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Welcome to Hiromi Hotel

You’re probably already familiar with Hiromi Tango (@hiromihotel), the Japanese-Australian artist who’s been taking Singapore by storm. Her gorgeous mixed-media works appear to be pretty and quirky, but communicate a deeper complex desire on her part to resolve mental trauma through engagement with the arts. We caught up with Hiromi at the opening of her show “Chromosomes,” during Singapore Art Week – check out the interview below: 

Just another day at work, hanging out with Hiromi Tango and her 46 Healing Chromosomes (2017)

In an interview a few years ago, you made the statement:

“Can biological transformation really be achieved through arts engagement? What is the role of the artist in 2015? Can an artist be an effective social mirror while pursuing each new neuroscientific development in hope of healing?”

We are now into early 2018: Have you come any closer to finding out the answer to these questions?

To start with, I would just like to acknowledge that the term “social mirror” references an artwork of the same name by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. When I saw the image of a garbage truck covered with mirrors, it really stayed with me, and I completely related to the concept of a social mirror.

In my own interpretation of the concept, I believe that the role of the artist is to be a social mirror, posing questions, and exploring questions around “what if…”

Whilst I remain fascinated by new discoveries in the area of neuroscience, and by the potential for arts engagement to contribute to healing, I see the intersection of art and science, and of art and health, as a departure point for a poetic journey.

As an artist, I have the freedom to pose questions and ask “what if,” without the burden of scientific proof. As to whether biological transformation can really be achieved through arts engagement: the dichotomy between nature and nurture remains a recurrent theme in my work.

At the moment, I am feeling like the two hold each other in tension – perhaps you can’t travel back in time to change what is hard-coded in our genes, but I am discovering that the force of nurture is persistent and strong.

Casting my mind back to 2015, with all of the new discovery in the fields of epigenetics and the neurosciences, the headlines were that we could change ourselves, with application and determination. My question now is whether we have to change?

Initially, I became very excited about the potential to change myself and worked very hard to achieve this – to be a better person, to be more organised, more social, and more outgoing. But then I realised that I was creating a lot of pressure and stress on myself, just to become someone else. I questioned whether it was nurture or torture? As a result, I stopped making such efforts to change myself, as I didn’t see the point of doing it. What is a “better person” anyway and why must I try to fit in?

Since 2015, my interest has shifted to nature. I have to accept the natural speed of learning, rather than hope for a speedy miraculous transformation, like a crash diet. I want to take time to be me. I want to find out what makes me who I am, by first understanding myself.

Electric Human Chromosomes 1 (2017). In this series of works, Hiromi struggles and eventually makes peace with a tangle of cables and electronic devices, an act which is symbolic of our daily encounters with technology. Image credit : Sullivan + Strumpf
That moment when you return from lunch, to find 150 messages in your inbox

Your works appear to have a bright and whimsical quality to them. At first glance, they appear (to us) like joyful explosions of abundance. Have you ever encountered negative reactions to your work?

Certainly. Any time you engage with others, there is the possibility that someone will respond in a negative way or that the intention of the work may be misunderstood.

One thing that I am mindful of is the risk of inadvertently triggering traumatic memories for the people who engage with my work. I try to develop ways for the audience to engage gently and safely. Nonetheless, my work is not therapy, and I am mindful that my artistic expressions remain subjective to me, and as such, I cannot control the reaction of others. In terms of criticism, as long as people are responding in some way, I regard that as positive.

(No trauma here though, it was nothing but smiles all around during our interview)

How do you come to the decision on whether to include yourself or a performance in your work? (Now- New- Neo, for example, doesn’t seem to visibly incorporate you or your body).

Actually performance ritual has consistently been part of my work, although I don’t always publish documentation of everything. This was the case with Now – New – Neo.

In the past, I have described my work as “performative installation,” or “performative sculpture.” For me, the performance ritual is a way of interacting with and saying goodbye to a work before I send it out into the world.

Sometimes it is undertaken in private, sometimes in public, sometimes in solitude, sometimes with community participants. I feel like the performance is a way of sending some of my energy with the work, and hopefully, the energy remains in the sculpture.

Hiromi’s performance at Sullivan + Strumpf Singapore on 26 January. Image credit : Sullivan + Strumpf
Image credit : Sullivan + Strumpf
Naturally, #picsoritdidnthappen Image credit : Sullivan + Strumpf

Who’s your favourite artist? Who inspires you and your practice?

There are many artists whose work inspires me, although, in my own practice, I am very focused on the people around me who inspire my everyday life. My work explores issues and concerns that I am experiencing, or that I see friends and family experience. Also, I regularly undertake community engagement projects and the life stories of people who I meet often become a motif in my art.

A close-up of all that wonderful, intricate detail

What do you hope to achieve with this presentation of your work in Singapore? Is there something in particular that you would like to communicate to Singaporean audiences?

This is my fourth exhibition in Singapore, following on from Lizard Tail that was part of the Imaginarium at the Singapore Art Museum, where I built wonderful new relationships. I hope to see that connection grow, such that my work resonates with audiences in a very authentic way.

Singapore is such an amazing place, an international hub where many Asian cultures come together. I have been made to feel so welcome and at home here, and sincerely value my developing relationships with communities in Singapore. As such, forging a strong connection with audiences in Singapore is important to me personally. I am very grateful to Sullivan + Strumpf Gallery for their trust to exhibit my work in Singapore.

Given the heavy emphasis on mental issues in your work, we have a psychological game for you to play – here are 10 questions from the Proust Questionnaire. Ready?

Bleached Genes (Fuji) – Uncover my Soul (2017). In this series of works, Hiromi attempts to ‘bleach away’ colour from genetic material, in an attempt to clear away past trauma. (Don’t these also remind you of bleached coral? Pure and lovely to look at, but oddly sterile and dead? We just couldn’t stop staring). Image credit: Sullivan + Strumpf

What is your greatest fear? To die while my children are still very young, and not being able to provide full support for them as a mother. And/or developing a bad relationship with my children.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? What is perfect happiness? Happiness for me is to have meaningful sustainable relationships with people who are being authentic to themselves. Happiness for me is the energy flow of life with art.

What is your current state of mind? Zero – absolute freedom.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Efficiency and high productivity – too much focus on these areas, and we lose our spirit of generosity, and our humanity. What do you think?

What is the quality you most like in a woman? I don’t see the point of talking about women or men, so can I change the question to “qualities in a human” instead? Creativity and empathy.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? On a big picture basis, a time where no human interactions are required, and we only interact with artificial intelligence. On a personal level, losing control of myself, becoming fake, and not even realising that I have become fake.

What do you most value in your friends? To have them listen to me and support my vision even though it may not be logical and at times perhaps may be unrealistic. To have them continue to encourage me to find my direction again when I get lost. I am still here because of those friends and family.

What is it that you most dislike? Violence.

How would you like to die? Peacefully, and secure in the knowledge that those who depend on me know that I love them deeply.

What is your motto? My resolution is to self- nurture: kind of like putting your own oxygen mask on before trying to assist others.

To step further into Hiromi’s psyche, check out her on-going show at Gillman Barracks, at Sullivan + Strumpf, Singapore. The exhibition runs till 18 February. 

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