Miwa Yanagi

Last year was Miwa Yanagi’s annus mirabilis—the year of three solo exhibitions that included the installation Windswept Women: The Old Girls’ Troupe, 2009, at the Japanese Pavilion of the Fifty-third Venice Biennale. This new show combines several photographs from the “Fairy Tales” series, 2004–2006, and a brand-new video, Lullaby, 2010. The artist’s trademark games of scale, which were also important to her Biennale installation, are in evidence here; only now, instead of confronting viewers with giant keepsake frames holding life-size portraits of scantily clad amazons, Yanagi has contained the action within the works themselves.

Lullaby is set within an improbable space in which a miniature armchair and door coexist with normal-size floorboards. The artist’s interest in binary elements extends to the work’s tempo—short bursts of action are interspersed with slower segments, the contrast heightened by an exaggeration of both the sluggishness of the slow cuts and the rapidity of the fast-moving ones. Likewise, the video juxtaposes youth and age, enclosed interior and exposed exterior. It begins in a room where a young woman is dozing off on the rug in front of a fireplace, her head resting on the lap of an old woman (the characters’ respective ages are denoted by intentionally fake-looking masks). This quaint nighttime routine is followed by a rather startling spurt of wrestling between the two, which soon settles into another head-on-lap sleeping segment but with the roles reversed, until the next brief struggle.

Outwardly random, these undulations of physical engagement are, in fact, entirely ordered, and the key to the video is cleverly hidden in the rest of the installation. There are four indoor wrestling segments in the video, just as there are four “Fairy Tales” cycle photographs on display. All of these feature female bodies locked in combat, their convulsive beauty organically linked to their elaborately posed struggles. One photograph, Frau Trude, 2005, shows a fireplace in front of which two women, one old, one young, are fused in a wrestling hold. They are bent sideways and toward the fire, their heads precariously close to its heat. Similarly, in Lullaby, there are moments when the struggling women almost collapse into the room’s fireplace, which, in the context of this exhibition, seems to connect the video with the older photo series. The action in the video echoes this parallelism: Ostensibly, a sleeping woman, who is listening to the other’s lullaby, dreams about the fighting action in the fairy tales, then acts it out in real life. Each bout of fighting is always initiated by the sleeping one. The video’s ultimate confrontation, which has no photographic equivalent, is more of a convergence than a struggle—the two join hands as they hover on the rooftop, over the nighttime city, their bodies finally bursting into the interior that harbored their fairy tale dreams.

The two delirious masked women recall the raving artist from Paul McCarthy’s 1995 video Painter, but Yanagi’s brand of grotesquerie does not necessarily translate into hilarity as McCarthy’s does. It is spirited but macabre, and any comic potential is undermined by the gravity of Yanagi’s apparent message, which links all of her works so far: Accepted notions of femininity are fallacies that topple as easily as the walls of the prop interior in the finale of her latest video.

Julia Friedman