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Demonstratively modern: Miwa Yanagi

Contemporary Japanese photography is well represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. The photographer Miwa Yanagi, whose work will be shown in a one-person exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin starting late January 2004, uses the aesthetic of advertising photography in order to conquer it. An example of classical Japanese martial arts: beating the opponent with his own force. Arno Widmann introduces the artist.

Miwa Yanagi, born 1967 in Kobe, counts among Japan's most important artist photographers. In 1993, after completing her studies in fine arts in Kyoto, she had her first exhibition in Kobe, then in Tokyo in 1995; her works were already shown in Germany in 1996, in Frankfurt's Shirn. One year later she was in New York, and since then she's been represented in many exhibitions worldwide.

One key reason for her success is her perfectionism. All of her photographs have been worked on to the nth degree. She uses the computer as a classical painter uses the glaze to create a smooth, flawless surface – that impression of skin-deep purity we've grown accustomed to in advertising photography. Miwa Yanagi doesn't shrink back from this aesthetic. She obeys it – in order to conquer it. A classical Japanese form of martial arts. Miwa Yanagi wears a black belt in art and beats the opponent with his own force.

Miwa Yanagi: Eternal City I, 1998, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Miwa Yanagi

Miwa Yanagi's photographs preferably depict women. One need only think of the hostesses of Eternal City I from the Deutsche Bank Collection in Tokyo clinging to one another in a futuristic space, or the large series such as Elevator Girls or My Grandmothers. In Miwa Yanagi's photographs, styling and make-up do not play any less of a role than in fashion photographs. The photographs are usually taken indoors – the artist likes to retain control over everything. When they aren't interiors, then the sky has to provide all of its shine to lend her women the necessary light and breadth.

Miwa Yanagi: Elevator Girl House B4
©Miwa Yanagi

Miwa Yanagi implements the same perfectionism in controlling the set as she does in controlling the viewer's eyes. She directs his or her gaze. Almost every one of her photographs has a clear, unequivocal center. This sometimes goes so far that only the main protagonist is in focus (Yoshi in My Grandmothers). This becomes evident when we look at Hiroko, another one of My Grandmothers.

The protagonist, Hiroko, is in the foreground, positioned in front of a large window such that her upper body, her head, and the right side of her eyeglasses clearly stand out. The central motif of the photograph is an open suitcase – something that doesn't usually occur in Miwa Yanagi's work. She never pursues an aesthetic of randomness. When she wants to show something, then she shows it, stages it, even. Miwa Yanagi's photographs are stages that make women into heroines. Even when an old woman is sitting next to an airplane window, looking out, she is sitting there like a queen. She is not smiling. She is not dreaming. She's looking, and she's thinking.

Miwa Yanagi: Sachiko, My Grandmother-Series, 2001
©Miwa Yanagi

For the series My Grandmothers, Miwa Yanagi placed ads in search of young models, asking them how they imagined their life will be in fifty years, as grandmothers. In photographs accompanied by short texts, Yanagi portrays the visions these young women had of their futures, which arose in dialogue. The texts are simple; Miwa Yanagi appears to dread nothing as much as the poetic. While her photographs are arranged artistically, and attention is paid to every last detail, she also and just as assiduously shuns any attempt at idealization. The carefully polished and retouched slickness of surface doesn't serve to create an illusion of youth. It doesn't create any illusion at all. It points to nothing but itself and – if one thinks about it – the work entailed in achieving it. That is what constitutes the coldness of Miwa Yanagi's photographs. It is their greatest attraction and the sole factor that makes them demonstratively modern.

Miwa Yanagi: Hiroko, My Grandmother-Series, 2001
©Miwa Yanagi

Texts could easily undermine this effect. Too quickly, they become a medium of empathy and identification. Miwa Yanagi's texts do not distract from the surface, and only say very little about the persons depicted; they open onto no new worlds. Instead, they lead the viewer's gaze back to the image. The information in the texts does not stimulate the fantasy, but induces the viewer to check on the precision of his or her own perception. The viewer searches the photographs for something that could have led him or her to guess, for instance, that the old dominatrix Hiroko is telling the young woman sitting on the bed before her how many prejudices she used to have to fight against:

"You just don't understand, do you? / This trip is not a vacation, it's for work, you know. / All of the slaves of the world are my clients, right? / The reason that you've been pampered so much is because / you are the granddaughter of the last ‘Dominatrix of Legends.' / You are still a greenhorn at this, you know. Make very sure that you understand that, ok? / When I was about your age, private sexual services were still illegal. / We didn't have any form of protection, either. / The disease that you were recently cured of from a single shot used to be fatal, / and so many people died from it, you know. / In order to continue to be a professional dominatrix, I had to fight against all forms / of discrimination and unfair laws for an incredibly long time … / Hey, are you listening to me?! / And now, when I see the blindness of today's youth / who lay down upon the foundation that I built so long ago, / I know that I will never be able to retire."

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