“When I was investigating making this painting I saw a documentary about a geisha who was explaining the economic situation in Japan, which is mostly the same as in every other developed society. When she decided to become a geisha, she knew she was about to reject her real name and her life as a normal person, trying to find economic security. While she was studying, the school gave students benefits like medical insurance, a place to stay and meals, which gave them everything they needed. And once they officially became geisha their salaries would be higher than those of regular workers in the country, and they would keep most benefits.
Being a geisha wasn't her dream. When she described her work she mentioned how hard, heavy and painful it is to wear those beautiful kimonos. How difficult and painful it is to do her hair, and mostly, how painful it is to learn to walk with the shoes they wear, and also how many hours they work. Withstanding lots of pain, exposing themselves to a life of stressful service and fake smiles almost 24/7, doing something they don’t like, trying to gain extra bucks to buy a few possessions they won't have time to enjoy—just to make a good impression on other people? That, in my opinion, is to betray yourself, to destroy your identity as a human being. That's why we can only see her neck; she doesn't want to share with us her identity.” — William Acosta
(in Japan) death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.
As the title suggests, this is not just a pretty painting. In an exploration of the societal values of status, success, glamour and financial security in relation to personal choice and identity, William Acosta investigates the outwardly glamorous world of the contemporary geisha, specifically one in conflict with her occupational pick and the factors influencing her choices.
Geisha are viewed as an important part of Japanese culture and earn a higher-than-average wage with health care and other benefits. The opinion of others holds great importance in Japanese culture, which makes a career as a geisha seemingly desirable. In exchange for prestige and financial security they endure exhaustive training, long hours, living apart from family and donning painful hairstyles, shoes and heavy kimonos. They’re required to relinquish their names in exchange for approved ones, change their personality and habits, adhere to rules for leisure activities and relationships, and make a lifetime commitment to their profession. What can appear as an enviable existence is packaged together with great sacrifice.
This is a complex subject. Choices like the geisha's often involve more than reputation and financial security; they can be a question of survival, or, in this case, honor in upholding tradition. Here we suppose there are options and that being a geisha isn’t a dream job. Therefore to willingly choose to withstand the pain of exposing yourself to a life of stressful service almost around the clock, to do something you don't like while knowingly rejecting your identity and a normal life, all based on the idea/illusion that it will bring happiness through money and stature is, for William, a betrayal of self, destroying one’s identity as a human being.
Our conflicted geisha is depicted from behind, hiding from us, perhaps experiencing shame for choosing to spend her life building an image rather than honoring her true self, lamenting what might have been. The absence of her visage brings to mind the Japanese concept of mentsu or face, a combination of social standing, reputation, influence, dignity and honor, and the cultural importance of not doing something inappropriate for fear of letting down family or society. We can’t help but wonder if it’s herself she’s let down. Is her occupation worth it? Is it a possible path to sustained happiness or a trap conjured by society?
William decided on a Japanese visual, and the geisha specifically, because “it’s a very fancy/ironic way to represent how life in society works today.” Echoing her identity conflict, he intentionally distorts the city depicted and renders it in transparent layers, making it tricky to say if the work is a portrait or a cityscape, or even what city it represents. Not specific to Japan, this could be any city in any developed nation. And the geisha's conflict could reflect that of anyone in any profession. William explains, “If somebody googled the word karoshi they would easily understand how much humanity can withstand to make a fake impression. Japan isn't the only place karoshi happens.”
A little history: Composed of two Japanese characters, sha meaning person and gei meaning artist, the original geisha or artistic entertainers were men. Debuting in the 1200-1300s as attendants to daimyo, Japanese feudal lords, and known as dobosh or comrades, they served as both advisors and entertainers skilled in the arts of war, dance and the tea ceremony. By the 1500s, they were called otogishu or hanashishu, or story tellers, and their focus had shifted to conversation, storytelling and humor, in addition to advising on military strategy and participating in battles.
When peace came to Japan in the 1600s and the services of these dedicated performers were no longer required by their masters, they found employment and enjoyed increased demand among Japanese courtesans at parties and gatherings with clients. The terms geisha, houkan and taikomochi came into use. Then in 1751 the first onna geisha, or female geisha, made an enchanting appearance at a party, outshining her male counterpart to such a degree that by the late 1700s women outnumbered men, who by then had become known as otoko geisha, or male geisha.
Today, geisha are seen as prestigious, high society entertainers with deep connections to cultural traditions. Skilled in the all-but-lost arts of traditional music, dance, calligraphy, flower arranging, the tea ceremony and the highly coveted art of conversation, these women are respected professionals who defy myths of sexual indiscretion to entertain away the cares of stressed high-profile businessmen and politicians, if only for a few hours at a time.
William AcostaKaroshi Study, 2019Acrylic & Graphite on Paper14 1/2 × 11 in | 36.8 × 27.9 cm
Karoshi No. 3: William Acosta