Articles

Momoyo Torimitsu: Torimitsu Confronts Global Corporate Culture

Primarily a sculptor and installation artist, Momoyo Torimitsu has consistently addressed timely social issues in superbly executed three-dimensional forms and in video. Coming of age during the decline of the Japanese bubble economy, Torimitsu shares a keen critical sensibility of Japanese society with artists of her generation, including Yoshiaki Kaihatsu. Among her earliest works was Pleasure of Destruction Merry-Go-Round (1995) which positioned resin-cast sculptures of two high-school girls in sailor uniforms on their hands and knees alternating with two white goats on a red turntable. Actually
Momoyo Torimitsu, Horizons
Momoyo Torimitsu, Horizons, 2004 
functional as a merry-go-round, the sculptures were offered for visitors to ride. The red turntable symbolized Japan as the rising sun while the goats and girls represented scapegoats or the damned of society. The work uncannily suggested the degeneration the bubble economy triggered in Japanese society, which shed its traditional boundaries and momentarily sought the sheer pleasure of consumerism and the flesh.
 
Of the many topical issues that captured Torimitsu’s interest, those associated with corporate culture became her main focus. Soon after graduating from Tama Art University in 1994, she premiered Miyata Jiro, a life-like robot of a stereotypical “salaryman” (a Japanese loanword from English for a white-collar worker) that crawled through the streets of Tokyo’s business districts. Torimitsu dressed as a nurse and followed the robot to change its battery and steer it away from obstacles. The absurdity of a young nurse tending to a groveling middle-aged salaryman was not only farcical, but also satirical of the corporate soldiers who sacrificed their private lives for their employers’ and country’s interests. The frequently reported news of salarymen deaths from overwork (karoshi) made this work poignantly relevant in the late 1990s.
 
Inspired by the overwhelming response to Miyata Jiro in Japan, Torimitsu took the opportunity to come to New York in 1996 to explore the reaction to the robot in varied social settings. With a scholarship from the Asian Cultural Council, Torimitsu participated in the P.S.1 International Studio Program and staged the crawl of Miyata Jiro on Wall Street and near Rockefeller Center. These performances drew large crowds and major press coverage, allowing Torimitsu to go on a world tour with the robot, showing the piece in Amsterdam, Graz, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney.
 
Momoyo Torimitsu, Somehow, I Don't Feel Comfortable
Momoyo Torimitsu, Somehow, I Don't Feel Comfortable, 2000
This international experience led to her next work, Inside Track (2004), shown at Deitch Projects in New York. The work consisted of three new male robots of different ethnicities crawling about an office floor: Lee (Asian), Gunter (Anglo-Saxon European), and Mark (Caucasian-American). In a video included in the exhibition, the three businessmen raced through a corridor of an office building, evoking the fierce competition of the American business world. At the nearby Swiss Institute, Torimitsu simultaneously presented Horizons, an Astroturf diorama, decorated with plastic foam buildings and mountains and swarming with 100 G.I. Joe doll–derived robots in business suits. The allusion to the American war in Iraq was apparent when corporate soldiers crossed over oceans and national borders to take control of cities and oil fields. Although many robots broke down and their suits wore out by the end of the exhibition, a few dozen remaining robots kept fighting the never-ending corporate battle.
 
While life in New York expanded Torimitsu’s interest to global issues, living away from Japan also permitted her to view her country from a critical distance. In her installation Danchizuma- Endless Sunrise(1998), she highlighted the monotonous, conformist lives of four middle-aged Japanese housewives residing in a suburban apartment complex through idealized photographic portraits and a diorama of their town encased in a yellow plastic bubble. Similarly, the two gigantic, identical, inflatable plastic rabbits in her Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (2000) physically expressed the cramped and repressed feeling of Japanese society as well as her subversion of the country's kawaii (cute) popular culture.
 
Momoyo Torimitsu, Untitled
Momoyo Torimitsu, Untitled from Made in Sumida: Momoyo Torimitsu and Family-Run Factories project, 2001 
In 2001, Torimitsu created a series of site-specific works in collaboration with small family-run factories in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. After discussions with the factory workers, she incorporated in her work many of their final products and the waste derived from their production,, such as plastic suction cups, toys, metal scraps, and machine sounds. This collaborative experience suggested her potential for public art. For Making a Home, Torimitsu will present an interactive installation of sleek office furniture to heighten the corporate aesthetic of efficiency and monumentality.
 
When and how did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist?
MT: I originally wanted to study graphic design, for which I failed the entrance exam three times in Japan. Then I was working at a topless club as a hostess/spotlighting person for the show. I had been hanging out with those dancers—actually, they were emerging Butoh dancers. It inspired me to be an artist rather than a commercial creator.
 
Why did you decide to leave Japan?
MT: I didn’t have an idea to leave Japan, I applied for a grant to do my crawling businessman performance in New York. Concerning the concept of my performance, I thought I should do it somewhere overseas, on a business street. It was my luck, I got a grant for P.S.1 one-year residency program— it wasn’t my original plan. One year after, my old boyfriend convinced me to stay, otherwise I wouldn’t have done.
 
Why did you choose New York as your ultimate destination?
MT: When I got media attention in Japan over 10 years ago, people recognized me as spectacle, entertainment, not as art. But in New York I realized that people listened to me seriously, to what I want to say.
 
Did you face many obstacles in establishing your career in New York?
MT: When I lost two of my closest people within one year, I completely lost creative energy. I seriously thought to quit being an artist.
 
Has the experience of living in New York changed your style or process significantly?
MT: Before I moved to New York, I was very conscious that I was making art as a Japanese artist. My thinking on Japan’s rapid economic growth [in the 1960s and 1970s] went into the Miyata piece. I am still Japanese, but after 10 years away, my knowledge of Japan is outdated. If I tried to base a work on the current trends in Japan, it would lack reality.
 
In this age of globalism, do you consider yourself to be a Japanese artist, an American artist, an international artist, or a hybrid of all three?
MT: I’m a Japanese artist, working internationally.
Topics:  Art

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