Tomoko Sawada: Schoolgirls
From March 14th to April 29th, 2006, Zabriskie Gallery exhibits work from three recent series of color photographs by the young Japanese photographer Tomoko Sawada. Sawada’s work is primarily an exploration of costume and identity, of social badges and belonging, and the malleability of an individual’s image. School Days presents, through small high-school class pictures, the power of institutions and social pressures to form a mask over identity. cover deals with the wide-spread adoption of drastic fashion fads by teenage girls in Japan and cover/Face uses (self-)portraits of such individuals to illustrate the tension between public image and the inner individuality. Each series features the artist re-presenting herself as all of the different “individuals” portrayed, giving the artist an anonymity – despite her ubiquity.
Sawada’s work has always revolved around the exploration of the tension between outer image and inner truth, using her own body and features as a stage on which to build different identities. As with her earlier series ID400 and Costume, School Days finds Sawada inserting herself into a different identity. Here the artist has presented her face in the flat, confrontational idiom of the institutional group portrait. The portrait has been digitally manipulated so that each girl in the class is Tomoko Sawada. The sameness of the faces echoes the rigid uniforms and formal banality of the rows of students posing for the year book photo. This wall of conformity shows the effects of institutionalization on personality and raises the question: what is the meaning of an individual when all individuals are identical?
The series cover and cover/Face carry this theme outside of the institutional setting, turning a camera lens on the decentralized – but no less powerful – consensus-identity engines of popular culture. In cover Sawada makes herself up to conform to some of the trends of Japanese youth in the last half-decade. In cover/Face she presents these radically altered self-images in formally repetitious portraits. As with her earlier work, this series calls into question the truth of portraiture and the relationship between personality and outward appearance. Like predecessors of costume-portraiture like Cindy Sherman and Claude Cahun, Sawada’s newest work meddles with the tensions between gender and objectification, the line between make-up and masks, and social badges and stereotypes. Sawada also deals with the workings of Japanese youth culture and its interchanges with Western ideas of beauty. Sawada’s work goes far beyond those antecedents by wedding these experiments in identity with a formal flatness that suggests a cold system of classification into which everyone must be filed. It is a millennial update of Sherman’s exploration of image and self, with a door jarringly ajar to the possibility that costumes and ID photos are the bottom-line truth of who a person is.
Tomoko Sawada was born in 1977 in Kobe, Japan, where she continues to work. She attended Seian University of Art and Design, completing degrees in Media Design and Photography. She has been included in numerous group shows in Japan, Europe and the US. Her first solo exhibition in the US was at Zabriskie Gallery in 2003. In 2004 she was awarded the prestigious Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award for Young Japanese Photographer as well as the International Center of Photography Infinity Award in the category of Young Photographer.