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.

Originally Published: January 3rd, 2008

Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...

  1. January 3, 2008
     Vivek Narayanan

    I understand your point about the warmth and expressiveness of poems like the "Grandmother" series, but why do you think (if I'm catching your drift) that something like the "Elevator Girls" series could not be possible in poetry? Could one not imagine the medium being turned inside out, imagine cold, assembly-line language being turned against itself in a poem? Are you saying that some things are possible in photography that could not find their equivalent in poetry?

  2. January 4, 2008

    I believe every art form has its equivalents in another art form, and so, richness of color (feeling?), symmetry, structural composition can definitely be approximated in poems. The materials differ, only. However, I am speaking more to the coldness of form; there exists a kind of overly polished sleekness to form that I experience occasionally that seems devoid of feeling. Inorganic, too.

  3. January 5, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Somehow excessive polish--cool, sleek, composed--does not seem to me something contemporary poetry is in imminent danger of suffering from... but maybe I'd need to see an example or two.