Art

Artist takes a jab at social identity

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

What will it take to save the world? If you visit Maison Hermes Le Forum in Ginza in the next few weeks, artist Tsuneko Taniuchi — in the guise of Ninja Girl, wearing a flower in her hair and with a toy M16 rifle tucked in her belt — will ask you to respond to this question, and you may be surprised how easy it is to answer.

It’s quite a thing for a group of strangers to come together in the austere environment of a luxury boutique such as Hermes and be so blunt about their hopes; apart from anything else, it reveals how much energy we invest in making sure that we do not share our thoughts on such matters. If the experience of Taniuchi’s “Micro-Events” was limited to a feel-good epiphany, then it would be akin to evangelism or a motivational pep talk. However, the dynamic between Taniuchi and her audience is far more complex.

For the first 20 minutes as Ninja Girl (Taniuchi plays six different characters throughout the week, including a boxer, a bag lady and a waitress), the artist changes from a cocktail dress into martial-arts clothing. Given the context, it is an absurd length of time to watch someone change, especially as Taniuchi purposefully acts as though she is not being watched and is silent as she transforms into her character. While her actions have an overall trajectory, they are not mannered or consistently exact; perfection is not the goal. When Taniuchi does speak there is a Samuel Beckett-like cadence to the repetition and pointedness of the phrases she uses. From moment to moment, she switches between making and not making sense, especially as different languages are mixed together.

A further layer of complexity is added when, by using a microphone to indicate who nominally has a right to speak, Ninja Girl is interviewed by and defends herself vigorously against an imaginary journalist, flicking the microphone back and forth so that members of the audience are implicated as being the interrogator or Ninja Girl herself.

This is reminiscent of the sociolinguistics of John J. Gumperz, insofar as it is suggested in the performance that “we have to talk in order to establish our rights and entitlements,” and that the language strategies we use are to a large extent determined by bureaucratic expectations of how our social interactions should be organized.

It should be no surprise that Taniuchi is a long-term Paris resident who finds the relatively strict hierarchical etiquette of life in Japan unappealing. The construction of social identities, especially gender, takes a central place in her work. In this sense, the use of Maison Hermes Le Forum as a venue makes the experience of her work all the more potent.

“Micro-Events: Taniuchi Tsuneko” at Maison Hermes Le Forum in Ginza runs till Sept. 21; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Sun. till 7 p.m.), with performances daily from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. www.maisonhermes.jp/ginza/gallery