Vagina Kayak Artist, Awaiting Trial on Obscenity Charges, Defies Japan’s Entrenched Sexism
Megumi Igarashi spoke to artnet News in an interview.
On December 24, 2014, the artist was charged with “obscenity display,” “obscenity electromagnetic record,” and “obscenity electromagnetic recording medium distribution” in Japan and she is currently awaiting trial where she could face up to two years in prison and fines up to 2.5 million yen (roughly $20,900).
“There are many people in Japan who think my art and behavior is not Art,” Igarashi told artnet News over email*. “Therefore, it cannot be helped that I am arrested.”
By explicitly using the vagina in her artwork, Igarashi, who doesn’t hold a degree from an arts institution, questions why the female genitalia are deemed “obscene” when in Japan, the symbol of the penis has become a pop culture fixture. For example, each year, people flock to Kawasaki to celebrate the “Festival of the Steel Phallus.”
But the artist also raises the issue of misogyny. “Works that focus on female gender themes are looked down upon [in Japan],” she told artnet News. Perhaps gender inequality can be measured more easily in terms of the country’s workforce. In a Japan Times article last year, Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme stated “Japan still has quite a low proportion of women in its parliament, among decision-makers” and “at the top corporate levels.”
“Even in companies, women are always in charge of serving tea and we do not have any future in career advancement,” said Igarashi, who agreed with Clark. “Company presidents and politicians…are still just mostly men.”
Talking about her personal experience, Igarashi said, “Being born and brought up in the countryside of Japan, I experienced intense gender discrimination. On the surface, the gender equality in Japan seems to be getting better.” However, the artist said, once a man and woman get married and they both have careers, the woman usually tends to the household and childcare. “Some husbands get mad if wives leave the house for tea or drinks.”
Speaking about women and sexual harassment—a topic of debate refreshed with recent vigor due to Emma Sulkowicz‘s performances—Igarashi said, “When girls are sexually harassed [in Japan], people blame girls for wearing clothes that attracted men or walking at night alone. Girls are also never educated at school about the morning after pills that you can take within 24 hours of unprotected sex.”
As a 43-year-old Japanese female making waves in the art world, Igarashi disclosed what the general sentiment of aging in Japan can feel like. “Women are pampered when they are young and pretty, but when you pass your 30’s women are called such names as ‘old hags’ and the older you get, your presence is ignored.”
For now, the lawsuit has been dragged out and Igarashi finds she has time to work on new projects. Veering away from the 3D objects she is now widely known for, the artist is currently working on painting and comics.
*artnet News conducted the interview with Megumi Igarashi with the help of a Japanese translator.
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