A great deal of art is about catching one’s eye. While Hiromi Tango’s art is vivid and captivating, it also delves deeper, as she strives to create a body of work that also listens.
Born in Japan and migrating to Australia after university, Hiromi combines craft with neuroscientific concepts to create textile sculptures and performances that prompt deep reflection. Much of her art explores ideas around healing and how her ‘recipes for art magic’, have the potential to support development and recovery.
Hiromi bravely approaches intensely personal histories – such as being estranged from her family, her father’s dementia, and her miscarriage – through diligently-researched art projects. She also encourages others (on occasion entire communities!) to heal their wounds by collaborating in her cathartic construction processes, before later introducing these evocative exhibitions to wider audiences for further contemplation.
Having showcased extensively throughout Australia and Asia and Europe, the industrious artist’s latest exhibition, Healing Chromosomes, is currently on at Sullivan+Strumpf in Sydney. Bringing together prints, performance and an epic double helix of twisted fabric and yarn, this body of work taps into the impacts of our fast-paced, device dependent lifestyles, and the effects these may be having on us as a species.
The brilliant and inspiring artist generously made time for an interview this week, as floods from ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie caused chaos in her home of Tweed Heads – thank you Hiromi!
Tell us a little about your background, and how it has influenced what you create today?
Some of my earliest memories are of my Grandmother’s garden in Japan, and the careful way that she cultivated the plants, nurturing and pruning. The meditative process, aesthetic consideration, and the way she worked with materials and nature to create something dynamic and beautiful remains an inspiration to me. As I grew up, I often sought solace in making things, being drawn into the meditative process at times when I was seeking a sense of calm and order. This experience has informed my fascination with how art-making processes and different types of arts engagement can actually change brain function.
Since migrating to Australia, I have found that the incredible landscape, unique plant life and ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef to be very influential. As my work often draws on aspects of nature as metaphors for brain function, the environment has been an important factor. Also, there is an openness about talking about things in Australia that has enabled me to explore sometimes sensitive subject matter, that perhaps would not have happened in the same way anywhere else.
How has your work evolved throughout your career?
Performance has always been a part of my practice, and even from the earliest public event, I was collecting things, whether it be the stories that people shared, observations as I inhabited spaces, or objects. In recent years, there has been a significant community engagement aspect, with many large-scale projects that have involved members of the public as co-creators.
Most recently, I have been more focused on research, development and creation of solo projects. I am really enjoying the freedom that this affords me in terms of focusing on a particular idea, working with new materials and processes, and bringing other kinds of collaborators on board.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?
My community engagement projects are often developed in consultation, where key stakeholders or members of the public are invited to discuss what is relevant to them. Key themes emerge, and I develop project ideas around these themes.
Some works are site responsive, such as simply choosing a palette that reflects the local landscape to invite people to respond with stories about their experiences as part of that community. Sometimes it is more specific, such as the use of suitcases as a platform for drawing people out in sharing stories and feelings about the experience of living in Fly-In-Fly-Out communities.
Other projects, such as Pistil and Breaking Cycle (Lizard Tail) are driven by specific areas of research that I am intently interested in, and members of the public are invited to contribute in different ways such as donating fabric or objects to be incorporated, or to participate in the creation of sculptural elements, or even performance.
What does a typical day involve for you?
As my work often involves travel away from home and long days, when I am here I try to focus as much as possible on my family, prioritizing regular, healthy routines, and being mindful. I watch the sky and sunrise whenever I can, and concentrate on all the things in my life that I have to be thankful for.
I read and write for about 30 minutes, then the daily parenting routines. During school hours, I work in my studio. These are my hours of being intently focused on making art. When the children come home, they join me in my studio. We try to spend time at the beach as a family each day – even thirty minutes – for fresh air and exercise. I spend time with my family in the evening, and then I work again after children go to bed, usually catching up with emails, reading, and developing ideas
Of course before an exhibition deadline, all of this changes. I work 15 hours per day in the studio, or onsite installing. This schedule, along with frequent flights and travel away from home, can be very exhausting and stressful, particularly when I am missing my family. But I also enjoy these periods of intense focus on art.
For me, it is very important to try to balance the extremes by really focusing on health and well-being every chance I get, so that both myself and my family are resilient during the intense times. I am very fortunate that my family is supportive of my practice, and I try to ensure they are well supported by me too.
Your latest exhibition, Healing Chromosomes, involves photography, performance and installation in the form of a DNA double helix structure, which has been constructed using colours from the healing palette. The project concept arose from your fascination with wires and cables, and it makes a point about human dependence on technological devices. Can you tell us more?
This work is about my search for the invisible life line. We are bound by cables and our fragile and complex attachment to technology. What is this dependency doing to our mind, soul and relationships? I am concerned that we are changing dramatically, even at the epigenetic level (where changes to gene expression can be influenced by our environment and interactions).
In terms of the conceptual aspect, I have been working on this for 12 months and it’s been well considered… I hope! This time has led me to wonder how we recharge and reconnect as human beings. For me, art is the most powerful way to achieve this – it provides a safe space to explore ideas, take risks, and work through things that we are constantly pressured to just push past in our daily lives. It stimulates discussion and critical thinking. It can help to foster empathy. All of these help to counter the rising tide of anxiety, fear and divisiveness that has driven events like Brexit and the Trump Presidency.
‘Craftivism’ is gaining traction today. Historically it has been criticised as an inferior-form of art, created almost exclusively by women. What do you think about this movement?
Every day, we are finding there is wisdom and relevance in traditional forms of creativity that were often sidelined as ‘women’s hobbies’. For example, there is a growing understanding of how many of the meditative and focused activities involved in craft are very beneficial in stimulating healthy brain activity.
I think that women have always found very creative and subtle ways to make statements, whether or not they were even conscious of it. Even ancient texts, like Genji Monogatari, are filled with examples of how women used art as a way of communicating – striking a particular note on the koto to express displeasure, witticisms in poetry, messages conveyed through the layering of colour. Really it seems to be an ancient and well-practiced art form, that is perhaps gaining prominence as more women rediscover the joys of different types of creative expression.
Who are some Australia-based designers, artists or creative people you find inspiring?
Fiona Hall – She is a very powerful and significant Australian artist, whose work deals with many ideas that I am interested in. She was the first artist to do a residency with the University of Queensland Brain Institute. As my work focuses a lot on concepts from the neurosciences (such as how specific types of arts engagement can benefit brain development and recovery, or slow degenerative processes), I am inspired by Fiona’s leadership in working with neuroscientists.
Patricia Piccinini – Her work Skywhale, which was featured at Splendour in the Grass in 2014, brought me tears. Patricia’s work blurs lines and poses questions that intrigue me, such as creating creatures that are part human, part alien.
Helen Miller – a close friend and colleague, Helen is a costume designer who I have worked closely with over the years on performances. Her work is absolutely beautiful, and she has a way of being able to capture what I am trying to express as a performer in her costume design.
Craig Walsh – he is, of course, my husband and we have collaborated on many projects together, but his work continues to inspire and amaze me.
What resources do you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
New Scientist – I love reading about the latest discoveries in science, particularly around brain science, as well as health and healing.
Biology – I often use inspiration from nature to tease out a concept. For example, the work Sea Tears uses the sea horse as a metaphor for the hippocampus a major component of the brain. So it is fascinating to learn about the unique features of this sea creature, and think about how this inter-relates with the creation of an artwork.
Colour psychology – I often research colours that have a specific role or function in the creation of artwork, and I am fascinated by the rationale behind why different colours are used in health care settings, for their effect on our emotions and stimulation for example.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
Being a mother of two very energetic children. No matter what else I achieve in my life, parenting is both the most challenging and rewarding thing for me. I always worry that I am not able to give them enough time, energy and attention, but I will keep trying to do my best for my children. Becoming a mother taught me a very simple fact that being healthy comes first, and we have to take care of ourselves so that we can care for others too. I want to believe that our brain and body have an amazing natural immune system, and if we dedicate ourselves to good practices, we can all be healthy.
What would be your dream creative project?
More than anything, I would like to build my knowledge of how art can be used to effect positive brain and health outcomes for people in different ways, and create works that will benefit people who need it, such as those affected by dementia or other types of degenerative disease, children with specific developmental needs, and people seeking to improve their mental health.
There is a growing body of evidence around particular aspects of brain function and how specific types of arts engagement can be beneficial, and I would like my legacy to be as an artist who helps to advance this field.
My dream project would be to open my own Art Hotel, Hiromi Hotel. This is a concept that has been growing for many years, and over different iterations, as a space where people can stop by, share a story, be inspired, rejuvenate and heal – healing through being immersed in art. The art might be in the design of the space, how a colour makes you feel, or the cathartic release of sharing your story and connecting with others, as well as other ways of fostering wellness such as massage, yoga and mindfulness. I love creating beautiful spaces that engage all the senses through light, sound, aroma, touch and movement. I would love it if this could become a permanent place where anyone could check in.
What’s next for Hiromi Tango?
There are a few upcoming projects that I have been working toward, including a commissioned work that launched in Melbourne this week, at Vue de monde, Dom Perignon Magic Room, and my solo exhibition currently on until April 22nd at Sullivan+Strumpf in Sydney. After this, there will be a Singapore Art Museum exhibition, which opens early May.
Then I am hoping to stay closer to home for a little while, to spend time with my family and enjoy the cooler months. There is also the possibility of a residency with the Brain Institute and Art Museum at University of Queensland in Brisbane, where I will be able to learn more about neuroscience from the experts, and develop new art works.
Tweed Heads QUESTIONS
What was the best meal you recently had in Tweed Heads?
With two young children, we actually don’t eat out much. I love cooking at home, and sourcing fresh ingredients from local markets, such as Currumbin Markets.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
If I am at home, enjoying time with my daughters and husband.
What is Tweed Heads’ best kept secret?
The mangroves – they are teeming with diverse life, and are a great example of resilience in nature. I love spending time there. We are so fortunate to live in such a beautiful climate with so many peaceful places to just slow down and nurture our minds and bodies.
Healing Chromosomes by Hiromi Tango
From April 1st to 22nd
Exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf Gallery
799 Elizabeth St
Zetland, Sydney NSW
For more on Hiromi Tango’s unique art practice and detailed essays on her specific projects, visit her website, here.