Walking around Times Square, artist ON/Megumi Akiyoshi dons a blond wig with curls that would make Shirley Temple pout with jealousy and a white jumpsuit pinned with small-scaled framed artworks. A lighted headdress shines above her that reads: ON Museum
I thought I was ready to do it in Tokyo, where it was the scariest place for me since I know how in Tokyo people are shy and cold.
Moving through Times Square at night with the steady current of passersby as backdrop, she seems to fit right into its neon glare and motley denizens as an object for inquisitive tourists, the workers returning home late or perhaps a group of friends going to the movies. They in turn question Akiyoshi, take photos of her (perhaps as a curious living art object) or attempt to avoid her, maybe putting it down as another daily aberrant in the New York streets. One thing is certain; she has jumped into the role of creative catalyst for reaction and interaction, without which the artist explained, ‘‚¬Å“my art doesn't exist.
Akiyoshi, 33, was born in Utsunomiya City in Tochigi prefecture in Japan and grew up in Tokyo before moving to New York City, where she is now settled in Brooklyn, and visits Japan in the summer. Influenced by her parents, who both were graphic designers, especially her mother who became an environmental activist, Akiyoshi chose art as a career path and attended the School of Visual Arts in New York. Since then, she has shown her work in Spain, Taiwan, Germany and China, performing her ON Gallery/Museum piece on several continents in cities including Tokyo, New York and Shanghai.
Like ON Gallery/Museum, many of Akiyoshi's pieces invite the viewer to interact with the artwork. They often also explore the feminine, enveloping the viewer in a womb, either literal or figurative, such as in Cyberwomb (2004) or through her recurring trademark motif of vividly colored flowers. The works are meant to be inviting and transgressive at the while. In her past work, Coffin for the Living (2004), viewers are asked to enter and relax in a pink-bowed satin coffin. Though perhaps most viewers may find such an act less relaxing than panic-inducing claustrophobia and nearing taboo, the viewer is immersed in Akiyoshi's world where the colors are invitingly pink and the textures are plush.
For her piece Cyberwomb, she sewed together an electric light jacket that viewers are offered to wear. The jacket is then plugged into a Mylar-surrounded womb-like cocoon, reflecting the jacket in a busy orchestra of color and light. Attached to this silvery womb and electric umbilical cord, the viewer is lulled by light and sound, through soothing music piped through headsets. Yet what remains is also a vivid awareness of the technology that would seem to play artificial counter to the notion of the natural and nurturing maternal womb.
Her intention? To invite the viewer to enter the work, often forcing the viewer to step on her paintings that flow onto walls, floors and ceilings. On the one hand, the viewer is safe to participate fully in the colorful, fun-loving wonderland of the artwork, yet on the other hand, there is a comfort zone that is also crossed. Akiyoshi is also calling for an acceptance of entering the space of the artwork, crossing the line of what is within and without the art object. And as in her work ON Gallery, she is both inviting the viewer to cross the threshold of what is socially and culturally deemed as Art with a capital “A”. She questions the very spaces where art is traditionally shown and how it is experienced and brings it to the audience on the street and in the subways. Asiance Magazine learned about Akiyoshi's inspiration behind her interactive installations and performances.
ASIANCE: How did your interest in art begin?
Megumi: At the end of junior high school, when we had to decide directions for our future. I eliminated all the other ones I was interested in for certain reasons. Then only art remained.
ASIANCE: Who are some of the artists that influence your thinking, your work?
Megumi: Okinawan folk musicians, non-arty friends around me, Rose in Versailles (a Japanese cartoon about the French revolution the artist's mother created) written by Riyoko Ikeda, flowers, environmental activists (including my mom), performers and people who sell things in the subway, and the idea of re-incarnation. There were some artworks I liked from different artists once in a while, but it doesn't last, since I have no artist whom I'm into fully.
ASIANCE: The motif of flowers comes up often in your work. You had explained to me before that it was something that was very happy and welcoming. How did that motif develop and how is it developing? Is it changing within your work?
Megumi: Flowers. They suck me in. So do vivid reddish pink, purple colors. Through flowers, I learned a lot about the nature, and the life of the female. Particularly, the figure of five-petal flowers came out of the idea to cheer-up and symbolic happiness. But it also implies a human figure, and a wheel that runs forever. It has been simply accommodating and I guess developing according to projects, each time when I do different Medias such as 2D, 3D, performances, paint, electronic.
ASIANCE: When did you first do the ON Gallery, where you yourself are a gallery?
Megumi: The year 2000, in the subway in Chelsea and SoHo in New York.
ASIANCE: Where have you done ON Gallery since?
Megumi: West Broadway in New York (2001), Statue of Liberty in New York (2002), Tsumari in Niigata in Japan (2003), Tokyo in Japan (2004), D.U.M.B.O. in Brooklyn (2005), Shanghai in China (2006), and Times Square in New York (2006).
ASIANCE: Can you tell me about the LMCC funded piece you did in Times Square?
Megumi: From the beginning, when I got the idea of ON gallery in the New York subway, I had been wanting to make the sign illuminated. But I could not for couple of reasons, so this time I did an illuminated version finally, at the most illuminated location in New York, Times Square, to compete and challenge with their lights.
ASIANCE: Are people's reactions different to your pieces in different countries?
Megumi: I could start this project because I came to New York. I know nobody in this town, and I am an outsider. I don't understand what they say compared to when I am in Tokyo, and it felt easy to do here. Then, I got the opportunity in the countryside in Japan. I thought “OK, why not give a try? it won't be as scary as doing it in Tokyo”. People there were surprisingly friendly. They are talkative and fun. However, most people want to ignore me, as when I did it in New York, which I understand very well.
Then next was in Tokyo. I thought I was ready to do it in Tokyo, where it was the scariest place for me since I know how in Tokyo people are shy and cold. However, it was still the same. Friendly people always talk to me; others look at me from far away.
Then I came back to New York, D.U.M.B.O., since it was the art festival, people were a little too friendly I felt, but still, people who wanted to ignore me existed as everywhere. Of course Times Square people are very very not shy, because they are mostly tourists, they came to find something. I want to try in Germany someday, since when I did a slide talk in Dresden, one girl said people would be more shy and scared in Germany, mentioning that Japanese seem as shy as Germans. But the basic structure of kinds of people is not too different I feel.
ASIANCE: What is the importance of audience participation in your works?
Megumi: Oftentimes the viewer is required to come into the installation and do something, et cetera.
I think the truth is art could be anywhere, and anything could be art. But if some artwork is presented as “Art” in this society, that means there are always viewers that exist. I am presenting what I made as “art” to be shown, so that I wanted to make the point very clear that my art doesn't exist without viewer. Thus most of my artwork doesn't make sense without people's participation.
ASIANCE: Who are artists that influence you now?
Megumi: Anything that pulls people's participation like an amusement park, but not particular artists.
ASIANCE: Did it help your work to be a part of an Asian American artist collective like Godzookie in New York?
Megumi: I may be not conscious about it too much, but I think it helps to remind me that I am an Asian in this sphere, the world. And it is very important to know and I am glad to know, which is hard to really experience in the island, Japan. Inside Japan, it is not mixed much, not like here. So that the sense that my position in the sphere as Asian, is not too vivid like here.
ASIANCE: You've shown in large museums as well as smaller non-profit gallery spaces, how does space influence your work and what you show?
Megumi: I am trying to be as flexible as I can physically and technically, keeping what I want to protect.
ASIANCE: What is it like when you must take down a site-specific piece? Is it difficult to let go of the piece?
Megumi: It depends how much time I spent at the site. How much it involved. Sometimes it's sad; sometimes it's not. I think if it was harder to install, I feel more when it's taken down.
ASIANCE: What are you working on now?
Megumi: I am working on the Dress the Dress series, which is a participatory relief that looks like a doll, and you can see yourself as if you are wearing it. But I am trying to go back to the original idea using light.
See ON/Megumi Akiyoshi's work at:
531 W 26th Street, 4th Floor, NYC