I first encountered the work of the Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi in art fairs over a decade ago. Her digitally altered, group portraits of “Elevator Girls”—the slim, clear-skinned, uniform-clad hostesses of Japanese department stores—were intriguing (if overly slick) allegories of feminine self-effacement. The images’ allure seemed dependent, in part, upon the very qualities of callow, identical youth whose worship the artist appeared to be critiquing.
This major survey of more than 30 large-scale photographs and one video includes that early work alongside two more recent—and to me, far more compelling—series, each in its way about confrontations between youth and old age. In her highly cinematic and entirely uncanny Fairy Tales, printed in lustrous black-and-white, 10-to 12-year-old girls sometimes wear wizened, wrinkled face masks as they act out stories by Hans Christian Andersen and others, rife with intergenerational conflict.
For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed women in their twenties about how they saw their lives unfolding half a century into the future. The resulting images, in brilliant color, show the women—aged through makeup, costumes, and digital manipulation—posing in the scenarios they envision for their golden years. The pictures are accompanied by sometimes hilariously evocative texts. “Yuka,” for example, sees herself racing across the Golden Gate Bridge in a motorcycle sidecar next to her much-younger boyfriend, her red hair flying. And four spirited, elderly geishas offer, among their prescriptions for right living, the following commandment: “One shall decide one’s age on a daily basis.”