Dioramas of Memory

Artist Ayumi Tanaka revisits and reimagines her childhood with exquisite photographic collages

by Taylor Glascock

When I was young, it was common practice for me to sprawl out on the living room floor, armed with scissors, paste, and a pile of my mother’s magazines. I was making a collage of my ideal future, complete with a big house, a VW Bug, and a celebrity boyfriend.

That’s what I thought of when I first saw Japanese artist Ayumi Tanaka’s project, Wish You Were Here, though they are a world removed from the collages of my youth. The main distinction, besides the fact that her creations are purposeful and mesmerizing, is that while my collages dreamed of a future, Tanaka’s are fixated on her past.

“I try to reconstruct obscured memories in my childhood. Since I grew up in an old-fashioned family in small town, there are a lot of mementos that echo Japanese tradition and life style,” says Tanaka. “They come to the story naturally as collage components telling my personal narrative.”

Tanaka was born in Japan, but moved to New York in 2008. She spent most of her childhood in small village of less than 4,000 people in Shikoku, the smallest and least populous island of Japan.

“People are close and live a simple way,” she says. “Every one of them knows each other because of such small number of people in the town. To keep their constitution in the town, there are kind of unspoken rules that they have to follow the standard of the community.”

In New York City all bets are off, the fast pace rules and Tanaka admits to finding the Big Apple a big headache sometimes.

“It’s little tough to live in NYC with a small apartment, expensive living costs, crowded subway and so on. In spite of that, the chaotic environment can motivate to make some artwork.”

People have a million things to do and might barely notice what there neighbor is up to. There’s anonymity in the crowd which can be liberating.

“New York welcomes uniqueness,” says Tanaka. “It lets people be alone and free, celebrates diversity. The city allows me to think about my identity in an objective way.”

Tanaka’s identity and heritage are the main components of her work.

“I have been inspired by Japanese folklore and literature. I’ve had chances to recall my past memories more frequently and become obsessed with my childhood since I left Japan.”

In some ways, her collage is as a coping mechanism as it is a positioning system.

“It was an unusual experience adjusting to the life style in a foreign country including developing English language,” she says. “I felt like psychologically retracing on my childhood. There were a lot of kinds of emotions that I had when I was a young girl that emerged frequently.”

Both of Tanaka’s parents worked, so she spent a lot of her youth learning how to take care of herself and learning how to be alone. Television was a rare treat, and toys were only for special occasions. She and her siblings were forced to be inventive when it came to making up toys and games, which could explain Tanaka’s mastery of incorporating found objects into her work.

Tanaka creates her collages by assembling materials from her family album, private snapshots, self-portraits, and objects she finds on the internet. Deconstructing and re-composing photographs by cutting and pasting by hand are important anchors. She labours to invite found images into her own personal narratives. That way, her work transcends to the memories of others, too.

When the component pieces are ready, Tanaka creates three-dimensional sets by hanging up her cut photographs and installing multiple layers of transparent canvases. Then she takes photos of the finished product; photos of her long-ago memories.

“I intentionally include and change in shape of fragile materials, such as sheer papers and aluminum foils, which is happening within the space of the dioramas, before they [are] destroyed.”

“There are a lot of precious memories of my childhood,” she says. “However, as I try to trace the memories, I find something surreal, obscured, and unexplained.”

All photos by Ayumi Tanaka.

Author’s note: some comments have been edited for clarity.

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