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Interview

June 11, 2008

Tomoko Sawada

Tomoko Sawada is a fast-rising star in Japan's contemporary photography scene. Her self-portraits from the past decade explore the endless permutations of a national female identity. Japanese independent curator Noriko Fuku — who co-organized New York's International Center for Photography group show Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan with ICP curator Christopher Phillips — talks to Sawada about her work and the ideas behind her multiple photographic selves.

NF:  The first time I saw your work was in the New Cosmos of Photography catalogue in 2000. Your work ID400 (1999) won the Special Prize. At the time, I had a hunch that you were from the Kansai region. Your work has a particularly Kansai sense of vitality and humor. Can you tell me a bit about that work and how you came to make it?

TS:  I first came across self-portraiture as a student in junior college. After transferring to a university, I began to focus on photography. I studied the history of photography, as well as the work of contemporary photographers from around the world, while learning the newest techniques on a daily basis. There was so much to absorb, and I learned a lot about artists that had been unknown to me. Soon I had absolutely no idea what kind of work I wanted to make, but I kept returning to self-portraiture as the mode of expression that fit me best. One day, as I was coming home from school, the idea of ID400 appeared right before my eyes. I love fashion, but when you make even a slight change in your style of clothes, the reaction from those around you can be dramatic. That was a mystery to me. I began to wonder how people would respond if I changed the way I look. I also wondered whether an external change, such as in one's hairstyle or clothing, could cause an internal change. Now, ID photos are supposed to identify or verify a person's identity, right? And, of course, photographs are supposed to reproduce the truth. So I used the format of the ID photo to take several hundred pictures of myself with different faces and costumes, as if to say, "Can these pictures prove that I am who I am?" The answer is that not one of these pictures can do that. The peculiar nature of photography is that it copies reality, but also can't copy reality. With the ID series, my initial goal was to take 1,000 pictures. I went to places that had ID photo booths and took pictures of myself. By the time the count reached 300, I had already developed ideas for my next series. Moreover, I realized that simply increasing the number of portraits would not enhance the meaning of the work, so I stopped at 400 pictures.

NF:  The thing that made me think your works were made by someone from the Kansai region was that there was a certain masochistic bent to them, as you push the body to its furthest limits and make art out of it. You also utilize and even poke fun at your own complexes, much like comedians from the Kansai region. I imagine that your work is often compared with that of artists like Yasumasa Morimura and Miwa Yanagi, both of whom are from Kansai. I'd like to know what this Kansai tendency is all about.

TS:  When I make my work, I don't think about making the viewer laugh, but since I was a child, a part of my life was all about trying to get a laugh by using myself as comedic material. By definition, I think that people from Kansai are really strong. My works came to life naturally thanks to that. I have a lot of fun with what I do. I used to think that contemporary art was difficult — as a student, I didn't understand it. I want to make works that even people who don't understand contemporary art can have fun with — this has always been an aspect of my work. My high-school art teacher was the contemporary artist Noboru Tsubaki, and he once said to the class, "Transform difficult things, sad things, and painful things into pop!" That approach really meshes with my personality.

NF:  When you look at the work of Morimura or Yanagi, what do you think the similarities and differences are between your own work and theirs?

TS:  My work is often compared with Morimura's, although not with Yanagi's. The first artist I knew about who was making self-portraits was Cindy Sherman, and Morimura was the second. Since he was a famous person out of a textbook to me, being in the same exhibition with him was like being in the same company as Andy Warhol or Man Ray. But as artists, the only thing Morimura and I have in common is a methodology; otherwise, our themes are completely different.

NF:  You are probably compared with Nikki S. Lee as well, right?

TS:  I'm also mistaken for Nikki Lee. [Laughs] Morimura and Sherman "become someone" in their works, which, moreover, refer to actual models. I don't "become someone," nor do my pictures have a referent outside of myself. If I were to imitate someone, it would be a complete flop. As for Lee's work — she places herself in a tableau, which allows you to read the photograph. In my work, such as the Costume series (2003), I have placed myself in situations, but beyond this, I don't locate myself. I just disguise myself in the midst of society as I see it. The word performing does not accurately describe what I do. No matter how different I look in each picture, my own identity — me, Tomoko Sawada — differentiates me from other artists.

NF:  Why is it that you had to disguise yourself even though you have a resolute image of your own identity?

TS:  I'm interested in people's reactions to changes in external appearances. A disguise doesn't alter one's self — not fundamentally, at least.

NF:  That's connected to your next series, OMIAI (2001), isn't it? In that work, you shot 30 versions of yourself. Since they are photos to be given to a prospective husband for an arranged marriage (omiai), the expression on your face is very meek in many of them. And you can really picture the face of the man who has just been told that he has to choose one of them to be his wife. [Laughs]

TS:  The 400 ID photos and the large portrait that I took of myself as a skinhead go together as a set in ID400, but even if I had sat in the middle of a gallery with my head shaved, 70% of the people there wouldn't have identified me as the person in all those pictures on the wall. This really jolted me. When one's outer appearance changes even a little, people react as if they were looking at a totally different person. While working on ID400, I wondered which was more important: the outer appearance, or the inner self? In the exhibitions, I discovered that appearance signifies much more than I had believed. I wanted to explore this idea further, and the result was OMIAI.

NF:  After OMIAI, you created Cover (2001) and Costume (2003), and then, in 2004, you won the 29th Kimura Ihei Award. You won Japan's most prestigious photography prize just four years after introducing your first work. Aren't you the first person to win that award who doesn't take her own photographs?

TS:  Ten years before I received the award, Yasumasa Morimura was selected as a finalist, but he didn't win. Commenting on my prize, one of the judges, the photographer Kishin Shinoyama, said, "A decade ago, you wouldn't have won." It seems that one of the reasons that Morimura didn't win was because he didn't take his pictures himself.

NF:  Let's talk about School Days (2004), the work being shown in Heavy Light. It raises interesting questions about the role of group photos in Japanese culture. In Japan, it can probably be said that an event is not really an event unless a group photo is snapped. When I was a student, group photos were often taken at sports festivals or during school trips. If someone was absent from school that day, a head shot would be stuck in a box in the upper right-hand corner of the group photo. Even on a vacation, photos of the entire group are systematically taken. We take them at weddings and funerals too.

TS:  The year after I won the Kimura Ihei Award, I was featured in about a hundred magazine articles, TV shows, and radio programs. There aren't many art magazines in Japan, so most of the interviews were conducted by reporters who had no experience with art. The upshot was that I had to start from scratch in explaining the work to them. I was constantly asked, "Why do you take so many pictures of yourself?" I had never been asked this question before and had never thought about it.

NF:  It's a rather interesting question, though, isn't it?

TS:  Yes, and considering an answer to it led me to School Days. When I began to think about why I continue to take pictures of myself, I recalled what I was like in junior high and high school. I attended a private all-girls school, and it was a slightly flamboyant place. It's generally regarded as a school for demure young women, but in reality, there were very few demure young women there, and a lot of the girls were really outgoing and fun. There were about 300 students in each graduating class, and we were together constantly for six years. Since the junior-high and high-school buildings were on the same grounds, the first-year students saw the older students as full-on adults. The environment was pretty different from other social systems, and there was a certain prestige to going to that school. There were unspoken rules about how to behave and what to wear. I didn't jump on the bandwagon and tried to find my own path, but nevertheless, having spent six years in that environment, it made a profound impression on me. School Days allowed me to recapture those days on film.

NF:  What was it like to relive your school days when you took pictures for that series?

TS:  It confirmed that the years spent at that school had influenced me. We were well versed in fashion and makeup. We all acted like grown-ups. I didn't wear makeup myself at the time, but many of my friends were experts. All of those experiences live inside my work.

NF:  How do you imagine yourself in ten years?

TS:  I'm 30 this year and look forward to what kind of person I become ten years from now. Who knows, I may still be taking pictures of myself at 40. I made ID400 when I was 20. Since then, in order to understand the work myself, I've experimented with a variety of forms and made other works. I will be happy if I can sustain that experimentation and create works centered on that nucleus of change a decade from now.

Tomoko Sawada's work is on view in Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan at ICP through September 7. New series by the artist are on view in solo shows at New York's Zabriskie Gallery through June 27 and Santa Monica's Rose Gallery through August 23. This interview is excerpted from a longer interview with the artist, written by Noriko Fuku and translated by Eric C. Shiner, that appears in the catalogue Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan, published by ICP and Steidl.

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