Etsuko Ichihara sneaks humor, critiques into art

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Etsuko Ichihara sits in front of the “Server Mikoshi,” a portable shrine she created with Taiki Watai. It was used in Ichihara’s work “Kaso Tsuka Honosai” (Virtual Currency Offering Festival).

A daikon radish that emits sensual moans when touched, a robot wearing a mask printed with the 3D image of a human face, a mikoshi portable shrine adorned with blinking LED lights — all are just a few examples of media artist Etsuko Ichihara’s work. Pointed messages lurk inside their impact and humor.

Ichihara won the excellence award in the entertainment division of the Cultural Affairs Agency’s Japan Media Art Festival in 2017. The following year, she won the honorary award in the Interactive Art+ division at Ars Electronica, a media art festival in Austria. She was also chosen by weekly Spa! magazine as one of 100 people expected to change Japan.

Ichihara was born in 1988 in Aichi Prefecture. Her father’s job meant they moved a lot, and she had to change schools many times.

“I always managed to make friends by drawing pictures of Pikachu during breaks, for example,” she said. Being good at drawing was a useful skill that gave her a quick way to introduce herself and build relationships.

Although she loved drawing, she went to Waseda University’s School of Culture, Media and Society instead of going to an art college. She thought she would be able to study a little about creative art in the school as well, but it turned out the course barely offered any class teaching artistic skills.

Filled with regret, she thought she would never become a creator. Instead, she would be doomed to stay as an art observer for the rest of her life, she felt.

To relieve the enormous stress she was under at the time, she explored many interests, such as sneaking into a computer programming class, studying how to use design software by herself, traveling alone and joining a series of student circles if they looked relevant to the creative arts.

She vented her frustration in 2009 by creating “Sekuhara Interface” (Sexual harassment interface), a work of interactive art featuring daikon radishes that make erotic noises when caressed. The work was inspired by her becoming interested in visiting shrines with phallic worship and so-called hihokan adult museums across the country, according to Ichihara. She went on to write her thesis on the work.

Fortune favors the brave

“Artworks I made during my university days were full of insecurity and the whims of youth,” she said, so she began working as a designer at an information technology company after graduating.

Surrounded by competent people at the workplace, she soon started feeling her limits as a designer. On the other hand, she started winning prizes at art competitions, which raised her profile. She quietly and diligently created the award-winning works in her spare time.

In 2016, she quit the company and went independent upon the suggestion of a fortune-teller, whom she casually consulted. The fortune-teller told her: “If you continue to work there, I think you will break your leg. Your guardian spirit hates to see you work in an organization.” A month later, she slipped on a staircase and actually broke her leg. That was when she decided to quit, she said.

Perhaps her reasons for leaving the company were fitting for an artist who takes on traditions, faiths and rituals as the subjects of her work.

Social commentary is hidden in the humor, engaging quality and approachability of Ichihara’s works, which are produced using digital technology. There is a clear awareness of the connection between society and art.

“Sekuhara Interface” implies feminism and gender issues. “Digital Shaman Project,” which is about making mock conversations with the dead through a humanoid robot, prompts viewers to think about how they should prepare for their death and how to ceremoniously bury the dead, which leads to questions regarding the meaning of mortality today. “Server Mikoshi,” in which one can deposit the virtual currency bitcoin, indicates the arrival of a cashless age and sheds light on the original meaning of rituals by applying contemporary interpretations to traditional festivals and rites.

Photo by Masashi Kuroha
“Digital Shaman Project”

Ichihara has been noted for her activities beyond creating artwork as well. She was appointed as the creator to design the basic concept for the Japan pavilion at the 2025 Osaka-Kansai world expo; she has taken on the challenge of acting as a TV news show commentator; and she created a buzz on social media after posting about her strange hobby of cooking in-flight meals at home. She started the hobby during the stay-home days last year out of frustration over being unable to travel.

She is not bound by convention when it comes to her activities, because she says, “Artists are just a type of occupation in society.

“It’s more free and fun than behaving like someone with privilege and becoming an emperor with no clothes on,” she said with a laugh.

Past and future

Currently, Ichihara is taking part in the group exhibition “traNslatioNs — Understanding Misunderstanding” at the 21_21 Design Sight, an art venue in Roppongi, Tokyo. The exhibition runs through June 13.

She contributed a video installation titled “Ritual Prayer Robot (Jomon ver.).” In the work, humanoid robots wearing masks with a human face on them say Shinto prayers and offer a ritual dance around a 3D-printed replica of a distinctive earthenware pot with a rim shaped like flames, known as the epitome of pottery during the Jomon period in Japan (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.).

Tying the ancient past and the future together is the theme of the work.

“I had a vision about a futuristic scene no one has ever seen, while also receiving the faith the Jomon people might have embraced,” Ichihara commented.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ichihara holds a humanoid robot wearing a mask printed with the 3D image of a human face.