Rejecting kawaii culture

New York-based Momoyo Torimitsu refuses to lump herself in with artists inspired by anime

by Kay Itoi

Momoyo Torimitsu (b. 1967) is a little tired of being remembered for Jiro Miyata, a life-size robot she created based on a middle-aged salaryman in 1994. But who could forget? Miyata, which Torimitsu had crawl around the streets of Tokyo, Paris, New York and other cities, so brilliantly embodied the hard working, misunderstood, badly dressed everyman of Japan’s post-bubble era. But the artist has since moved on.

Based in New York since 1996, she has created art that comments on a wide range of issues, from escalating globalism to Japan’s obsession with cuteness. In 2001, Torimitsu orchestrated a large public-art project called “Made in Sumida,” that involved family-run factories in the Sumida Ward of Tokyo. The final installations from the project incorporated the factory’s products and video works shot at the factories as well as other forms of art.

Last month she was back in Tokyo to participate in the Mori Art Museum’s contemporary exhibition, “All About Laughter” [See Re:VIEW page]. Her contribution is “Horizons,” a striking in stallation of 100 small action figures (made based on GI Joe dolls) that sport business suits and the faces of European, American and Asian men crawling all over an abstract map of the world. Torimitsu spoke with The Japan Times the day after the show opened.

It was startling to walk into the gallery where “Horizons” is on view, but I don’t know if it makes people laugh.

I’m not sure if it’s funny. I certainly didn’t intend it to be. I made the piece in 2004, when the United States had already launched the war against Iraq. In New York, you are much more sensitive to these things than you would be in Tokyo. It sounded as though President Bush meant it to be a religious war. Germany and France opposed it because of their business interests; they had their own agenda. It felt that the war was just about capitalism, and I was outraged. The work was my statement as an artist.

The 100 figures are constantly moving, and they bump into each other, pile on each other; their suits wear out . . .

Exactly. Their heads come off, they lose their arms and legs. Some stop moving, run out of batteries, as if they are dead. The buildings collapse and towns fall. It is really like a war of globalism.

It’s been a long time since you first introduced the crawling Miyata robot.

The concept of an artwork keeps growing and changing. It depends on what is happening in the world, which affects me, the artist. Even If I showed a piece I made in the 1990s — like Miyata — today, it will have a different meaning than it did back then.

First I had Miyata crawl around the streets. Then I grew interested in the people who came to see it. So I videotaped the audience and began showing that as my piece. People reacted so differently every time, and it said a lot about the city, the country.

I’ve since been more interested in the relationships I build with the public rather than just making and showing things. That’s how I got involved in public art projects.

How does being in New York affect your work?

Before I moved to New York, I was very conscious that I was making art as a Japanese artist. My thinking on Japan’s rapid economic growth [in the 1960s and '70s] went into the Miyata piece. I am still Japanese, of course, but after 10 years away, my knowledge of Japan is outdated. If I tried to base a work on the current situation in Japan, it would lack reality.

In New York, everybody is extremely competitive. Business people, art dealers, artists — everybody. They come to New York with a purpose, to accomplish something. Living in New York, you are constantly subjected to severe competition; it’s very hard psychologically.

I wanted to express that physically, and created “Inside Track.” I made three [life-size] robots, based on an Asian businessman, an American businessman, and an European businessman. I then videotaped them crawl around and compete with each other in a corporate building in midtown.

How does it feel to be back in Tokyo?

I don’t feel I belong here.

How do you see Japanese art today?

In New York, many people from different backgrounds do all kinds of different things. In Japan, there seems to be a certain movement or school, in the tradition of nihonga [Japanese-style painting] schools. I’d call it a school of anime-like works or kawaii-type [cute] works. Or we might call it the “[Takashi] Murakami School.” He trained in nihonga, so it makes sense.

Do you feel pressure to create that kind of anime-like or kawaii-type work?

Sometimes. When I meet European dealers, they say they want to visit my studio. When they show up, they are obviously disappointed because my work is not what they expected. This has happened a few times. There are certain expectations for a female Japanese artist. My work is not kawaii nor anime-inspired.

Was “Somehow I don’t feel comfortable,” your piece with two huge rabbits made of balloons filling a gallery space, a comment on that?

I already had an idea for that piece in the 1990s, before the anime-type art became dominant in Japanese contemporary art. I started to show two bunnies in a solo exhibition at Galerie Xippas in Paris in 2000. The piece was then included in an American show called “My Reality,” which started in 2001 at the Des Moines Art Center (and traveled to other venues). The show was about the influence of the Japanese anime culture on contemporary art, and featured artists of the Murakami School. I explained to the curator that I wasn’t under the anime influence.

When making “Somehow I don’t feel comfortable,” I was thinking a lot, for example, about the unique ways Japanese women use their cuteness for communication. A professional, middle-aged woman picks up the phone and says “hello” in a high-pitched, kawaii voice, sounding more girlish than her usual tone.

You are not interested in belonging to a “school” of Japanese art.

It may have something to do with the fact that [in my 20s] I tended a bar in the Golden Gai neighborhood in Shinjuku for four or five years. It was educational. Regulars at the bar were dancers, writers, pornographic moviemakers, those sort of people, who had unique views on things and knew how to express themselves. You couldn’t be there unless you were independent and knew how to express yourself, too.

The environment was probably more stimulating than the Tama Art University [from which she graduated in 1994].

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