ontemporary portraiture can communicate various attitudes towards identity, status, individualism, time, place, culture and other connected ideas of the self. For artists, it can be used as a platform for discussion or as an enlightening tool for personal discovery. The work of Tomoko Sawada explores many of these sometimes contradictory ideas through self-created characters, the use of costume and staged photography allows Sawada to evoke the essence of ‘real’ people within a controlled environment. Sawada’s series OMIAI, ID400 and School Days are fitting examples of her ability as both a photographer, and to some degree, performance artist. Reincarnating herself as numerous different schoolgirls or multiples of potential wives, Sawada explores Japanese stereotypes with humorous and delightful effect. By turning the lens on herself, Sawada explores the finer details of portraiture utilizing costume, facial expression and differing environments for the perfect photograph – the accessible photo-booth, studio, or working environment. Her work has a sense of familiarity, comforting but also unsettling in its realism and closeness. Sawada enlists the assistance of studio photographers to document her work. This separation from the ‘artist’s hand’ further places Sawada in the realm of performer rather than photographer. Her art is connected to her surroundings, her costume, hair and make-up; all of the rudimentary and mundane objects that are usually taken for granted. Once formulated, her photographs act as an exploration of social badges, the malleability of the self and our position and role in contemporary society. The experimentation and repetitive nature of her photography further highlights Sawada’s skill in costume and theatrical prowess. The digital manipulation of her work feels real and her characters, believable. All of these elements culminate in a photographic document of Japanese society and the individuals that encapsulate it. This highly skilled photographer’s body of work continues to grow. She has exhibited in major national and international galleries and group exhibitions where many public and private collectors have purchased her work. She is also the winner of many notable photography awards and grants.
At the age of twenty-two, Tomoko Sawada produced one of her first series, ID 400 (1999), a hundred passport-sized black-and-white photos: good girls and naughty girls, classical and modern girls, girls with thick or plucked eyebrows. The series was produced with the minimum of technical resources: a photo machine at a petrol station.
After this set of individual photos, Sawada began to explore in the opposite direction: group photographs, with a series of class photos in which the uniformed girls are the artist herself (School Days, 2004). This computer-generated series questioned the place of the individual within the group, originality in the midst of uniformity, and the values of the first social mould in life, which in Japan is the school. In her work, Tomoko Sawada does not judge or condemn Japanese social customs but simply makes the viewer notice them.
In Omiai (2001), she concentrated on the continuing practice of arranged marriages (10% of marriages since 1995, but 70% fifty years ago). The girl’s parents have a portfolio made up in a professional photographer’s studio in order to present the future bride, posing and dressed for any occasion, to possible suitors. Sawada dresses herself in traditional kimonos or Western tailored suits or as a professional woman, to present these candidates for marriage in the appropriate poses for catching the ideal husband.
Young Japanese girls today, however, live in much more emancipated times, as demonstrated by the series Cover (2004) . Tomoko Sawada appears here looking like the girls in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, who rival each other in extravagance and inventiveness: fluorescent colours, imitation fur coats in acid colours, the briefest of mini-skirts and high platform heels all create a look that confirms the search for an identity and a transformation of the traditional female role in Japanese society. As well as following a dress code, the change of image also seeks to imitate the cover girls on magazines: bleached hair, over-tanned skin and lavish make-up create a social mask and a common identity. As if it were a contemporary interpretation of the mask, this practice can seem like a response to the traditional Japanese subculture in which the mask has a strong presence, especially in Noh theatre. Appearance and reality seem to share a single existence. On the other hand, photography touches the boundary between a reflection of reality and montage, as occurs throughout the work of Tomoko Sawada, who invents a new language that destroys the traditional classification of artistic practices: a photographer who doesn’t produce photographs (the images are produced in a studio with the aid of a photographer).
Her series Decoration (2007) features the artist dressed in the manner of a recent fashion trend among Japanese girls, called Gothic-Lolita. She digitally combines two images of herself in these costumes into a single image on a blank white background. As with her earlier series, ID400 and School Days, Decoration finds Sawada inserting herself into new identities. Here the artist presents herself in the current fashion of Japanese girls: a mixture of coquettishness and teen-angst, rolled into one cute and consumable package. The immaculate white backgrounds, echoing the crispness of the fabric and the freshness of the style, contribute to the anonymous availability of the subject. The entire production gains the quality of hermetically-sealed products— the innocent smiles are as passively inviting as rows of consumer-goods. Unlike Sawada’s earlier work, Decoration is not a costume or a false identity – it is an obliteration of identity. The word “decoration” suggests frivolity, the shallow adornment of something more substantial beneath. The cloying poses in these pictures, however, leave the viewer to wonder how deep they must dig to get to the substance below the decoration— and what that substance will be is anyone’s guess. Having long played with the process of identification, Sawada now eludes it entirely.
Her most recent work, Bride (2008), is the next step in Sawada’s progression; the bride has been chosen, the marriage arranged, and now we’re looking at the wedding portraits. Diptyches juxtaposing Shinto tradition and modern western style continue to play with ideas of constructed identity, but not only between the pairs. Within the larger body of work the individual is created with subtle yet transforming shifts in expression that force the viewer to look twice.