Tokyo Rumando

5 x 7
By Lena Fritsch

This year, Photo Oxford focusses on women. Wondering what photography means to others, I’m interviewing 5 women working with photography in different parts of the world. I ask them 7 questions each, curious to hear their individual photography stories. The second interview features Japanese artist Tokyo Rumando.

Tokyo Rumando (b.1980, Tokyo) had a career in modelling, including work in fetish and nude photography, before becoming an artist in her late twenties, focussing on photography, film and performance. Most of her staged photographs and films are of herself, and raise questions around identity. Tokyo Rumando’s work has been exhibited in group exhibitions worldwide, including at Tate Modern in the Performing for the Camera exhibition in 2016, and at Museum Rietberg, Zurich in MIRRORS – The Reflected Self in 2019. Earlier this year, she had her first solo museum exhibition, at Museum Folkwang, Essen.

Tokyo Rumando, from Rest 3000 Stay 5000 series, 2012. © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy Zen Foto Gallery and IBASHO

Lena Fritsch: Let’s start at the beginning: what inspired you to take up photography?

Tokyo Rumando: At first I was on the other side of the camera. I worked as a model; my jobs included nudes, and fetish images such as bondage. I also worked in a strip bar. I started this kind of work when I was twenty years old and continued until around twenty-five. One day, I was photographed by Araki. I became interested in photography, and wanted to be the person who is releasing the shutter and creating a world, rather than the person whose photograph is taken by someone else.

Tokyo Rumando, from Rest 3000 Stay 5000 series, 2012. © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy Zen Foto Gallery and IBASHO
Tokyo Rumando, from Rest 3000 Stay 5000 series, 2012. © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy Zen Foto Gallery and IBASHO

I’m including works from your ‘Rest 3000, Stay 5000’ series in the ‘Tokyo: Art & Photography’ exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum (which was supposed to be on view during the 2020 Photo Oxford festival but had to be postponed to July 2021, due to the pandemic). The photographs were published in your first photobook ‘Rest 3000, Stay 5000’ in 2012 and they feature yourself in various love hotels. How did this work come about?

When I decided to start taking photographs, I began to think about a ‘stage’ for myself. I considered cafés, my apartment, rental studios. But I wanted to connect my photography with my nude modelling work, and so I decided to choose a similar context: love hotels. The women that I impersonated in the series are the different types of women who would go to a love hotel: women who only go there with their boyfriend, women who go with someone who is not their boyfriend, women who have an affair, women who sell their bodies. I was interested in impersonating these different women. I went to around thirty love hotels in Tokyo: in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Uguisudani …

Tokyo Rumando, from Orphée, 2012–14. © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy Zen Foto Gallery and IBASHO

Your following series, ‘Orphée’, 2012–14 again features self-portraits. Could you tell me more about these photographs?

Rest and Stay was about the outside: the nude female body, poses, love hotels. Perhaps it is erotic – a series that is easy to understand right away. Orphée was about the inside: when I was around thirty years old, I wanted to look back at my past. I decided to use a mirror and the motif of reflection – I’m looking back at different forms of my old self. When making these collages, cutting, pasting and layering, I was not sure what I was actually doing, so I felt really honoured when the works were displayed in the ‘Performing for the Camera’ exhibition at Tate Modern [in 2016]. It gave me a lot of self-confidence.

How do you feel as a female photographer in the Japanese ‘photography world’, which is traditionally a male-dominated scene? Is it difficult sometimes?

Yes, it is a fight. There are photographers like Ishiuchi Miyako, who has been around for a long time, and later Hiromix and Nagashima Yurie, but I think they all had to fight as well. In Japan, photographs have been viewed as something that men take; photographers are called ‘kameraman’ [from the English ‘cameraman’]. Things have changed a bit, thanks to the ‘girly photography’ trend in the 1990s sending the message that ‘everybody is allowed to take photographs’.

Tokyo Rumando, film still from A to Z, 2019© Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy the artist
Tokyo Rumando, film still from A to Z, 2019© Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy the artist
Tokyo Rumando, from The Story of S, since 2016© Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy the artist

This year you had your first solo museum exhibition in Europe, at Folkwang Museum, Essen. The show presented an ongoing project that you have been working on since 2016: ‘The Story of S’. It consists of dark and grainy gelatin silver prints, a colour film compiled of short clips, and text. It remains unclear what or who S exactly is but the story is intertwined with your life and it links to a small strip bar outside of Tokyo. In November 2018 in Paris, you did a live performance too. You are taking your work beyond photography. Could you tell me more about this ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ project?

If I had to describe The Story of S in one word, it would be a ‘monologue’, presented on stage in a small strip bar in Tokyo. In order to create a theatrical atmosphere, it has been extremely attractive to me to work with the medium of film, performance, poetry and such, in addition to photography. And I also perform as ‘A to Z,’ the different group members of the play, who all exist within me. In that sense, although it’s just myself who creates this, you could argue that I perform a ‘life drama’ in a theatre group, changing roles. I like this kind of outlook on the world and feel that I would like to continue working in this style.

Tokyo Rumando, film still from The Story of S, since 2016 © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy the artist
Tokyo Rumando, film still from The Story of S, since 2016 © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy the artist
Tokyo Rumando, film still from The Story of S, since 2016 © Tokyo Rumando. Courtesy the artist

In ‘The Story of S’ and during presentations about your art, you have included wonderful film scenes. My favourite films scenes are the ones that are shot from a low angle and from behind: they show you walking through Tokyo while wheeling a small suitcase. How would you describe the relationship between your photographs and your film work?

When I first started using film, this was to create low angle scenes of ‘wheeling a suitcase and continuously walking around a city’. The title of this was Explorer, and I travelled through the streets of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Paris. Shooting from a low angle, I changed my viewpoint to that of a dog. I was looking for a perspective and reality (a description of reality) that I had never seen before. Like you, I really like this series.

Regarding the relationship between photography and film [in my work], I think that the films’ function is to freely adjust, neutralise of connect myself to a sense of distance from myself, while my photographs have the function of proving something. Using film images,

the boundaries of time, space and memory that I feel in photography can be dissolved and the visual perception is eroded towards the ‘now’. Therefore, film can prove that you ‘live confidently in the moment’.

What do you like best about the medium of photography?

I can’t paint or draw and photography allows me to visually express what is going on in my mind. I also like that I’m the judge of my photography: I can press the shutter myself and select the photographs myself.

Thank you, Rumando-san!