Portland artist Junko Iijima’s studio looks like a mixture of a metal shop and a toy store. In the back are the machines she uses to practice her metalsmithing art. Stacked neatly around the room are various sculptures and models of Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty, references for the iron sculptures she made a few years ago. At the front of her studio are two small vending machines, the kind you see at local grocery stores. Inside are little plastic balls containing small toys.
Junko will use those little pieces in her latest sculpture, placing them in resin and molding them until they form a lava lamp. She’ll create two: one filled with icons of western culture and the other with icons of eastern culture.
“It’s called ‘Capsulated,’” she said. “I wanted to use the little pieces that I accumulated from the vending machines from Japan and also from America.”
One lamp has easily identifiable icons of Japanese pop culture like Totoro and Hello Kitty. The other has their American counterparts like Superman, Batman and Legos. The idea is to showcase the two sculptures as one piece of artwork, showing unifying power of pop culture.
Growing up in Japan, Junko never felt out of place. She loved icons of eastern and western pop culture just like everyone else. When she came to the United States as an exchange student things were a little different.
“When I got put in West Virginia. I didn’t feel like I was any different but people saw me differently. I have different color skin, hair color, I mean I looked different,” she said.
But soon she discovered that she could make friends through their shared love of all things pop culture related.
“If someone I knew had a Hello Kitty pen or something, I’d be like, ‘Oh! You know Hello Kitty!’ and then we can start a conversation,” she said.
The deep affection she has for pop culture shows in her artwork. She earned a degree in metalsmithing and in graduate school, she explored the idea of cultural commonality using Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty as the representatives of east and west.
“I started cutting them up and literally started putting them together because I was interested in culture coming together or making a hybrid through the exchange of commodity.”
What she discovered was that both icons influenced the other’s culture in some way.
“I'll go to the mall, and I'll see a smoothie figure with hands and legs, and the hands have four fingers and the feet are like Mickey Mouse. And I start seeing little cartoons with Hello Kitty oval-shaped face with ears. Once you start localizing each individual parts of those two characters, I start seeing them everywhere,” she said.
In 2016, she created a series of 200 cast iron sculptures at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Junko used different pieces of western icons as reference, but she added a twist: she cast the iron sculptures to resemble Japanese nanbu iron tea kettles.
“I wanted to refer to the iron teakettle and also add the pop culture elements, because ... I wanted to add a little bit of my cultural influence and combine old and new and make something that is familiar, but you have to question where those ears come from.”
The pieces are small, but the influences of both eastern and western cultures are prominent. In a way, the pieces show the best of both worlds and that’s the message Junko wants to send through her art.
“If you don't understand each other's languages, you look at Mickey Mouse. We can say, ‘Oh, that's Mickey Mouse.’ That's commonality,” she said. “It's something that I feel brings people together.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name and location of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.