TOMOKO SAWADA

Exploring her selves

by Matthew Larking

Modern culture is deeply interested in constructed and changing identities. The mutability of the individual is an obsession that stretches from stories about Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” being a portrait of the artist in drag to Oprah Winfrey’s very public weight-loss programs; from Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura’s self portraits as celebrities from the arts and entertainment worlds to the bizarre transformations of Michael Jackson.

Though this fascination is often drawn to spectacle, it is also part of quotidian life — from the airs we put on to the brands we sport. It may feel counterintuitive to think that our own identities are constructed — that we are actually acting according to self-projections of who we want be rather than are — but social and cultural identities are so influential that a host of personas often coalesce into a single individual with relative ease.

So then, if, after you saw her exhibition “Masquerade,” photographer Tomoko Sawada told you she wasn’t really feeling herself today, it probably wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The 10-year retrospective of her photography shows her in the guise of at least 420 different self-created identities.

“All of them are me,” she said in a 2004 interview with NY Arts Magazine, “I don’t try to be someone else.”

That being so, her body of work is a phantasmagoric play of self-imaging that is volatile and restless in the infinite adjustments of pose, clothing, hair and makeup. The show, which is at Kirin Plaza Osaka until Sept. 3, gets under way with black-and-white silver gelatin prints from 1996-97 that feature faces with heavy makeup and masks, then quickly moves into vibrant color works. The “OMIAI” (2001) series tackles the Japanese tradition of arranged marriages in which photo albums of a potential bride-to-be are presented to prospective families in hopes of getting a “bite.” The 30 or so works in the series show the artist in a variety of carefully arranged poses, and in attire from gaudy kimono to Western-style formal and business wear, with her hair variously dyed or done up. The range of types, colors and even tackiness caters to a broad audience and recalls the way little girls and boys play dress-up. But the imagery is designed to appeal to the groom and his family, and so it reveals a certain female subservience, coupled with the commodification of the bride in its pseudo-advertising.

“Cover/Face” (2002) takes as its subject the ganguro style that emerged in the 1990s — where young girls bleach their hair and paint white circles around their eyes in panda-bear style — and juxtaposes it with more conservatively made-up faces.

Where “Cover/Face” takes up a youth-culture aesthetic that challenged conservative mores, “Recruit” (2006) is a collage of 300 passport-size shots that imagine Sawada as a recent graduate job-hunter, geared up in the corporately sanctioned uniform of white blouse and black blazer. Her personas in these works succumb to the homogenizing pressures of society that lead to a kind of anonymity and banality. “Masquerade” (2006), the title series, takes on another familiar feminine imagery in Japan. In a series of slick back-lit photographs, Sawada strikes poses similar to those seen on the posters outside hostess clubs.

Sawada’s body of work essentially follows on from projects begun in the 1960s by American feminists, who dissected the cultural conditioning of feminine roles and conventions. Such identity politics saturated the Western art world from the 1970s throughout the ’90s. But while earlier work, such as Cindy Sherman’s, was often challenging and barbed, Sawada parodies conventions without overt criticism. Her originality lies, instead, in fleshing out the constructed, stereotypical roles of femininity in Japan, letting them meld together to produce their ultimate beginning and end — a portrait of the artist as herself.