Made in Sumida: Made from Everyday Reality
Cute! This is probably the highest word of praise in the Japanese language today, a modifier of supreme rank. Welcome to all and hostile to none, cuteness, however, is actually quite tricky. It reveals only its optimistic aspects and hides the darkness of reality in the shadows of its brightness.
Momoyo Torimitsu deals a blow to cuteness with the toughness in her as an artist. Japanese just cannot get enough of cute figures. In Japan, cute characters hang from the cell phone straps of not just teenagers but even salarymen,* while anime characters prance all over our bankbooks. Within this society in which people are devoted to childishness and lose their faculty to think, Torimitsu attempts to explore the quintessence covered by the shield of cuteness. Her works consistently and earnestly observe and reexamine Japan as her background.
As the motifs for her works, Torimitsu has continued to deal with items that were once social fads and icons that symbolize the Japan of her childhood, the Japan that had realized its goals of high economic growth. These include the pet parakeet, which seemed to be kept, almost as if by mutual agreement, by every household in the suburban apartment complexes built successively in the rapid wave of urbanization. Another is the panda, the star celebrity that was made to play a role in the happy production of the resumption of diplomatic relations with China. Still another is the salaryman, who was likened to a corporate soldier and who, in supporting Japan’s economic growth, became the obedient follower of the social system, each sharing common values and beliefs.1
This time, Torimitsu has undertaken a project with the family-run factories of Sumida Ward as her theme. With a population of 220,000, Sumida is perfused with the characteristic ambience of the shitamachi, the traditional area of merchants and artisans in old Tokyo. Taking advantage of its location between rivers, it became from around the mid ‘50s an industrial district where large numbers of family-run factories lined the streets. Doing fieldwork around this area for a full two months and interviewing the people who work there, Torimitsu incorporated the very process by which an artist encountered and became involved with communities and fields of specialty that she had never had the chance to come into contact with before. With her artist’s sensibility, Torimitsu carefully illuminated one cross-section of contemporary society through these interpersonal relationships. This project has become a turning point that has added a new dimension to her artistic expression. She has shifted from her previous approach involving development of key motifs to a more flexible examination of our society through communication with others.
Before turning to the Sumida project, which thus became a new step for Torimitsu, I will mention two of her previously exhibited works that have some connections to it.
The content and title of Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (1996) express Torimitsu’s secret dislike of cuteness. This was an installation that combined a rabbit-shaped vinyl balloon and photographs. In 2000, it was reproduced as a powered-up version, with two rabbits placed on a diagonal facing each other. With wide-open eyes and carefree grins that reveal their trademark buckteeth, these rabbits are objects that kindle fond memories, reminding us of mascots found in front of Japanese drugstores or the plastic money boxes that banks once used to give away. Their pink, pop figures, however, have been enlarged to enormous extremes, so that their bodies are bent awkwardly in the room and they have nowhere to put their long ears. They give visual form to what Torimitsu describes as “the vague uncomfortableness or crampedness I feel to be living a life that is repressed...in its emotional aspects” or “skepticism of what is small and cute, what needs protection, what is very uncorrupted, pure, and innocent.”2 At the same time, the work gave literal form to the cynicism directed at the cramped living quarters of Japan, once dubbed “rabbit hutches.” When the air is let out of them, these rabbits are just limp, shapeless layers of skin. As if to say that a sense of hollow emptiness cannot be filled no matter how much cuteness is amplified, Torimitsu includes a message in her enormous balloons that false hope is much ado about nothing.
Miyata Jiro, the salaryman robot that first appeared in 1994, can hardly be called cute, but the cynical aspect has been manifested in a more easy-to-understand way. Being a human-shaped robot created by making a mold of a living model, Miyata’s smiling expression is very real and makes a strong impact. Torimitsu has traveled with Miyata to business districts in various countries and repeatedly presented performances.3 In these performances, Torimitsu herself, dressed as a nurse, accompanies Miyata as he crawls forward on the street, rescuing him when he gets in trouble and changing his batteries when they run down. This corporate soldier does nothing but move forward, crawling on his hands and knees on the street like a soldier in battle. He is comical, but his single-mindedness looks sad. He may also be considered a bitter criticism of one who follows orders obediently in the sole pursuit of profit. Abruptly thrusting this cliché of the Japanese in front of the public, Torimitsu not only presented her work but also drew out the consequent reactions of the people. Gradually Torimitsu came to perceive this as an important part of the performance. In that she values the process and does not limit herself to a one-way statement, her approach forms a bridge to the Sumida project.
About six weeks before the exhibition, I met Torimitsu, who had already begun her Sumida project, at the Kinshicho railway station. She had recently become a “regular” at a certain restaurant and took me there. Walking out of the station, we turned left and continued for about ten minutes down the road, as she told me how this area had large numbers family-run factories. Soon, at the corner of an intersection, we arrived at the Chinese restaurant Yamakyu Hanten. “I’m back again,” Torimitsu called, and was welcomed cheerfully by Mrs. Iwasaki, the lady of the establishment. Obviously they knew each other well. What a smart thing for a woman in her thirties to have a place in her daily life where she can go, order a beer, and get a complimentary cold appetizer of steamed chicken and cucumber. This restaurant became a kind of base camp for Torimitsu’s project after she happened to walk into it one day to take a break. Conversing with Mrs. Iwasaki, who had long done business in the area and had seen all its changes, Torimitsu found out about the history of the town and heard her recollections. On the way to the restaurant, there were newly constructed apartment buildings scattered among places with names that indicated they were family-run factories, such as So-and-so Manufacturing or Industries. The recession and problems of finding a successor were causing family-run factories to successively go out of business. This area was no exception to what was occurring in the suburbs, where one store after another was shutting down in the small local shopping areas. And now, an artist who had suddenly burst upon the scene was going to forge new links between factories and herself, and between people of factories in different fields who did not know each other. Communication between people was to be the driving force behind this project. Torimitsu’s original plans, which had been based on the idea of equating family-run factories with mechanical works, were changing direction dramatically to people-centered ideas.
Torimitsu visited more than thirty family-run factories. The sounds of the machines at the work sites, the voices of the working people she interviewed, and the records of their encounters became part of her works, together with the various products they manufactured. The exhibition was designed not to be just a one-way presentation of her results. Instead, the audience was to find the jacks to plug in their headphones somewhere on the articles, listen to the interviews, and discover for themselves what reality was like for factories of the shitamachi. In these works, the artist had created sites for encounters between the audience and the family-run factories. The stories told by their makers, emanating from vinyl chloride scraps, rice crackers, and toys with pictures of comic strip characters, were filled with fascinating variety. The situations these people faced gave us glimpses into the Japanese economic system, in which family-run factories are incorporated into the operation of large corporations. At the same time, they pointed out the issue of manufacturing and ecology for resource-poor Japan. These are the invisible realities behind the cute manufactured products and an aspect of society that we can first learn of through the voices of the people of family-run factories. Torimitsu successfully created a platform for these encounters and discoveries.
In the exhibition, curled steel shavings, which although ready-mades are industrial scrap, changed expression into an artwork inside their display case, while at the same time they spoke dynamically of the production capabilities of family-run factories. Their overwhelming sense of presence reminds us of Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk world of the film “Tetsuo (The Iron Man).” The fact that the protagonist whose body turns to steel was once a normal salaryman is an unexpected common factor that immediately reminds us of Miyata Jiro, the salaryman robot who also appeared in this exhibition. The hard work of the family-run factories, which produced the steel shavings, and the hard work of the salaryman, who was called the corporate soldier, together supported the growth of the Japanese economy. And both of them have been reinterpreted through the viewpoint of an artist, Momoyo Torimitsu.
“How cute!” Anyone who could not help but say that before Torimitsu’s work should look closely once more at her aims. Carefully incorporating everyday reality into her work, Torimitsu continues to weave a dialogue with society, without resting the hand that perceives the reverse side hidden by that cuteness.
* A businessman who earns a salary is called a “salaryman” in Japan.
1. Karel van Wolferen describes the power structure in Japanese society, which he calls a “system,” and its relationship with the salaryman class. Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power, 1981, translated into Japanese, Hayakawa-Bunko, 1994, pp. 328-370.
2. Gendai shiso (Contemporary thought), Seidosha, July 2001, p. 234.
3. Videos of performances in Paris, New York, London, Amsterdam, and Rio de Janeiro were shown at the Made in Sumida exhibition. Performances have also been presented in Tokyo, Osaka, Graz (Austria), and Sydney (Australia).