Against the tradition of bijinga (beautiful women pictures) that runs through Japanese art, there is an antithetical stream that draws attention to a grotesque and timeworn femininity. In noh plays, the celebrated early 9th-century beauty of the Heian Era, Ono no Komachi, is sometimes portrayed after her looks have faded and she has become an elderly beggar. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), there was the popular theme of Yamauba, a wild witch living the mountains. In the 20th century, the tradition continued with the paintings of ghoulish geisha from artists Shinso Okamoto and Chusei Inagaki.
The apparent contemporary to these precedents, Miwa Yanagi (b. 1967), is showing her “Windswept Women: The Old Girls’ Troupe” series of photos concurrently at the National Museum of Art, Osaka (her first solo show in west Japan in seven years), and at the Venice Biennale. Yanagi started receiving critical acclaim from the mid-’90s for her work addressing Japanese feminine stereotypes, and now, as one of Japan’s artistic representatives on the international stage, she is garnering further attention with her more mythic gestures. Her “Po-po Nyangnyang” exhibition at the National Museum of Art also includes works from two other series, “Fairy Tale” (2004-06) and ongoing “My Grandmothers.”
There are five of Yanagi’s “windswept” women, who flail and gyrate to primeval music as cave-girl go-go dancers in a desolate landscape under tempestuous skies. They have ridiculously proportioned breasts that bulge to bursting or sag into gnarled protuberances and the figures themselves synthesize youth with old age. The girl with the youngest looking legs, for example, bears the most macerated breasts.
These enormous photographs stand in the kind of frames conventionally found placed upon a mantelpiece, displaying the memory of sons and daughters. Yanagi’s “family,” however, is exclusively female and nomadic, living in a black tent (found at the back of Yanagi’s installation) that, as a video work placed inside the tent makes clear, they can dismantle and take to some other location. This single-gendered family on the move is something that Yanagi relates to her personal concerns and upbringing. “My own family was comprised only of women,” she explained to The Japan Times in a June interview at the Venice Biennale.
Yanagi’s other series on display, her images from “Fairy Tale” and “My Grandmothers,” both show continuities of theme and subject matter. In the “Fairy Tale” series, Yanagi gives visual form to the tales of the Brothers Grimm and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother,” which becomes Yanagi’s image “Erendira” (2004).
Garcia Marquez’s novel has a general metaphoric significance for much of Yanagi’s work and reading it is like uncovering an inventory of ideas that the artist draws from, including the misfortunes visited on a young granddaughter at the hands of her obese grandmother — the two of them living in a tent — and the culmination of the tale when Erendira runs into the wind toward the desert, never to be heard from again.
Rather than merely illustrating stories, however, Yanagi deviates from the texts, combining the supposed villainy of the old women in the tales with the innocence of the youthful girls. In “Snow White” (2004) the heroine dons an aged mask of wrinkles before a mirror and hands an apple to her reflected image, suggesting that there is some sort of complicity between the youth and the old woman. In another work, “Cinderella” (2005), further visual interventions occur. Here, a Balthus-like juvenile eroticism is given to Cinderella, around whom gather the three sisters, only one of whom may truly be “ugly,” as she hides behind a wrinkled mask.
In “My Grandmothers,” Yanagi asks her models to imagine their ideal appearance 50 years into the future and then pursues their ideas in interviews. Using stage makeup and computer graphics, Yanagi creates glossy portraits of these ideals, combining them with often lengthy verbal commentaries. “Eriko” (2001), for example, becomes a leggy senior-citizen model who struts on her own gravestone transformed into a catwalk. The wall text relates that as a fashion model Eriko traversed the boundaries of sex, age and nationality, but it takes watching the documentary video installed at the entrance to the exhibition to realize that beneath all of Eriko’s makeup lies an Eric.
Yanagi is primarily a photographer, though there is a noticeable trend of a reliance on other mediums to explain her visual images. We find these in the elaborate wall texts that accompany the “My Grandmother” series, in the textual origins of the “Fairy Tales” series and in “The Old Girls’ Troupe” video that gives the movements and quality of dispersion that Yanagi wants to emphasize. While these supplements are evidently necessary to comprehend the theatrical and literary aspects of the works, there remains the lingering sense that they are also distractions from the careful contemplation of Yanagi’s exquisitely composed scenes.
“Po-po Nyangnyang!” runs till Sept. 23 at the National Museum of Art, Osaka; admission ¥420; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information visit www.nmao.go.jp