Since her 1999 breakthrough series, ID400, Tomoko Sawada’s work has remained at the cutting edge of conceptual photography and contemporary art. Until recently, Sawada’s pictures have focused exclusively on her self and her assumed identities, employing an uncanny ability to alter her persona, producing simple, fresh images that raise questions about cultural identity, gender performativity, the perception of the self and authorship in photography. And like ID400, many of her series have relied on the repetition of images in grids, a format appropriate to work highly consistent in form but elastic in detail.
Her most recent work, produced during a residency with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is both a startling departure from the past and an innovative use of her iconic style honed over the past decade. In 2012 she was invited by the museum to work with a local business and produce a new body of work based on the unique materials, history and processes associated with the host institution, which in this case, was Heinz, a brand synonymous with the city’s legacy. Sawada, who is acclaimed for her humorous and extensive self-portraits, collaborated with Heinz to investigate branding as a form of portraiture. The result is a tangle between an artist who has, up to this point, only used images of her self in a multitude of guises and a condiment company easily recognized on store shelves the world over.
Sign/KETCHUP & Sign/MUSTARD are large grids of 56 images of the Heinz condiment bottles. At a distance the plastic, inverted bottle featuring the iconic Heinz label looks a bit like a head, a direct reference to Sawada’s previous I.D.-style self-portraits. Upon closer inspection one realizes that “Tomato Ketchup” or “Mustard” has been translated into 56 languages from the countries around the globe where Heinz is sold. The artist has altered the company’s linguistic face in a manner that parallels her previous work, which relied on morphing her own face into a striking range of identities based on age, ethnicity and personality. But rather than over-the-the counter cosmetics and costume changes, she dresses her Heinz bottles with text; she accumulated the text using Google image search, translation websites, Wikipedia, and her artist page on Facebook where she enlisted international friends and fans in the task. And even with the linguistic change, what remains is the brand’s utter recognizability. In Tomoko Sawada’s photographs the languages themselves can be hard to identify but the corporate identity is impossible to shake. She exposes our culture’s overwhelming ability to identify with the face of an international brand, even as we may struggle to recognize a neighboring culture and its language.
Tomoko Sawada was born in 1977 in Kobe, Japan and studied at the Seian University of Art and Design. She has been a recipient of the Grand Prize at the Canon New Cosmos of Photography, the ICP Infinity Hyogo Arts Award and the prestigious Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award. Her work is held by internationally renowned collections at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the International Center of Photography, New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Essl Collection, Klosternerberg, Austria, the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the Brooklyn Museum. Monographs of Tomoko Sawada’s work include: ID400, Seigensha Art Publishing, 2004; School Days, Seigensha Art Publishing, 2006; Masquerade, Akaaka Art Publishing, 2006.
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