Los Angeles

The Sexy Flowers of Michiko Yao

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

By Pilar Tompkins Rivas

Michiko Yao is an interdisciplinary artist born in Osaka, Japan, who received both her B.F.A. and M.F.A in Southern California at CalArts. Her work explores the relationship between Western and Eastern imperialism, and references unique social behaviors and fantasies of contemporary Japan. Yao's practice, encompassing video, photography and installation, uses specific Japanese historical and aesthetic signifiers, ranging from the legacy of Dutch hegemony, to ikebana (the art of Japanese flower arrangement), to modern fetish sub-cultures.

By traversing a broad timeframe of Japanese culture, Yao seeks to expose the underpinnings of current societal ideals of gender roles and consumerist pastimes. In works like Habitus (2009), the artist assumes the role of scientific observer in the tradition of German physician and botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold who studied Japanese flora and fauna during his stay on Dejima, a Dutch-operated trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, in the 19th century. Drawing an overt correlation between flower blossoms and feminine youth, delicacy and genitalia, Yao categorizes the unique fetish genres embraced by contemporary Japanese women as florae caught in specimen jars.

In the video work Samsara Pleasure Principle (2009), Yao expands on the historical influences of Western culture in Japan from the Edo period until today. Herein the artist creates a gradually unfolding narrative in the form of a floral still life gesticulating in slow motion. The composition references both Dutch Golden Age painting and ikebana, drawing upon the cultural exchange that evolved through the trading relationship between Japan and the Netherlands. The flowers themselves are artificial, suggesting a stylized version of nature that questions the reality of the subject. Further exploring the line between hyperrealism and fantasy, the artist infuses the tableau with elements from the contemporary notion of "cute" culture in Japan, known as kawaii, as evidenced in a kitsch toy worm with a smiley face that crawls cross the setting. A deep underlying tension, both voyeuristic and sexual, pervades the image as the flowers spread out, and in some instances, ooze a thick substance. Subtly, Yao draws the viewer full circle from the expanded sphere of influence of Western culture to excesses produced by capitalism and modern Japanese consumerism.

Additional works use flowers as stand-ins for young women and girls, as the artist attempts to hone in on media-generated ideas of femininity and sexuality. Flora (2008), a multi-channel video installation, features a series of close-ups of moving, individual flowers. The studies of the flowers take on anthropomorphic qualities and emulate portraits; the blossoms seemingly pose for the camera while their motions appear eroticized after prolonged viewing. The piece Lily (2009) directly references sexual acts popularized in Japanese pornography, such as bukkake. Here the artist showcases two artificial flowers that slowly open up to release a gooey liquid. These works, together with the bulk of Yao's practice to date, assess, classify and analyze the psycho-geography of Japanese social constructs.

The artist comments on her own interest in cultural critique:

"The goal of my art practice is to expose social stereotypes in both Eastern and Western cultures and to confront the boundaries of socio-culturally constructed ideas of gender, race, and sexuality and their relation to power. My critical view of the culture, religion and traditions of Japan was formed during my childhood in Osaka, where I first observed the unequal status of 'Others' - women and minority groups, immigrants from other Asian countries and descendents of the lowest classes. In addition, growing up in the final years of the 'Japanese postwar economic miracle,' I experienced the social and cultural stimulation, as well as the confusion, of the rapid absorption of Western values by Japanese tradition. Lastly, my move to the U.S. has added a global context and an external point of view to the construct of my examination of Japanese culture."

Yao's work has been exhibited in many venues including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, REDCAT, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Japanese American National Museum, Orange County Museum of Art, Laguna Art Museum, Museu Brasileiro da Escultura in Brazil, and Kidang Museum in South Korea. She is a recipient of James Irvine Foundation's Visions from the New California 2012 Award supported by the Alliance of Artist Communities. Through this program, Yao is in residence in the 18th Street Art Center from January 3- March 31, 2012. For more information about her work visit: www.michikoyao.com

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Top Image: Michiko Yao at 18th Street Art Center.

About the Author

Pilar Tompkins Rivas is Director of Residency Programs at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. She has served as arts project coordinator at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, curator of the Claremont Museum of Art and ...
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