Interview with the participating artitsts: Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough

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E-mail interviews were conducted with the ten artists featured in the exhibition Home Again—10 Artists Who Have Experienced Japan.

The American artist Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough did her residence in 2007. As an artist who also performs as a musician, she had an interest in Japanese karaoke and enka.

These interviews were conducted by Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT).

Based in San Francisco, U.S.A., Yarbrough received a Master’s degree from the California College of Arts in San Francisco. She creates 2D art using images from the TV and the Internet and colored tape which she tears and assembles on various surfaces. During her residency in 2007, she was attracted to aspects of popular culture such as karaoke and enka. She was particularly interested in Misora Hibari, her fashion and her singing style.

Q1: What did you find so intriguing about karaoke in Tokyo?

The ubiquity of it! I was intrigued by the nonchalance and ease in which it was approached by everyone I interacted with during my residency. I was surprised that my invitation to strangers to be a part of the compilation I made was so easily and generously accepted. This felt like a revelation; my assumption had been that getting strangers to participate would be my biggest hurdle. That assumption was immediately refuted. The participants showed little fear or stage fright. Karaoke wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for them, but an inherent part of the culture, even professional culture. I found this fascinating. It was also a surprise to learn that in Tokyo, most karaoke happens in small, private rooms with small groups of people. Sometimes with friends, but many times with work colleagues.

Q2: Why were you attracted to Misora Hibari, and did you first come across her songs in Japan? Or had you heard of her before?

I learned about Misora Hibari through Roger, by way of a conversation we were having that was loosely comparing the genre of Modern Enka with the genres of Heavy Metal and Power Metal, in terms of the sentimentality, drama and spectacle with which they were both performed. Hibari intrigued me immediately in that her popularity spans generations, she lived most of her life in the public eye and she possessed an unwavering air of grace and dignity. She played a seminal role in music and its changing styles throughout the decades and remains a revered and celebrated icon to this day. I couldn’t think of an artist from the U.S. who paralleled her success and public stature. Misora Hibari was without scandal or a tarnished image. Everyone knew who she was; she was honored posthumously with awards for her contributions to society. I loved this about her. I was given a Misora Hibari compilation CD for my birthday, which I celebrated at the beginning of my residency, and chose the song I learned from that playlist.

Q3: You also perform and sing – do you think the Hibari work was a way for you to understand a cultural context so alien to you (in terms of language etc)?

My art practice has always run in parallel with the music I make -be it with my band or in my sound sculptures. There’s a constant cycle of influence moving back and forth there. My two-dimensional work is time and labor intensive and requires a lot of patience and focused attention for hours on end. So the immediacy of sound and music is a welcome contrast to that form of creative expression. For me, it’s important to have outlets for both “speeds” or kinds of expression.The performance aspect of my work started initially from my fear of doing something live publicly, that would be different every time, no matter how practiced I was. I wanted to face head-on my fear of failing or flailing in public. That feeling is still there before I perform, but I now use it as adrenaline.

It’s with this excitement for music and performance which made choosing Hibari as a perfect counterpoint to my visual work I was doing in Tokyo. Because music is a transcultural expression, the work of such an iconic Japanese singer was a portal to the culture in Tokyo and Japan at large. I felt that as a singer with such significant cultural cache, Hibari could help attune my sense of place to the attitudes of the Japanese people.

Q4: The work clearly enjoys a sense of cultural distance, mis-readings, copying etc…

When I was learning Hanagasa Dochu, I listened to the song over and over in my headphones, pausing the song phrase by phrase to phonetically spell out the lyrics as I heard them. I know I make mistakes when I sing it but I’m not sure where they are – to me, I’m singing what I heard in the original recording.It’s in this spirit that I approached the project and the songs that people contributed for the karaoke compilation CD.Since karaoke, to me, is about celebrating the individual who has the courage to sing in front of people in the first place -and I do think it’s courage because I think singing is a very vulnerable act – it’s not about the perfection in which the song is executed. It’s the interpretation that is so rich. And refreshing.

Q5: The new tape works – what are they about? The gaps/ abyss’s are perhaps quite evocative of natural and other disaster happening recently?

In this series, I was drawn to the varying expressions of the subjects as they are witnessing a momentous and life-altering event that will ultimately be in their memories and psychologies forever. These pictures capture a moment in time just after the event has taken place. They are primal and essential reactions, which are personally moving and humbling in a visceral and palpable way. These new tape works are certainly evocative of natural and other disaster happening recently. The images that came from Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami of Sri Lanka were profound. All these events were widely publicized and horrific in scale. The damage and loss affected me deeply, even though I wasn’t personally at a loss. My response was to internalize the grief I imagined the people who were there were experiencing, and imagine how I would react under that duress. My response was to create this body of work as a way to explore those reactions that felt universal to humanity.

Q6: Do you use images from mass media, TV etc?

I get my source material from various forms of media – usually newspapers or magazines. The pieces in this show are from: a 1974 National Graphic magazine (“Into the Void”); the Travel Section of the New York Times newspaper (“Electric Funeral/ Tomorrow’s Dream”); and the front page of a local newspaper from Minnesota that I saw when I was in a coffee shop (“Changes [Under the Sun Every Day Comes and Goes]”). Though these images do not reflect recent current events, nor the same magnitude of destruction, they resonate with me because they each show people in myriad contemplative states, which is especially evident through body language, and they capture the individual responses to an occurrence that is being collectively witnessed and physically experienced. This series is, in part, a reaction to U.S. TV and mass media coverage of these kinds of events. The work is directly linked to my desire to separate singular moments in time, specifically during extreme natural or manmade disasters, from the 24-hour news cycle that the public has become accustomed to. I wanted to narrow the scope of these types of major events and allow the viewer the uninterrupted space to experience the event as a singular event of loss, change and new growth.