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One of my great treasures last year was the discovery of Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi’s Elevator Girls series, which upon first viewing felt like large stills from an early Hype Williams video. I was able to catch Miwa Yanagi’s exhibition at The Chelsea Museum the day after The Poets House Annual Walk across Brooklyn Bridge. Elevator girls in Japan are hostesses who greet shoppers in department stores.
In Yanagi’s digital photos, Elevator Girls are clothed identically in highly saturated blue (occasionally red or white) uniforms and pose in groups in a futuristic mall complex, whose interior strikes a viewer as surrealistically cold and sleek. The beautiful, young Japanese woman stare blankly, as models always do. Their emotionless faces echo the mall’s interior, so that a fluid experience of sterility is suggested between the women’s psychic space and one in which they are contextualized.
Except for one photograph in which the models are lined like mannequins behind a display glass along both sides of a mechanized walk-way, one is not clear if the women are consumers or merchandise themselves to be visually consumed by us as viewers, much like in-store displays. What is unmistakable is that the women’s homogeneity is Yanagi’s feminist critique of consumer culture and the role of women in Japanese society.
The Chelsea Museum also exhibited Yanagi’s My Grandmother series of photographs, which featured striking, expressionistic photos of aged women and wall-text (poems? dramatic monologues?) which sought to capture and recreate conversations Yanagi conducted with elderly Japanese women about their lives.
I invite us to consider the Yanagi’s photos as an occasion to think about form and poetry. One should attempt to compose poems that are as rich and expressive as Yanagi’s My Grandmother series. Any poem that feels like her Elevator Girls series, eerily germ-free, glossy, and artificial, should be avoided at all costs.
Below is one of the wall-texts that accompanied the above picture.