In Conversation: Tomoko Sawada

In Conversation: Tomoko Sawada

Recorded 12 January 2017 @ The MART Gallery Dublin.

Participants: Tomoko Sawada – Artist, Matthew Nevin – Co Curator MART, Deirdre Morrissey – MART Gallery Director.

School Days Exhibition: MART curators Matthew Nevin & Ciara Scanlan, in conjunction with Japan World Exposition 1970 Commemorative Fund, present the exhibition School Days by famed Japanese Artist Tomoko Sawada. Runs to: Feb 24th 2017 Open: Tues-Sat: 1-6pm. Location: The MART Gallery, 190A Rathmines Rd, Lwr, Dublin 6.

Matthew: Tomoko, we met in 2014 at the Kyoto Arts Centre, myself and Ciara Scanlan were doing a residency and we had our ‘Imitator’ exhibition and you kindly came along to participate in our artists’ talk. We’ve kept in contact all these years, mainly through social media, we’ve been following your career, and you’ve done so many exciting things. So, we are appreciative that you’ve found this time to come here, and we want to thank you for that.  Could you tell us a bit about your background as an artist and why you started taking photographs as a self-portrait?   

Tomoko: When I was in junior high school I met an art teacher who was also a professional contemporary artist. When I met him he was encouraging of his life as an artist and also as a teacher, so I decided to be an artist. But I didn’t know if this idea was good for me – to be an artist – and I didn’t know how to be an artist. So, I went to art university, but still I didn’t know how to be an artist, so I studied drawing, graphic design, sound, film, and my photography teacher said “let’s make self-portraits”, and all my classmates made self-portraits, and that’s why I started making self-portraits. Since then I’ve taken about 2,000 self-portraits.

Deirdre: 2,000 artworks where you’ve used the self-portrait?

T: No, I’ve transformed 2,000 times.

D: Oh, you’ve transformed yourself 2,000 times.

M: And then how many series are there?

T: I have 19 series of artworks.  

M: We were fascinated when we saw your series School Days. Maybe you could tell us a little about why you did that series, and how often it happens? And how many real versions do you think you were in?

T: Real versions?

D: When you were in school, how many did you do?

T: I think it’s from kindergarten… all the way to senior high school.

M: So, you have potentially 14 or 15 years of real photographs…

T: Yes.

M: So, can you tell us about where the idea came from for that?

T: I recieved the Kimura Ihei Award in Japan which is a very important prize for Japanese photographers. I had many interviews because I received this prize, maybe over 100, some TV, Radio and other things… As you know the practice of taking a self-portrait is something old, it is not something I created. But many people think that I made a new way to make photographic work, so I had to explain the self-portrait to the magazines. And they kept asking me “why do you keep taking pictures only of yourself?” and “How does it feel when you have a show that is only your picture?” But I never think about that, because a self-portrait is a not a special way to make work. So many people already did it. But [these questions] make me think: “why am I making self-portraits again and again?”  And then I was thinking that because I went to an only girls’ school – a private school – for six years, I think that that has influenced my self-portraits. And that is why I tried to make School Days. But I couldn’t get a really answer as to why…

D: Well I suppose as an artist doing self-portraits, you are the subject, you are always present. I also went to a girls’ school and I remembered when I looked at the photos in School Days, of all of the girls’ different hairstyles and different makeup… When I was in school you would see people constantly changing their hair, their makeup, and it would change throughout the years with fashion and different things. So, I think things like that stay in your head, and it’s interesting that you picked up on that as well. I think in terms of subject, when you’re starting with yourself, you’re always present. Matthew earlier today had previously asked you if other artists asked you to be part of their artwork, and  you have to decline,  because your face is your artwork.

T: That’s interesting.

D: You are the subject of the artwork.

M: I didnt go to an all girls school, so I’ll have to ask you about how you decide numbers… more of technical question this one. Mathematics plays a big part in your work: You’ve transformed yourself 2,000 times, you have 19 series of artworks, your recent work at Rose Gallery Los Angeles has 57 pieces. You clearly are interested in multiples and large amounts of art pieces. Why do you think that is?

T: My work is self-portraits, but it is also typology. For it to be typology I need many, many images, because typology has to compare with other images. And then also, I can transform forever, but I don’t need thousands and thousands of images. Like for School Days, when I got the idea I could have made 20 or 30 images, 20 or 30 classes, but I made 10 classes. One picture has 40 people, so I transformed 400 times. When I got the idea I also thought about how many people I needed [to show]. It’s like, if I made only three classes, only 120 people, I think it’s not enough to understand my work, but if I have ten classes, it’s easier to understand, easier to feel my work. And then for OMIAI I transformed 30 times. It’s not a lot of transformations compared with my other picture series. But still if I have 30 pictures, 30 people, I think it’s enough to understand my work. Always I try to make the number which is enough to allow people understand my work. Also in OMIAI, I gained five kilogrammes before taking the pictures, eating a lot and keep eating. And then when I started taking the pictures I started eating less trying to lose my weight and then in half a year I lost 20 kilogrammes. So, the 30 images were a maximum for me because of the controlled weight. And then for my work Sign I made 56 images of ketchup and 56 images of mustard. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh invited me to this project, and I collaborated with Heinz company. The Heinz company use the numbers 57 for their varieties. 57 is a very important number for them. Five and seven is Mr and Mrs Heinz’s lucky number. And I have 56 images in my work, because it is a fake label I made. So, 56 fake labels, plus one original ketchup label becomes 57. So, for my work, the numbers I need comes from my intuition.

M: With all the different characters you become, do you ever revisit any of them? Do you ever give them names? Are they all different?

T: I’m never acting or mimicking somebody else. I always transform my look to not look like me, but I don’t have any model. Some of them do have names, because [some of] my friends have a favourite one they gave that one a name, but it is not me giving the name… [Once] I had an interview at the museum [displaying School Days], and before the interview I go in front of my work, and some people were looking at my work and talking to their friends, and I heard them say “if I was in this class, she would be my best friend,” or “if I’m in this class, I don’t like her”. They were making comments from their imagination. That was so funny, I like people making [these characters] from their imagination.

D: Was this when you had them on display and people could put little heart-shaped stickers on the ones they liked the most? Because on the ones we have on display here, you can see that some of the works have a lot of hearts on them, and some of them not so many. You told me earlier that this was previously interactive, people could come in and they could put hearts on different ones. And there’s one that’s quite funny, the one of the girl in the red, who has maybe not many hearts, and she’s dressed in kind of a western businesswoman kind of dress, but you were saying that the men said they didn’t really like her too much, because she looked too high maintenance. So, it’s interesting that people, [when they look at these works] they’re putting characters on them. They’re thinking: “this is what this person is like.” Which I suppose is kind of the basis of that series, because the idea is that your family would sent this picture to the family of the man you’re interested in and they would make assumptions based on that photograph, then the two families meet and if both families think it’ll be a good match then the guy and the girl go off and meet each other and have tea. So, when you’re doing that, you’re making an assumption on a person’s whole character based on a photograph, and you’re projecting these things onto it. As you said, you’re just dressing up, but people are putting these names and identities on it. You said that you’re not really acting, you’re just taking a photograph, but then it’s being perceived as something else.

T: Thank you.

M: I think what’s interesting as well about that is the thoughts and understandings of a Japanese audience compared to an American audience to an Irish audience. After all your work has travelled so globally. It’s interesting to think about the difference. Obviously, our understating of your work is limited culturally – when we see the traditional Japanese woman in a traditional Japanese outfit it’s not relatable to us, while a Japanese audience might be able to name and understand fully what different connotations exist within the work. I was thinking about this when you were having your shows in USA, and I thought it would be interesting to compare all of your audiences.  On that maybe we can end on what you think of Ireland. What has your experience of our country been like?

T: I’m very comfortable here. I feel very safe. people are very friendly, and kind. Smiling. People are very warm.

M: What’s next for you?

T: I’m working on my second children’s book.  

M: Brilliant, you have to send us a copy.

T: And then my new book is to be published soon in America. I also have my new show coming up in February in The Tokyo Photography Museum.

M: You’re a busy person. We want to thank you so much for coming. It’s been an honour.

T: Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m so honoured and happy to be here.