The Mother Project; Hiromi Tango

Arc Biennial, Brisbane
October 2007

When you meet Hiromi Tango it is difficult to separate the person from her work. She (it—the art) is energetic, insightful, gregarious, generous. Yet her works are not altogether about her—Tango’s presence within projects has at times been evasive, even absent. Her focus is directed firmly toward us. She is earnest in pointing out that we, positioned as audience-collaborators, may continue ‘working’ without her, and even after a project is complete. On the other hand, the practice is about Tango (is her … is of her) inasmuch as it begins with her and implies her presence (or absence), movements and encounters.

Tango has titled her latest project Mother. This is an apt metaphor as there is a strong motherliness about the work, and about Tango herself. She creates and nurtures communities by instigating connections between people; meanwhile her own identity can be somewhat effaced. She regularly gifts food, massages and clothing to strangers (who then become friends, or at least acquaintances). It is an idealistic practice, to be sure. However, the potential for too much ‘warm and fuzziness’ is countered by the works’ certain rawness, the organic way in which they develop in response to their surrounds, and the unpredictable ways in which ‘participants’ become involved. Tango’s practice inquires of the fundamentals of human relations: in what ways do we encounter each other and what are the possibilities for meaningful connections to be made? These can be as unsatisfying and shallow as much as they can be intimate and motherly.

As for Mother, this project was started between October and November 2007. It was based around the idea of the home, of generosity and sacrifice. It was also occasionally demanding. It began as a Perspex cube on Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall, wedged under the eaves of a nearby restaurant. Tango and three invited collaborators, Claire Robertson, Natasha Cordasic and Kay Lawrence spent time there, brought materials, objects from their homes, and met people. Passers-by exchanged stories, chat and intimacies, added notes, drawings and gifts to the structure. After one month, the whole (looking part beloved cubby house, part shelter for the homeless) was moved to reside in Tango’s own living room and has become, informally at least, the Hiromi Hotel. It welcomes friends and acquaintances for free hospitality. One can lie inside and feel cosy among a patchwork of ephemera collected from numerous people united by this small space. It does not end there, with Tango now looking to send the Hotel, minus its public adornments, on a residential tour, for its new hosts to continue using as they please.

Tango’s relational projects have seen her not only collaborate with others but effectively hand over the work to them to shape, as in Mother where Robertson, Cordasic and Lawrence became ‘co-directors’. Such projects involve physical, conversational, written or visual exchanges with others, with the idea that works are formed within this process and that an end result is never defined. Tango’s series of ‘to be continued’ projects (2006-ongoing) have involved her setting up residence in and around commercial or gallery window spaces—sites that are open enough for locals to stop and engage with if their interest is sparked, or ignore as part of the urban traffic. Tango’s encounters with passers-by can be fleeting: they may stop for a brief chat before moving on, or (as in the past) may invite the artist to dinner or to their homes to stay overnight. Tango’s Talking Project (2006) ‘simply’ recorded her conversations with every person with whom she came into contact during an eight-month period, including many she approached on the street to talk about ‘anything they liked’.

These collaborative gestures pose another reason, to return to the opening statements, why it is difficult to determine whether the work is about Tango, or even like Tango (quite apart from the fact that they are made with others). It is similar to the sense one can have when conversing with another: ‘how much of the exchange is me and how much of it is them?’ Tango’s practice hones in on these seemingly indistinguishable balances and minutiae of human interaction. These are the very elements that make conversation—and in particular, collaboration—possible or meaningful. In turn, Tango asks: what are the possibilities of knowing someone else, a lover, a friend, a mother, and how deeply? And what are the possibilities for knowing myself? In many ways, the practice sheds light on unknowability and on the shortfalls of communication. It poses us as individuals able to share periods of intimacy, some so deep that we seem to absorb the other, but equally it highlights the spaces in between these moments.