by Owen Schaefer
Minami, the 70-year-old president of world-famous theme park Minami Island, sits in a spacious office—her shock of white hair incongruous against the pink bunny costume she’s wearing. Minami has been out walking among the park patrons dressed as Little Milky, the park’s main character. Now, with two furry feet parked jauntily on the desktop, she takes phone calls while two secretaries fuss over papers and appointments. Behind her, roller coasters twist in the distance and the money rolls in. And Minami envisions a day when her brand will finally defeat “the black rat” of Disney once and for all.
Of course, if you’ve never heard of Minami Island or Little Milky, you’re forgiven. These events, if they happen at all, are still 50 years in the future and the real “Minami” is a young woman with no wrinkles and no theme park empire. But her vision of an empowered old-age has been crystalized and photographed with a documentarian’s eye by contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. And this is just one of Yanagi’s ever-growing family of 26 ‘grandmothers,’ now on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
To create her grandmothers, Yanagi has chosen young women, most in their 20s, and worked closely with them to build a creative vision of how they see themselves living when they are 70. It’s an intensive process that in some cases has taken up to a year. Yanagi then shoots a carefully planned photo using a combination of prosthetics and digital manipulation to make each young model look her imaginary age. In some, the aging is graceful, in others, extreme. But there are few traditional granny roles to be found here.
Perhaps what is best about the Grandmothers series is that it acts as a conceptual answer to Yanagi’s well known Elevator Girls photos, which first launched her onto the global art scene. In Elevator Girls, Yanagi peopled repetitive urban shop-scapes with seemingly endless clones of the uniformed women who spend their days opening and closing elevator doors in department stores. The images were striking and critical—all sterile consumerism and plastic colwith plenty of critical praise.
But in the Grandmothers series, Yanagi has thrown open the space that she explored with Elevator Girls. Even though she deliberately screens women that she feels are sheltered or strongly conservative about women’s roles, Yanagi is not interested in merely highlighting women with big goals. Instead, she challenges them to throw off their social uniforms and create a space, and a future, for themselves— a grandmotherhood beyond the confines of one room in the back of the family home.
While the photographic works could stand alone, Yanagi adds a short text passage to each one—conversations, personal thoughts, passages of poetry, and even point-form biographical data. Some are mere glimpses, while others imply an entire imagined biography, but all are remarkably successful at locking the image down in the present tense, transporting the viewer to the future—or arguably, consigning us to the artwork’s past.
Not all of Yanagi’s grandmothers end up styling themselves into rich businesswomen. Some dream of living as hermits, becoming mystical crone figures, or surviving global cataclysms—and many maintain a provocative sexuality. These are the social aspects of this project that make it so incredibly powerful. It is the potential of these future lives, brought vividly into the present, that makes each image more than just a flight of fancy. Regardless of how profound or trite each mock-biography may seem, it inevitably lays bare a very real and personal set of expectations and assumptions, challenging the viewer to do the same