|The year is 2051, and Mineko is a 70-year-old female pilot flying over the Indian Ocean, on her way to Sri Lanka. The sky is clear; there’s a mild wind blowing to the southwest, and Mineko is smiling as she stares into the sun through a pair of orange bubble shades. Miles below and on the other side of the continent, Japan has become a nation of atypical grandmothers. Mikiko, unlike her airborne countrywoman, is a nursemaid of the dying. She reads them their favorite stories as they lie between starched hospital sheets. Mikiko looks like the kind of woman who never takes a day off, and the
same goes for Minami, the president of Minami Island, a bustling theme
park about to open its second branch in Hawaii.
The year is 2051, and Mineko is a 70-year-old female pilot flying over the Indian Ocean, on her way to Sri Lanka. The sky is clear; there’s a mild wind blowing to the southwest, and Mineko is smiling as she stares into the sun through a pair of orange bubble shades. Miles below and on the other side of the continent, Japan has become a nation of atypical grandmothers. Mikiko, unlike her airborne countrywoman, is a nursemaid of the dying. She reads them their favorite stories as they lie between starched hospital sheets. Mikiko looks like the kind of woman who never takes a day off, and the same goes for Minami, the president of Minami Island, a bustling theme park about to open its second branch in Hawaii. She spends her days wandering around the roller coasters and ferris wheels, dressed in a furry rabbit suit she has nicknamed “Little Milky.”
These are the women who populate Miwa Yanagi’s My Grandmothers series, photographs depicting the future lives of young Japanese women. From an applicant pool of hundreds, Yanagi chose 19 girls who struck her as more eccentric and adventurous than meek and domestic. Each girl was asked where she hoped to be in 50 years. Next, through a collaboration with the photographer, their projected fantasies were translated into photographs that relied on more props than the typical fashion shoot: wigs, makeup, latex body parts, and digital manipulation tools were all used to usher Yanagi’s subjects into the prime of old age. The results are crazily diverse. Besides steering a plane, nursing the sick, and walking around in a bunny suit, the grandmothers of the future picture themselves fortunetelling, catwalking down a grave, and relocating to a remote rock island with a group of former students after the apocalypse. Baking pans and knitting needles are nowhere to be found.
Though she explores the universal hopes and dilemmas of the female half in her pictures, Yanagi’s vision is distilled through a distinctly Japanese lens: her subjects all share her nationality, and it’s life as a Japanese woman that forms the common thread of her oeuvre. Yet Yanagi also defies the label commonly applied to female photographers in Japan, onnanoko shashinka, or “girly photographers.” A socially engaged artist she is; a purely decorative one she is not. Yanagi’s pictures are sharp and unclogged by sentimentality. There’s an austere drama lurking behind the best of them that recalls 80s’ Cindy Sherman.
Yanagi first gained recognition when Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese artist who made his name dressing up as Western celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Frida Kahlo, introduced her work to the international art world via a Deutsche Bank exhibit in Frankfurt, Germany. Elevator Girls, her first series of photographs, featured the sleek female attendants who man the elevators in Japanese department stores. Dressed in identical uniforms, these women looked more like assembly-line automatons than flesh-and-blood creatures, and Yanagi revealed the alarming mindlessness that prevailed behind their mass-produced polish. Repetition, she showed us, can look incredibly creepy.
My Grandmothers came out of a conversation Yanagi had with the young subjects of Elevator Girls. “In the process of making the series, I had the opportunity to talk with models who were in their twenties,” she recalled in an interview with Mako Wasaka. “They wanted something for their future, but they had a hard time expressing what it was. In order for them to recall their childhood dreams, they needed to be liberated from their youthfulness.” So instead of the high-gloss beauties of Elevator Girls, the stars of My Grandmothers are wizened (albeit fictitious) octogenarians, and unlike that series, My Grandmothers is less about documenting collective identity than about exploring individual fantasies. These women dispel the anxiety of the future through utopian visions of perfect health, youthful lovers, public acclaim, or, more humbly, public service. But My Grandmothers is not just about wish fulfillment. While the portraits are largely positive reinforcements of old age, they also contain an embedded social critique of the choices available to Japanese youth. Freedom in that country, they seem to say, is only accessible to the old.
What’s startling about these pictures is just how many of their subjects see themselves leaving home 50 years down the line. Yanagi asked her subjects to write explanatory captions to accompany their photographs, and the resulting texts largely read like postcards from tourists on extended vacations, that is to say, expats. Yuka, for instance, has abandoned her children and grandchildren, hopped on a California-bound plane, and found a new hair-gelled boyfriend half her age. In the picture, she and her lover are sailing down the Golden Gate Bridge on twin motorcycles. “I came back to the here and now,” she writes happily, and we’re left to wonder if the younger, real-life Yuka already feels disengaged from the present. Restlessness and rash decisions abound. Elsewhere in the series, Sachiko is a woman in a faded kimono on her way to visit a friend in Spain. “Yesterday, no matter how hard I tried, I could not stand being in the house by myself,” she explains in the caption. “I got up and drove to the airport and got on the first airplane I could find.” Now Sachiko is sitting in the window seat of a jumbo jet, and one suspects that she has yet to book a return ticket.
Like the women she photographs, Yanagi has her own fantasy of migration. My Grandmothers includes a portrait of the artist dressed up as a wise crone, walking with a pack of small, adopted children. In her vision, she has become something like a traveling foster mother: “Whenever I go out to meet one of my new offspring,” she writes, “we all go on a journey together.” This time, the artist and her charges are walking through a snowy winter field. The landscape looks more Arctic than Japanese, and Yanagi is a black-coated figure glancing knowingly back at the camera, safe from the weather as she leads us miles away from home.