About The Cover

May – June 2008 About The Cover

BY Lyle Rexer, May 1, 2008

Just who, exactly, is Tomoko Sawada? The short answer is a performance artist and photographer from Japan. A slightly longer answer would be: a female artist who has used herself as the model for a range of investigations of identity based on such imaging modalities as the photobooth. The real answer, or at least in Japan, is: everyone. As evidenced by her recent series BRIDE, pictured on the cover, in which Sawada represents herself in various Shinto and Christian wedding outfits—the two primary religious traditions in Japan—she possesses an uncanny ability to be clearly who she is and yet change her identity with the slightest change of expression. She uses her features to confound notions even of her age and background. Viewers will have ample opportunity to see her shape shifting in three exhibitions: at Zabriskie Gallery in New York (May 13-June 27), Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan at the International Center of Photography (May 16-September 7), and at RoseGallery in Los Angeles (June 7-August 23). Sawada represents that category of international identity theater that includes Cindy Sherman, Anthony Goicolea, Nikki S. Lee, and Sawada’s countryman Yasumasa Morimura, among others, but it is more revealing to see Sawada as she sees herself, as a quintessentially Japanese social investigator: “I think that the contemporary Japanese wedding style is a typical event that generally reflects the mentality of the Japanese people,” she says. “They follow certain fashion trends and feel secure by confirming their identities with the group that makes the same fashion decisions as they do.” Her work reminds us how complex a place Japan is and how pervasive are its conventions. We can use that reminding as the Western fascination with Japanese art has waned. Says Christopher Phillips, the co-curator of Heavy Light, “The art world chases new fashions, and in the last few years, Japan has fallen off the Western critical radar screen, but Sawada’s work is an indication that there is more compelling art being made in Japan than ever.”Heavy Light will showcase work by 13 of those artists, including stunning new large-scale versions of Sawada’s School Days, a high-school class picture representing the artist as all the students. Identity, the work seems to say, resides only in minute variations, all that is allowed. Yet for Sawada, the sense of confinement within a culture may not be so strict. Says Rose Shoshana, owner of the RoseGallery, “There is a playfulness in her work, especially in the fact of her making it. It’s as if she were saying, ‘Let me try on all the things I am meant to be and see how they look and feel, without me actually having to be any of them.’” That role play may be a social truth as well as an artistic game: apropos our cover, many weddings in Japan involve both traditional and Western or Christian ceremonies, which call for different roles. As with identity, so with photography: appearance is a costumed pose, and what lies beneath it can only be implied, never fully revealed.