Kazumi Tanaka, Artist

1.8.15 Beacon, NY

I was surprised to learn that, as a child in Japan, Tanaka used to listen to Paul Simon's '70s hit song 'Mother & Child Reunion.' Hanging out with her over tea and cookies, I also discovered there was a peculiar 'inheritance' among the stories her mother told her.

 Interview & Photos: Kate Orne  

Tanaka full of wonder in her backyard by the Fishkill Creek, which reminds her of Kyoto

UD: Lets talk about your project Mother & Child Reunion, which involves an old Japanese tradition — ‘The Inheritance’ which is passed from mother to child.

 KT:  I don’t really know how this tradition originally started, but as a metaphor it makes total sense — to save the “connection” between a mother and a child. In Japan, after the child is born, a part of the umbilical cord is given to the mother as a keepsake, sometimes along with the baby’s footprint and a lock of hair with a little notebook to keep a record of the babies weight etc.  The umbilical cord is also kind of symbolic evidence that the mother gave birth. My mother kept mine in a drawer in her Kimono-Dansu (armoire), all wrapped up in a package for me for all these years. I do remember at one point when I was very little she showed it to me. Then comes the time when the child grows up and, say, gets married. The mother starts asking ‘do you want to take your umbilical cord with you?’ And that means —‘now you will start your own family, you will keep your own umbilical cord and keep those of your own children.’

'Rivers of Glass' by TenWillow in the window of the former grocery store.

Recording 2012, a record she created from her own hair

Tanaka in her home office. The house was built in 1903

Her back yard in Beacon, NY

But the thing is, my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, they went through the war. Literally they had to protect any kind of belonging that was salvageable. My grandmother must have kept my mother’s very safe during those hard years. My mother was in tears when she inherited hers. Its also been said that if the umbilical cord is  and made in to tea to drink, it cures cancer and incurable diseases.  But of course it won’t. My sense is, before my uncle passed away of cancer in his late 30th, my aunties might have chopped up theirs, and served him the tea.

UD: What happens to the cord when you die?

KT: It’s put in your casket. The tradition says that it will guide you back to your mother – that you will be reunited. I find this concept incredibly beautiful.

UD: Your Mom still lives in the house where you grew up. Each time you go back, do feel like you are re-enter your childhood?

KT: Yeah, definitely. I come home and everything is exactly the same, yet everything is disturbingly smaller than I remember it!

Tanaka's Grandmother Masa

Her tea drawing of her childhood home in Osaka. Courtesy of Kazumi Tanaka

Tanaka's exhibition at  Fabric Workshop and Museum      Ph: Carlos Avendano

UD: My experiences going home to Sweden have been very similar. Like rediscovering yourself. How did you get started on the Mother & Child Reunion project?

KT: Last year I went back home to Osaka to take care of my mother, she had suffered a bad a stroke and was going through a hard time. At that point I didn’t really know what my next project would be.

While I was in Japan, went to to visit Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo, an indigo master in Miyama, Kyoto. The journey of going up to this mountain village in the snow, to learn about the traditional fabric techniques and the indigo dyeing process was just amazing. I of course picked the worst time of the year to visit him, my brother-in-law had snow chains, but he didn’t know how to put them on. [Laughter.] Mr. Shindo asked me, “So why indigo?” I said, “Well, I just wanted to come meet you and see what happens.”

Fermenting indigo                                                                        Ph: Kazumi Tanaka

The creases of her mothers belly                                              Ph: Kazumi Tanaka

Indigo master Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo in his workshop           Ph: Kazumi Tanaka

Indigo dyed silk part of her exhibition                                   Ph: Carlos Avendano

Indigo dyed silk part of her exhibition                                   Ph: Carlos Avendano

After I returned Osaka to be with my mother — it all kind of came together! At one point I noticed the creases of age in her skin – I realized the fabric techniques I had just learned about, reminded me of my mother’ belly. Through her recovery I also came to the realization our place had switched; my mother use to be the caretaker of me —I was now taking care of her.

I knew then I wanted to call my next project "Mother and Child Reunion" but I was a little nervous. As a child I used to play Paul Simon’s ‘70s hit song with the same title…. but then I learned Simon had picked up the title from a ‘chicken & egg’ dish on a Chinese restaurant menu. So I thought, wow, mother and child, chicken and egg – this fits right in! And then my mother gave me my inheritance; my umbilical cord, and everything just fell into place. I didn’t plan it.

UD: Part this project you worked in miniature scale, which to me symbolizes your adult experience of your childhood home.

KT: I do hate the word ‘miniature.’ Because everyone’s like, “Oh, it’s cute!” I call it micro-tansu (micro-furniture). It’ a teeny little step ‘forward and away’ from ‘miniature’. [Laughs.] I think when I make something big or small, it’s always in relation to my body. So what does that mean to have something so micro? I can crash it in my hand? When I make something big, I look up, and the physical relationship changes. And what does that mean to me? That changes too. In this case, it just happened I was working on this small furniture. The original inspiration, among other things, was candy I would buy as a kid, not unlike those chocolate eggs with small toys inside you find here in the States. Basically, the candy and toy-makers seduce kids to buy more stuff.

A parcel has arrived containing perhaps her most intimate belongings

Inside the little box made of Paulownia wood— the connection to her mother

Her micro replicas of furniture from her childhood home are part of her Mother & Child Reunion project

The original life-size armoire made of Paulownia wood seen also in micro in large photograph above

Tanaka's footprint as a newborn

UD: Like McDonalds....

KT: Yeah. So I got curious about it. So who’s making those toys? Most of them are made in China. Then it becomes a question of wages, working conditions…? Since I’m also a furniture maker, what if me, as an artist started to make micro-sized furniture… It’s a whole different concept, but I got curious how long it would take. At first it took forever to make one single piece.  Then I got done in three to four days, it became an obsession just keeping track of how long it took. And in order to build the tiny little furniture, I had to make diagrams as if I were to build an actual piece of furniture!

The micro version of her mother's armoire in front of her diagram of the same piece at her exhibition                                                                       Ph: Carlos Avendano

How tiny can one go? Kazumi Tanaka in her studio in Beacon, NY

UD: What is it about intimacy that interests you, that you’re drawn to?

KT: I think part of it is a protective mechanism. You are not secure when you are with something unknown, something you don’t know. But by getting intimate, to get to know, you register the information, and you become close.

UD: That’s a beautiful description.

KT: It could drive some people crazy, I do know that. I feel like when I get to share this intimacy with people, that’s the rush I get. I get so motivated, so excited. And those are the moments that make me feel it’s worth being an artist. During my artist in residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, I had all these people watching me, and they wanted to get to know me. They wanted to know what I was up to. Then they become intimate with this project. Then the whole process — it’s just — it’s very different from me being alone in my studio. I think working on such intimate project, and being surrounded by people, has helped me opening up. It’s a very peculiar balance — to be open, to be private. By the time I had the exhibition at the museum, they like knew everything about me and about the project!

And it was just a great experience and now I’m having separation anxiety. (Laughter.)

The 'Inheritance;' her umbilical cord preserved in talc powder, next to a lock of her hair and footprint

UD: That’s funny. Do you think it’s the intimacy of a small town that drew you to Beacon?

KT: There’s a different dynamic of living here versus living in New York City, which is so big, and where you can easily get lost. Here, it’s somehow manageable. When we first came up here about 15 years ago, most of the town was boarded up. There were no cafes, no stores; it was very rough. The Dia: Beacon was not open yet. Yet George, my husband whom owns Dogwood bar, had a lot of faith in the possibilities of Beacon. I have watched how George began to participate in the community. Here you can voice an opinion, be heard and actually change policy by attending City Hall. It is a micro system, and it’s fascinating to us. The wonderful thing about Beacon is it’s close enough to the city so you can have both without much effort. In other words, if we still lived in New York City, we may still be thinking, “How are we going to get out of here? We need to get out.” Here, we are out, but we can still be in the city. And culturally New York still is a very fresh and stimulating place. And at the same time, I’m fascinated by what’s happening up here, it’s a really vibrant and creative community with lots of interesting people to meet and to exchange ideas with. 

With Ogee, the family dog. House built 1903 with locally manufactured brick

A kitchen filled with light and laughter

Bathroom door in her house

Winter afternoon light stretching its rays deep inside of the hallway.

In her studio during a moment of reflection as the sun sets

UD: What remains within you from the last time you saw your mother?

KT: Every time I say goodbye, I just don't know if I will get to see her again, if it will be the last time…. The memory I carry with me is of her saying goodbye. And it’s hard..... When I’m not with her, I think of the things we talk about or stories she has told me. A lot of them are actually death related; birth and death are a very big part of all our lives. Some people find thinking of these things depressing. I don’t think it’s depressing. My mother and I talk very openly about these things.

Once my mother and I had a conversation, I said, ”I think I’m going to die all alone since I don’t have children”. My mother said, “When you die, you are always alone.” And I was like—“okay, I hear you.”  

I have very selective and strong memories of things I heard or saw as I grew up. And these are the motivations of what becomes part of my projects because of the powerful images in my head.

Kazumi Tanaka 

With her Mother Kazuko in Japan