Salt Lake City artist Mitsu Salmon explores racism, environmentalism, and sexuality issues. Her performance-based approach to a multi-disciplinary practice crafts an immersive experience between artist and viewer.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Mitsu Salmon gave me a tour of her Salt Lake City studio in the chilled basement of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, an expansive underbelly that somehow, as a decades-long arts writer, I had never visited.
Salmon is a 2021-22 UMOCA artist-in-resident, which she notes is the longest in a string of incredible opportunities that have taken her across the globe. A self-described “residency rat,” she has lived and created art in India, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Berlin, and Bali among other locales. Salmon warmly conversed with me about her career, pausing carefully to consider the academic implications of her practice, which spans multiple media and gleans inspiration from her time in various nations.
Salmon is a recent transplant from Chicago who’s slated to exhibit new work at UMOCA later this month. Her work is grounded in performance. She is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work maintains an unbridled curiosity about performance and the sensory phenomena that impact our understanding of the spaces we inhabit. Inspired by the Japanese Gutai movement and the contemporary dance form Butoh, her work explores visual and auditory forms of storytelling, recalling familial histories to explore varied themes of environmental justice, anti-Asian racism, and sexuality.
“The foundation of my work is performance, but within that, I’ve done movement, sound, video, installation, and gestural painting,” says Salmon.
Born in Los Angeles, Salmon is the daughter of a Japanese immigrant mother and a Caucasian father, each of whom she describes as artistically inclined. “My father was a musician who was also very interested in theater, and my mother really loved visual art. I think of each of these as different languages,” she says.
The multiculturalism of her family and her parents’ interest in distinct art forms left an indelible mark. The limitations of translation fascinate Salmon, the phenomenon of being unable to fully convert ideas from one language to the next. She draws a similarity here with the distinctness of artistic media.
Salmon received her undergraduate degree from New York University where she studied experimental theater. Shortly after, she lived in Berlin and Japan before moving to Bali for a painting residency. While in Bali, she applied to graduate school and eventually moved to Illinois to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Salmon considers the period after graduate school as transformative—the moment when she began to regard familial history in her artistic practice.
To Salmon, the personal stories imbedded in her Japanese lineage are illustrative. Her great-grandfather was a renowned botanist who cultivated plants on Taiwan’s Orchid Island. Perhaps because of this familial legacy, Salmon has long maintained an interest in botany and the symbolism evident in its transformative properties.
Her performance Orchidelirium—developed in 2019 as part of the Chicago DanceMakers Forum grant—utilizes choreography performed on an outside stage and set to a soundscape to explore the potency of the orchid. Salmon sees the flower’s beauty—emblematic of a flowering sexuality, too—as connected to a historical legacy of colonialism and the ensuing hysteria of yellow peril. Such discrimination not only impacted the artist’s family but reverberates across the political landscape to this day.
In 2020, Salmon moved to Utah—in addition to her artistic projects, she teaches at Weber State University’s Department of Visual Arts and Design. After her arrival, Western lore sparked her interest, namely how this mythology often neglects hidden histories such as atomic testing, ecological destruction, and racial injustice committed against Indigenous populations and Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
Her upcoming exhibition Somatic Tracing—slated to open April 15, 2022 at UMOCA—is a multi-faceted investigation into a neglected narrative. The exhibition will consist of paintings, performative objects, and a live performance (scheduled during a May 13 public reception) as a collaboration between Salmon and four Asian-American partners.
Kikù Hibino, a collaborator from Chicago, will provide the performance’s soundscape, a selection of sounds collected from the railroad site as well as the artist’s own voice. This process is motivated by a desire to unveil the invisible labor of immigrants.
“This piece started off as an interest in the transcontinental railroad—the Chinese Americans building it and Japanese Americans maintaining it,” Salmon says.
Her paintings in Somatic Tracing incorporate earth tones collected from dirt around Utah’s Promontory Point, the emblematic union of the railroads commemorated by the famous golden spike. The dirt symbolizes the labor of the immigrants who built the railroad as well as the dynamite used by Chinese laborers to accommodate the construction.
Salmon utilizes water—a sacred element in Japanese Shinto tradition—to spread the earth hues in dynamic motions on the canvas, a visualization of the explosive properties underlying this history. To Salmon, water’s transformational properties are meditative and joyful.
She is also constructing wooden appendages that allow her to wheel the paintings throughout the museum’s galleries, and to accompany her collaborators during a series of performances. Elsewhere during the show’s opening, she will display performative objects—including a laundry mat cart—to accompany the immersive performance. She envisions collaboration as critical to the experience of recognizing history but also as transformational.
“The act of collaborating with four Asian-American performers in Salt Lake City is aimed at highlighting ideas of invisible labor, but also the idea of transformation from trauma. I am interested in how we can first recognize these stories and reimagine them.”