"Chameleon Dreams: Trans/Forming Identity in Contemporary Japanese Photography," Feb. 15 -April 27, 2002, at Julia Friedman Gallery, 118 North Peoria, Chicago, Il. 60607
One of Chicago's better shows this spring was "Chameleon Dreams," which included a handful of Japan's finest new photographers: Akira the Hustler, Miwa Yanagi, Yasumasa Morimura, Tomoko Sawada, Yuki Kimura and Yoshiko Kamikura. The artists in "Chameleon Dreams" resort to escapism, black humor and theatrics to deal with issues about identity. The end result is a magnificent show that kicks new life into the tired discourse.
Tomoko Sawada pokes fun at a custom in Japanese Society called "omiai." The ceremony, designed to foster pre-arranged marriages, involves young women having their photographs taken in the best light possible. The photos are then distributed to relatives in the hope that a suitable husband will be found. Sawada's piece consists of four sets of 100 black and white ID photographs. In a tour de force reminiscent of Nikki S. Lee, Sawada takes on some 400 different personas. With the help of costumes, make-up and facial expression, the artist manages to convey a sense of individuality in every single transformation.
Although Sawada's trials with mimicry and style are worthy of admiration, I couldn't help but think about David Bowie. His many transformations have shown more insight into youth and the basic human desire to recreate the self.
Miwa Yanagi examines old age and women's role in society in a series of three digital C-prints titled "My Grandmothers." These large-scale digital C-prints on aluminum, beautifully colored staged scenarios that look like the promotional stills for a magical-realism movie, are truly sights to see. In Yanagi's fantasy elderly women rule the world instead of men. In My Grandmothers, a well-dressed but grotesque-looking old woman (a role played by a young woman) stands in defiance on top of a sepulcher. She seems to have defeated death and a couple of bad marriages.
One of the most poignant works of art I've seen in awhile is Will Children Have Children? by Yuki Kimura. A selection of 81 slides is projected on to a wall. The scenes feature pairs of people who resemble each other. The models have the same haircut and posture, but different outfits. At first glance they appear to be the same person, but slowly the viewer discovers that Yuki has tricked the viewer into racial profiling. Photographs were taken of three sets of real brothers and sisters plus friends resembling the pairs -- eight people in all taking turns posing as siblings. One model in each photograph sports a white t-shirts that reads, "How many sets of real brothers and sisters do you reckon there are? And, anyway, we were born because our parents had sex!"
This quote works on many levels. In one way it could be considered offensive, since it reflects on the viewers being caught thinking: "They all look the same." The offense also turns into shame once viewers find themselves susceptible to making such mistaken perceptions and flawed judgements. In this sense, Will Children Have Children? is creepy and scary, because it taps dark areas of the subconscious that people would rather not recognize.