Remembering Tari Ito
1951–September 22, 2021
Tari Ito was a Japanese performance artist, organizer, and activist whose work was featured in events across Asia, Europe and North America. She died earlier this year after a ten-year struggle with ALS—an enormous challenge for an artist whose practice was so intensely focused on body movement. She was greatly loved and respected, and many of us mourn her passing.
I first met Tari in 1990, when she took part in a nine-city Canadian tour of Japanese performance artists, coordinated by Vancouver’s Western Front. She and fellow artist Haruo Higuma spent a week in Toronto, presenting solo works at A Space and also participating in an open “jam” session with local artists. As I recall, it was Pam Patterson and I, working as members of A Space’s performance art committee, who coordinated Tari’s and Haruo’s Toronto appearances.
For that project, Tari was performing a work she called Memory of the Epidermis, which involved painting large panels of latex “skin” onto the gallery’s floor in advance of her performance. For the Toronto version, she had to improvise using skin she had already created when she could not find the right kind of rubber latex locally. One of her skin objects was a giant balloon-like rubber sphere, as large as her body, which she ended up pushing, bouncing and rolling around the gallery space before finally corralling it in a corner, all the while speaking to it in Japanese—later she told me her words were something to the effect of “What is this giant blister?”
The work was visual, aural, and above all kinetic, expressing complex relationships and feelings primarily through movement. The rhythm and texture of the performance was varied, ranging from slow, careful gestures to repetitive, staccato motions, always seemingly in reaction to the elasticity of the latex, which could appear either durable or fragile depending on how it was handled. It did not matter that most of us could not understand what Tari was saying in Japanese as she worked with giant sphere: her tone and intonation, and above all her physical interaction with the wobbly figure, were deeply expressive. This visual and gestural communication was also evident in the performance jam, where several of us worked simultaneously without speaking, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes infiltrating or adding to each other’s actions and visuals, creating a striking series of images that I still remember, some of them as accomplished and polished as a finished performance work. It was a charmed encounter.
The next time I saw Tari was a year later, when she invited me to Japan to take part in the Tajima Performance Festival, co-organized by Yoshimichi Takei and Kyo Hoshino through the auspices of a private group called Scorpio Project. This was the second (and final) iteration of the festival, which took place at the site of the abandoned Yaso copper mine in Japan’s Fukushima district. Billed as a performance art “camp,” the festival was a unique event that brought together performance artists, noise artists, video artists, and Butoh dancers for a week in the countryside, all of us bunking together on the floors of an old wooden schoolhouse. A group of volunteers prepared three meals a day for the participants, who numbered well over a hundred, and performances were self-scheduled using a large blackboard. Each day, artists who wished to perform would write down the time and place (e.g., the quarry, the dam, the schoolhouse grounds, the school gymnasium) of their project, and all of those not caught up in their own preparations or performances would form an audience. Events began each day right after breakfast and continued late into the evening.
One of the events that Tari organized during the Tajima event was a discussion featuring Clive Robertson, who was then the National Spokesperson for the now-defunct ANNPAC/RACA (Association of National Non-Profit Artist-run Centres/Regroupement D’artistes des Centres Alternatifs). Tari had been deeply impressed by the Canadian artist-run network she discovered on her Canadian tour, and she was hoping that hearing about Canada’s artist network might inspire her Japanese colleagues to band together to create something similar in Japan. Much to Tari’s disappointment, the reception to this discussion was somewhat tepid. Rather than embracing the Canadian example as a possible model for artist-driven organizing, the response of those attending seemed to be that Japan should develop its own ways of organizing rather than looking elsewhere for inspiration. This did not deter Tari’s vision of a supportive artist network, however. Over the years she contributed to a number of feminist art groups, first as part of a collective called afa (Asian Feminist Art), and later founding WAN, the Women’s Art Network, followed by PA/F Space (Performance/Feminist Space).
Despite her soft-spoken demeanour, Tari had a strident spirit of generosity. Not only did she introduce me to many local artists and even help me find other performance opportunities during my three-month stay in Japan; she also invited all of the Canadian artists who were at the Tajima festival to visit her home in Tokyo, where she lived with her parents. This kind of intimacy was unusual in Japan, where the usual protocol was to meet foreigners at a restaurant. The day of the dinner, there was a torrential downpour, and I arrived at her house completely soaked. She was insistent on putting me in her father’s pyjamas (the only clothes in the house loose enough to fit me) while she washed and dried my clothes. I was embarrassed, but grateful for her kindness.
If Tari’s connection to Canada proved inspirational for her, it is also important to acknowledge that her presence also played a catalytic role in the development of Toronto’s performance art infrastructure. Tari returned to Toronto in 1993 when she was invited to participate in the Mayworks Festival of Working People by then-director Pat Jeffries, whom Tari had met on her earlier Canadian tour. After Mayworks, Tari stayed in Toronto to explore a romantic relationship with Pat, and she also developed friendships with a number of local artists. When it became apparent that Tari would be in Toronto for an extended period of time, Sandy McFadden, who knew Tari from her time living and working in Japan, suggested to me that we should organize an event for Tari. Here was an internationally known Japanese artist, living in our midst, and Toronto should have more of a chance to discover her work.
This became the impetus for starting FADO. Sandy, Pam, Ed Johnson, Bernice Kaye and I met in my bedroom one summer day and formed an ad hoc collective to plan our first event, a presentation of Tari’s work. Through my involvement with A Space, which had set aside funds that it would hand out to groups organizing art events as part of its community outreach efforts, I was able to secure enough money to pay for the production costs and a modest artist fee for Tari. Tari wanted to do her performance in a large warehouse space at 1400 Dupont Street, which she had become familiar with from visiting the studio of visual artist Aiko Suzuki. Aiko facilitated a meeting with the building manager, and we were able to convince him to allow us to use the large, unfinished central hall—a huge space, 20 by 50 metres—for Tari’s performance.
At the time, we had no idea of the trajectory FADO would take, how it would eventually transform into a funded artist-run centre for performance art, or how another FADO event initiated by Sandy, an international performance art festival at CinceCycle in 1996 co-sponsored by Le Lieu in Quebec, would inspire the development of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. Still, this first project, taking advantage of Tari’s presence in Toronto, already laid the groundwork for what would become FADO’s signature production strategy: an ambitious, site-specific event, cobbled together on a shoestring as an act of faith and community-building. Had it not been for Tari, there likely never would have been a FADO. I am profoundly grateful for the auspicious beginning she provided.
For her Dupont Street performance, Tari created a new work in her Memory of the Epidermis series, called FACE. One section of the performance featured a row of latex smocks hanging from the ceiling at intervals across the length of the space. Tari followed this line, stepping up to each one and draping it onto her torso until she was covered in a thick layering of skins. Another section featured a very large hanging sheet of latex, 4 by 10 metres, that she punctured and penetrated with her arms. Part of the genesis of these images, she told me, was an unlikely Toronto sight that had captured her imagination. She was intrigued by the telephone poles she saw on the street, covered with staples from guerrilla postering. She found these textured layerings fascinating and beautiful, and was struck by the way they gave evidence of a history of piercing, covering, and removal. For her, they were evocative of the rubber skins she created in her work, which carried with them the inverse outlines of the surfaces they had been painted onto. A video recording of both the preparatory process of creating the skins and parts of the live performance uploaded to YouTube is linked to Tari’s artist page on the FADO website.
Soon after the FACE performance, Tari returned to Japan when her relationship with Pat ended. I wondered what it would be like for Tari returning to Japan, where being a lesbian—or even identifying as a feminist—could be an isolating experience. Tari’s response was to become much more overtly political and activist. In 1996, she “came out” publicly in a performance work called Self-portrait, which was eventually presented in 26 different venues, including Toronto, where she was part of the Rencontre festival organized by Sandy McFadden for FADO at CineCyle. For Tari, this work signalled a profound shift in her understanding of her art practice, which she realized could be used to convey powerful personal and social messages. Alongside her performances and visual art projects, Tari also began to actively develop and promote feminist and lesbian events, networks, and spaces that spanned beyond Japan’s borders to other Asian countries including Korea and Thailand.
The last direct involvement I had with Tari’s work was in 2002, when Rochelle Holt curated an exhibition of her work at A Space. The opening night performance, Where is the Fear?, was co-sponsored by the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. Where is the Fear? was an openly lesbian performance with elements of audience participation that Tari developed in part as a response to homophobic remarks by then Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro. Tari presented this work in various Japanese venues as well as Toronto, noting in her book Move, “Sexual minorities live in fear of prejudice. Fear lies in the hearts of people who feel frightened of the idea that there are many different kinds of people in the world” (p. 109).
Tari made several other visits to Canada over the course of her career, including an appearance at Montreal’s Viva! Art Action Festival in 2006 where she presented Rubber Tit. That performance featured a 2.5 metre-tall inflated rubber tit, which I like to think of as the logical progression of Tari’s “blister” from her early A Space performance. One of her final performances—after a four-year break from performing—was at the LIVE Biennale in Vancouver in October 2019, where she presented Before the 37 Trillion Pieces Get to Sleep, a work that Tari developed in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. For this work, curated by Makiko Hara for LIVE, Tari appeared in a wheelchair, and was then laid on large pieces of paper while assistants repeatedly traced the outline of her figure. Tari said of this performance, “The body losing its muscles nonetheless continues to live on. For this reason, I want to stay close to the memories of ‘my body and others’ that were forced into silence or forced to be silent.” A moving description of the performance by Katherine Chan, along with photo documentation by Alisha Weng, can be found on LIVE’s website.
I had hoped to bring Tari to Toronto as part of the same tour, to present her work in the context of the KinesTHESES series. Tari wanted very much to return to Toronto, but her deteriorating health made including an additional venue impossible. I suggested that we could perhaps find a way for her to develop the performance remotely, using local bodies to stand in for hers, but such an approach did not fit her vision of the project. She understood her own disabled body to be a key element of the work. She told me that if her body had not been so profoundly compromised, working remotely might have offered an interesting challenge, but precisely because, as she wrote in her hesitant but poetic English, “I stare at the body that is stuck,” she felt it was essential for her to work with her own body, doing only what her own skin, bones, and muscles could accomplish in direct relationship with an audience. The closest the project could get to Toronto was when Pam Patterson’s WIA Projects featured a video installation of the work at Gallery 1313’s Window Box Gallery in early 2020, just as the world was beginning to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
I was sad not to have had an opportunity to work with Tari again, but I rejoice in her ongoing legacy—her performances, which moved audiences on several continents; her organizing and networking efforts, which brought together many artists over several decades; her championing of women’s and minority voices; and, of course, her surprising role in Toronto’s performance art development. And so, I would like to share with you Tari’s humble words from Move’s “afterword,” which seem to me very reflective of her spirit:
“I believe that the joy of performance art comes from wondering what makes a particular artist engage in a certain action with all of their heart and soul. For this reason, it is actually when I am sitting within the audience of a performance art piece—rather than onstage—that I am the happiest” (p. 185).
Surely, she shared this happiness with others through her own life and career.
Paul Couillard, October 2021
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