Investigating Megumi Igarashi’s Work as Art Activism

I began focusing on Megumi Igarashi as an art activist who addresses prejudice against female genitalia beginning with her “Let’s play with Manko(vaginas), the Scietntific Exhibition for Kids”(Yoiko no kagaku man koten) exhibition at the Shinjuku Ophthalmologist Gallery.

This essay uses the concept of the “event work” to interpret the exhibition as a project that causes social change.

According to Igarashi, the title suggests that anyone who would like to can casually drop by this “theme park of vaginas”-like scientce museum for kids to learn and “play”.

“Event work” is a concept proposed by Brian Holmes to clarify how art activism can work to form an alternative culture. There are four features of the event work: critical research, participatory art, networked communication and strategies of mass-media penetration, and heterogeneous collaboration and self-organization.

First, as far as critical research, Igarashi studied the history of how female genitalia became taboo. Her information came from a 1998 NHK-Education TV programme: “A Boy Can Call a Penis a Dick, but What About a Girl?: What Should We Call Femele Genitalia – 1500 years of History and the Current Situation.” In response, Igarashi created original characters (Pussy-chan and Mr.Penis) and panels with captions to explain the mystery in plain Japanese that even children could understand.

These explanations examined the following things: the transition of names for female genitalia from ancient times to the present; classification of different designations for female genitalia in each region; and an episodes in Japanese history where a name for female genitalia was used as the name of princess to imply her importance and sacredness.

These historical facts are unknown to most people, and thus the exhibition was designed to make audiences aware of their prejudices about female genitalia and how this prejudices has been shaped by culture, history, and education.

The second element, participatory art, is one of the main features of Megumi Igarashi’s art practice. In the exhibition, each visitor could write words for female genitalia in their local dialect on a Japanese map and interact with a specially-modified iPad. Igarashi created a special Shiri(buttocks) app that only responds to the word manko(pussy). Igarashi created the function after discovering the original Siri app included with iPhones and iPads does not respond to questions using the term.

Beyond the exhibition itself, Igarashi’s “Deco-man” workshops can be seen as a more proactive form of participatory art. Deco-man is Igarashi’s series of vagina-moulded sculptures. Deco is short for decoration, and Igarashi’s sculptures are inspired by the way young women popularly decorate their smart phones with rhinestones and cute stickers. Deco-man workshops allow for women’s self-expression through moulding one’s own female genitalia sculpture while communicating with other participants, thus raising their self-esteem. The workshop provides a fun opportunity to overturn women’s image of female genitalia.

Third, using “networked communication,” Igarashi effectively utilized SNS services in the wake of her arrest to build a support network and reach the mass media both in Japan and internationally. Her main assertion in these networked communications is a regection of prejudice against female genitalia. She insists that her vagina is not obscene. Her comments assert the rights of women: “The vagina has been thought to be obscene because it has been overly hidden. But it is just a part of a women’s body”.

Igarashi began her career as a cartoonist, and also wrote a column for a web magazine. She has apprared in popular magazines aimed at middle-aged men, and has been interviewed by the Huffington Post. She has already proactively transformed episodes from the trial into a manga for a weekly magazine, and has even published two books. Additionally, she has used Facebook and Twitter to propagate her messages about the injustice of her arrest and discrimination against female genitalia to more people.

The forth element of an “event work” is heterogeneous collaboration and self-organization. In producing artworks such as Man-boat(A vagina-shaped kayak produced using 3D printer technorology), iPhone applications, and consumer goods utilizing grphic design, Igarashi has collaborated with other professionals. She arrived at the idea of crowdfunding and Deko-man through conversation with friends working in different contexts and media, and it made her aware of the possibility of more diverse artistic activities.

As mentioned earlier, the fourfold matrix of an “event work” maps a way to create an art practice that can effectively bring about social change. In Igarashi’s case, it provides an opportunity for women to rethink the relationship between the female body and the social and cultural values ascribed to it.

The purpose of Igarashi’s art is to fundamentally dismantle deep-rooted social prejudices surrounding female genitalia. At the same time, her work provides a context where participants can have fun exercising their imaginations. News of her arrest could have quickly been forgotten, but due to her bold response and media strategy she has been able to spur on a continuing debate.

Holmes proposes that “activism is the making common of desire and a resolve to change the forms of living, under uncertain conditions, without any guarantees.” Megumi Igarashi is not restricted by the norms and techniques of traditional art. This is to her advantage, as she is able to flexibly adapt to the situation and survive in a very unstable society.

———————————————————-This art review was on the art exhibition’s catalogue and it translated in three language.

Ai Kano (2014) ‘Investigating Megumi Igarashi’s Work as Art Activism’ in “Gender, Genitor, Genitalia -Rokudenashiko Tribute”, Genderm Genitor, Genitalia Exhibition Committee, pp.46-48(English),

狩野愛(2014)「五十嵐惠的藝術行動」『性別, 父親, 生殖器ー向Rokudenashiko致敬』, Genderm Genitor, Genitalia Exhibition Committee, pp.49-51(中國),

狩野愛(2014)「ろくでなし子に見るアート・アクティヴィズム」『ジェンダー、ジェニター、ジェニタリアーろくでなし子トリビュート, Genderm Genitor, Genitalia Exhibition Committee, pp.52-53(日本語).

※The venue of the exhibition was held in Woofer Ten which was one of the most interesting alternative community space against gentrification in Hong Kong. They had to close the place in 2014 due to cutting the budget by the  local government.