Full spectrum: the broad-reaching appeal of Hiromi Tango

Japanese Australian artist Hiromi Tango brings together knowledge embedded in rituals with ancient origins and scientific innovation to create sites for healing.
Hiromi Tango demonstrating the ritual wearing of all donated items prior to her incorporating parts of them into her installations during a workshop at Museum of Brisbane in October 2023. Photo: ArtsHub.

The appeal of Hiromi Tango appears to be extending beyond the Australian art sector. In 2022 and 2023, large installations, manufactured to her specifications, graced Dark Mofo and the Brisbane Festival respectively. The former resulted from a partnership with the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. The subsequent artwork, Wheel, was also exhibited at the Science Gallery in Melbourne and the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. Similarly, the latter was developed through the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). These and numerous other exhibitions have yielded mentions in a multiplicity of media outlets in the fields of art, science, health, fashion and lifestyle.  

Collaborations with scientists

Head of Advancement and Engagement at the IMB, Wendy Mansell, offers her perspective on the two aforementioned partnerships.

She tells ArtsHub: ‘Hiromi has been collaborating with scientists for a number of years, including her earlier work with Dr Emma Burrows at the Florey Institute. [She] is a neuroscientist who worked with Hiromi to explore the brain response to vibrant environments.

‘Professor David Craik [from the IMB] connected [Hiromi’s] interest in cycles with the resilience of certain plant protein structures [or] cyclical peptides to the ability of plant medicines to survive the digestive system, as well as awakening new possibilities for sustainability and healing through medicine in plants,’ continues Mansell.

A love of artists

One of the most remarkable aspects of Tango’s meteoric rise in the Australian art scene, and beyond, is that the artist has not received formal training in visual arts. During her Bachelor of Arts, Humanities and Culture of Arts, she volunteered at the Takadanobaba art residency program. Her partner, Craig Walsh, was among the artists she assisted from the Australia Council of the Arts. After immigrating in 1998, at the height of the Hanson era, Tango says: ‘As the young migrant, I was only 22, but I wanted to be an Australian.’

During the 2000s, Tango found an affinity with the artworks by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. ‘We’re so similar,’ says Tango, ‘it’s like mirroring.’

A re-creation of Narcissus Garden, a set of highly reflective silver balls that Kusama installed as an unofficial entry to the Venice Biennale in 1966, was commissioned for APT4. A graduate of the Kyoto City University of Arts, Kusama played an integral role in the evolution of participatory art through her happenings in New York during the 1960s. She broke down barriers between audience and artist by applying her signature polka dots as body paint to otherwise naked dancers in public spaces across the city. The multidisciplinary artist began these abstract paintings in response to her hallucinations, which commenced in childhood. Kusama has been living in Tokyo’s Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill since 1977.

Aside from an apparent love of dance, which Tango perceives as offering a pathway to healing, both artists are candid about their neurodiversity. While Kusama has described experiences of neglect from her disapproving and promiscuous parents, Tango has discussed domestic violence she witnessed as a child. Kusama has declared, ‘Art is the only method I have found to relieve my illness.’ Tango’s collaborations with scientists not only seek to address her own anxiety, OCD and depression, but create sites for healing that others can access.

An artistic awakening

Tango explains that the catalyst for her transition from art administrator to artist was the Yokohama Triennale of Contemporary Art, in which Walsh exhibited in 2005.

‘The exhibition was called Jumping from the Ordinary,’ says Tango. ‘When I was involved in that exhibition as the artist’s wife, that was really when I thought I would like to engage more … that was the direct influence.’

Tango describes her favourite artwork in the Triennale, Matter of Course, Luc “Umbrella” Deleu by Sadaharu Horio, as a ‘large group of people moving around [with] umbrellas – like everyday [umbrellas] – a big, big line’. She continues: ‘I was curious; I don’t know what they were achieving and the history, but it was so colourful and beautiful – a large mass of people just moving umbrellas.’

Audiences in Australia may find parts of Tango’s practice equally enigmatic. While in the Western art cannon the foundations for participatory art were laid by the Futurists, the origins of the techniques and principles engaged by Tango could be far older.

A foundation in tradition

At the time of Tango’s birth in 1976, her home of Shikoku Island was only accessible by boat. While the artist is reluctant to make reference to religion, it was in her community during the ninth century that Shingon Buddhism was founded. The belief that the body and mind can be trained, reclaimed and liberated by engaging in rituals, including meditation, is a distinguishing attribute of the sect. It was a priest from the Shingon Buddhist Choen-ji Temple, Roko-an Gido, who created the designs for the 1797 book, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (The Secret to Folding 1000 Cranes), regarded as the first instructional origami book and possibly the origin of the myth referenced in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr.

Tango recalls making cranes for peace, as per the post-World War II tradition captured in the aforementioned US biography. ‘My extended family were victims of the atomic bomb, because [home] is very close to Hiroshima.’ With a “Shintō-Buddhist” father and a “Jōdo-shū Buddhist” mother – which according to Hiromi was an unlikely pairing on Shikoku Island in the 20th century – daily life was steeped in ritual.

In a promotion for Brainbow Magic, as part of Brisbane Festival, Tango appeared in white. Symbolising purity in Shintōism and death in Buddhism, the shade was traditionally reserved for priests, brides and corpses. While Kusama explicitly adopted the persona of a priestess in Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street in 1968, Tango could be considered more discrete in her signalling. The former also cited sexual repression and, conversely, trauma born of witnessing extramarital affairs of a parent as sources of inspiration, if not compulsion, for making art. Similar interpretations have been applied to Tango, making an association between her “process” and “bondage”. The reading could be considered a poor fit for an artist who states that her artwork ‘[has] always [been] dedicated to humanity and women’s rights’.

From the mid-2000s, Tango began repurposing textiles by tying them together using a technique that bears some resemblance to “wrapping stitch”. As opposed to coiling the material into a mat or a basket, however, she secures them as entangled masses with elegant protrusions. Notably, part of her process involves the self-adornment of each donated item. She explains the principle with respect to the sharing of kimonos among family members.

‘When you wear someone’s clothes it is respect and [the clothing] get imprinted with energy,’ says Tango. This practice could relate to Tsukumogami, which is the concept of inanimate objects being embedded with spirits. It is present in both Shingon Buddhist and Shintō doctrine. Tango’s practice of encircling with string could relate to the purifying process of Shimenawa. Some of the 88 temples on Shikoku Island have retained this Shintō practice of sanctification using a boundary of rope.

‘We all learn, since we are in kindergarten,’ Tango says. ‘We make, sometimes together – it’s women’s work for purifying spirits.’

A culture of autonomy

Tango’s relational artworks provide a space for interaction and she encourages autonomy in expression. With an overarching sentiment that engagement in art can heal, her exhibitions are intended to serve each and every participant.

‘Do not tell [the participants] what to do,’ Tango says. ‘Provide enough colours, sizes and materials, so everyone can pick up and do whatever they feel like.

‘Some people may not like textiles, then some people might do some photography; some of the participants make poems. So we try to find a way to define what a connection looks like.’

Not unlike the matriarch of performance art, Marina Abramović, the artist is not always present in her installations. For instance, nurse and origami artist Makiko Ramsay has been engaged to run workshops in preparation for Tango’s forthcoming exhibition, Healing Garden, at The Condensery. In a way, Tango’s role may not be dissimilar to Roko-an Gido’s creation of origami designs. She has set parameters in place and it is in the procedures, as enacted by others, where the art resides. The result is empowerment and healing for the participants.

An amalgamation of technologies

Tango often discusses her output in scientific terms, which suits the present cultural climate in Australia. Over the past decade, initiatives like the Science Gallery have sought to rectify a rift between the arts and sciences. According to Pamela H Smith, author of the Body of the Artisan, this “dividing of ways” began at the end of the Renaissance.

Tango’s narrative inquiries into her own mental health present a powerful testimony of neuroplasticity that is multimodal and, subsequently, highly accessible in delivery. The autobiographical elements may be timely in this post-COVID era, and her methods and materials may have currency in an age favouring both craft and relational art. However, her reinterpretations of rituals rooted in Japanese traditions could be considered timeless. They present significant value within an ethnographic framework.

Tango draws on tacit knowledge, embedded in the rituals passed down through generations of her family and the families of her participants. It may be in this amalgamation of ancient and contemporary technologies that her widespread appeal lies, one that appears to extend beyond the boundaries of age, gender and culture.

Residents and visitors to Southern Queensland may experience Healing Garden by Hiromi Tango at The Condensery in Somerset between 9 December 2023 and 18 February 2024.

This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling) is a Brisbane-based an artist and writer. During her Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from Griffith University, she researched post-digital applications for traditional Chinese papercutting. Since 1997, she has exhibited across Europe, Asia, North America and Australia. The collections to house examples of her artwork include: the Huaxia Papercutting Museum in Changsha, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra and the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide. She has also contributed to variety of publications such as: the Information, Medium and Society Journal of Publishing, M/C Journal, Art Education Australia, 716 Craft and Design and Garland Magazine.