individualism is not acceptable without you being totally on top of others." 
Yanagi mentions age groups spanning from childhood to old age in terms of individualism in Japan. A woman can express a sense of self before Jr. High and after age sixty, but the middle years are a grey area mostly spent conforming to one's peers in the operated elevators of modern Japanese society. The concept of age is muddled, where youth is present in the elderly and the young are eager to age out of societal constrictions concerning how they must behave. The extremes of age, the young and the old, are where true personalities lie. Yanagi also compares Japan to America on this notion, even though America has its own confusions between criss-crossing different age groups. Even so, Yanagi's approaches to age in regards to individualism is an ever relatable piece of the Feminist ideology. 

-Meagan McLendon


Contributor said...

Looking through the different artist's for some reason Miwa Yanagi was the artist that caught my attention right away. I think her work is really pretty to look at and beautifully executed. I am drawn more to surrealism works of art and this is a good example of why I do, for example in the "Elevator Girls" the whole scenario is dream-like and that is one aspect that I love. The colors used in the photograph are amazing, with the bright blues and red, and also what seems to be water above really make the photo. Also I like how the artist made the models look like doll's almost as if they had a porcelain face, it is kinda creepy in a sense because they all look alike but it works well. I feel like I am watching a horror film and this is the part when one person dies and they are waiting for a miracle to happen. When I look at the "Grandmothers" photograph I just think “Wow that is one awesome older woman”, and as I read more information about this work I see that the model is actually not an older women but a much more younger woman in her twenties and was just photoshopped. The colors in the work are bright as well but a little darker than in the first image. Over all I enjoyed learning about this artist and viewing her works.

-Clara Moreno

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