New fairy tales of gloom


I have been an admirer of Miwa Yanagi since encountering her series “My Grandmothers” at the 2001 Yokohama Triennale. In that body of work the artist displayed extraordinary skill in using makeup and staging to transform a number of young women into images of their ideal grandmothers, such as screamingly insouciant sexagenarians motorcycling over the Golden Gate Bridge — that sort of thing. The large photographs were colorful, funny and full of life, suggesting it was only natural to leapfrog the spirit of childhood over the conventions of middle age, and catch hold of it again in one’s senior years.

There is a Japanese proverb that says human beings live close to “the other side of life” until age six, then return to that state when they reach 60. If Yanagi’s earlier work hinted at this, then her new exhibition seeks to fully affirm it, albeit in a somewhat unsettling manner. Yanagi takes as her point of departure Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother,” a short story about a wicked old woman who confines her granddaughter to a tent and forces her into prostitution. Yanagi then twists that story, along with a number of fairy tales, such that the innocent, victimized children are now the evil ones, teasing and tormenting the adults.

The result is the exhibition “The Incredible Tale of the Innocent Old Lady and the Heartless Young Girl,” now showing at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.

First up is “Girls in Her Sand,” taken, as is most of the work here, from Yanagi’s new “Fairy Tale” series. The installation centers on a circular canvas tent that visitors slip into to watch a video, projected against one of the walls, which cleverly appears to be an actual flap in the tent. From this perspective we become voyeurs, watching as a pair of adolescent girls romp along a beach. Here and throughout, however, the subjects are not what they initially appear to be, as Yanagi uses latex or silicone masks and appendages to make it appear as if the faces, legs and hands of her young amateur models have withered from age.

Moving to the Hara’s main gallery we find a dozen 1-sq.-meter monochrome prints. These are a creepy lot, based on popular stories from the Brothers Grimm et al. In one, a trio of imps clinch Cinderella’s toes with fireplace tongs and pound her foot with a mallet, while in another Gretel nibbles moonily on the finger of a wizened old hand.

While a work from the earlier “My Grandmothers” series hangs in the stairwell, adding a flash of much-needed color and levity to the show, upstairs the glum tone resumes. “Fortune Telling” is a 15-minute video with four girls at a colonial table, in front of a dirty wall. One pair are naturally youthful, the other wear old-lady masks. The girls consult tarot cards, and gyrate slowly in a trance-like dance.

And so it continues. The leitmotif of the show, the tent women, return in the Hara’s Gallery IV in three pictures set in mysterious landscapes. In these the old woman’s hands and young girl’s feet share the same body, and — well, I think you get the idea.

There is no respite in the last room of the show, which features the 10-minute video “Suna Onna.” This is a continuation of the story of the tent women, filmed in the Canary Islands of all places, with narration in Spanish and Japanese (some English subtitles). Followed by slow tracking shots, the women move through mysterious landscapes styled with shadows, with the film abruptly switching from monochrome to color. I didn’t enjoy the pacing or the photography in this piece, and honestly I had tired of the story by this point.

In the end, the rather patriarchal message that emerges from the work and from Yanagi’s commentary seems to be that womanhood, framed on one end by youth and on the other by maturity, comprises endless conflicts between superior and subordinate as it moves along a journey from beauty to ugliness.

While I admire the continuing attention given to makeup and sets (there are no computer effects in the show), I can’t say that I’m thrilled with the dark new direction Yanagi has taken. There is the need for the Marquez back story in order to make sense of the show; and the videos, intended to tell a story, suffer from the use of amateur models. Why not use actors when one wants to communicate character and atmosphere and advance stories?

Still, as Yanagi enjoys something of a cult following in Japan, this show may well expand that, as it can be seen as “deeper” than what she has done in the past. Personally, I think she might have bitten off more than she can chew.