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
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.
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.
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.