In the heyday of the last wave of feminism in the U.S. and Western Europe, women began to despise what they saw as their limited role in the home. They looked to the world of the workforce and professional career as a release from the “drudgery” of homemaking and even childcare. For the woman who chose to be an artist, it was necessary to maintain a complete separation between the production of art works and the cyclical reproduction of daily life.
Finally, however, differing attitudes of women from other cultures had a profound effect and there was a move to widen the very meaning of art and try to overcome that separation. It has not been completely successful.
Atsuko Inagawa Smith has chosen for her subject matter the seemingly “artless” category of simple human activities, which are, however, laden with significance if we think about their importance as they are practiced in various cultures. She has created installations around the different areas of daily home life – the laundry room, toilet, utility or cleaning room, and family sitting and dining area of a traditional Japanese home. Her materials consist of the detritus of consumption – plastic shopping bags and paper and plastic packaging of items used in childcare and food preparation.
In “Mina’s Toilet” (Mina is her little girl), a small child-sized toilet, possibly constructed from papier mÂché and covered in cut and pasted packaging, stands on a platform covered in a quilt-like rug made of stitched plastic shopping bags. There is a child-sized toilet paper roll and in place of a roll of toilet paper, there is a newspaper comic strip.
Little Mina has her own towel rack and Mina herself seems to have done the decorating on the mat surrounding the commode. Charmingly, at the entrance, two small slippers wait for their small owner to put them on before entering at the next visit.
In the installation entitled “The Sweeping Broom”, household cleaning chores are ennobled. Inagawa Smith tells us that in Japan cleaning is considered by Buddhism to be an enlightening activity. It is a vehicle for self-purification and realization.
One can clean without any delusions. The objects here include a dustpan and bucket, a hand duster (covered in a Sudoku puzzle), a “feather” duster, a broom and a full apron. These are all either entirely constructed from newspaper or are items covered with Japanese newspapers – except the apron, to which the Savannah Morning News has been put to good use.
Another set-up is a series of three washing lines and upon each line Inagawa Smith has pinned with tiny wooden clothes pegs fourteen pairs of little training pants made from the bright colored packaging of store bought training pants and diapers. These are intricately stitched and look wearable. There is a staggering amount of labor intensive work in these objects.
In the West, we still avoid housework at all costs. We usually consider it a waste of time and if we can pay others to do it, we will. Exactly what we are “freeing” our time for is often unclear. And as well as not bothering to clean, we can’t be bothered to recycle or dispose properly.
I note that Savannah is just now engaging in a debate on the merits and how-to’s of recycling. Japan has some of the strictest rules in the world for recycling and disposal. This fact Inagawa Smith mentions in regards to her installation entitled, “Obento.”
She tells us that Obento is a boxed meal, similar to a school lunchbox, which can be made at home or gotten at a restaurant. Children take to school a plastic obento box with a carefully prepared lunch, a pair of chopsticks, a thermos and a cotton napkin. This totally eliminates waste.
The obento box Inagawa Smith has created is made from papier mÂché and is filled with attractive colored “foods”, the napkin being of stitched plastic bags.
But what is being said by the fact of the enormous size of these particular objects? For instance, the chopsticks that go with the obento box are at least 4 feet long and the box itself is perhaps 6 feet square. This is out of scale where most of the other installations are well within actual size.
I am reminded of the Pop artist, Claes Oldenburg, who uses the surrealist effect of scale change or inappropriate use of materials to de-familiarize and therefore to shock the sensibility of the viewer as she looks at what otherwise would be ordinary objects.
And there are two other installation areas of larger than life-sized objects: a reproduction of an envelope traditionally used for gifts of money on special occasions and a carefully wrapped gift box for newborns carrying good luck charms for the infant and there is an outsized set of playing cards covering more than one wall.
In the modern world, and particularly in the West, to fulfill the daily tasks of life creatively is to be invisible in the art market; indeed, no one would call you an artist at all. Perhaps Inagawa Smith has chosen to comment on this contradiction by creating these few very large installations that seem to be expressly made to hang in a contemporary art museum.
Her price list corroborates this idea because the prices of those large artworks are in the hundreds of dollars, whereas you can buy a pair of “training pants” for $15. 00, although the time it took to make it is surely not being compensated for by that sum.
One last thought. The title intrigues me. “Welcome to THE Motherhood.” Not just “Welcome to Motherhood.”
Is Inagawa Smith here slyly referencing a mystical association of mothers, rather like The Brotherhood? I hope so.
Bertha Husband is a native of Scotland and a painter who graduated from the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford University and has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has been writring art criticism for over 20 years in publications that include Chicago Reader, Art Papers, Third Text and Left Curve.