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Yoshie Sakai Goes Clubbin’ With Grandma

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Looking for the hottest club in town? Ask your grandma.

“Grandma Nightclub,” a cozy two-seater bar set beside a stripper pole centered on a pink-tiled dance floor, has the rowdiest Ladies Night in the city, and a clientele exclusively of elderly women — or rather, one woman, Yoshie Sakai, dressed up as different personas. This club is actually one of three detailed installations in Sakai’s Grandma Entertainment Franchise, the multimedia artist’s first solo museum exhibition, at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

Through the nightclub, a spa, and an amusement park, Sakai builds a whimsical world made by and for grandmothers. She uses a caricature of her own grandmother, literally turned into a cartoon, appearing in the video “In the beginning” (2023) as a bulbous, custom-made plush toy that gestures with floating human hands, who was recently heartbroken. Her plushie grandchildren motivate her to get back out there, and obaa-chan (Japanese for grandma) moves us between settings as she tries to heal. Sakai’s spotlight on the elderly woman’s sexuality and energy challenges the images society often projects onto grandmothers as feeble and non-sexual. Here, the women are not permanently clad in pajamas and hunched over crochet projects, but are instead a bedazzled, vivacious set ready to party. 

The “Grandma Nightclub,” guarded by an enormous bronze-painted foam statue of the plush obaa-chan, plays a video of dancing grandmas on loop. Sakai’s various characters wear short, gray wigs, and dress in flashy 1980s-era beaded trophy dresses or animal prints. They dance to a karaoke cover of “Fergalicious” while matching the choreography from the grandma-approved classic film Singin’ in the Rain. In two dingy bathroom stalls, covered in graffiti, two short videos from the Bathroom Stall Tears series (2022) continue obaa-chan’s story. She cries in the bathroom, describing sacrifices she had to make as a Japanese woman in World War II-era San Pedro, California. The nightclub offers an evening of escapism, but the bathroom, even in a public setting, is still a private place for tears and ruminations upon the struggles of life.

Installation view of Yoshie Sakai: Grandma Entertainment Franchise at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Pictured: “Grandma Amusement Park”

That need to disassociate from grief continues in the “Grandma Day Spa” and “Grandma Amusement Park,” which are just as campy as the nightclub. Sakai incorporates her grandma persona into every niche: a grinning face sculpted into ceramic pieces or cast in bronze and dangling from a chandelier. In the spa, hair dryers face a heart-shaped tub with a video projection replacing its water, and instead of heat, the dryers pump sound into your ears, playing “Grandma Dreamin’” (2021, reprised 2023). This work comprises interviews with friends and family about their grandmothers’ more seductive moments. Camp also reigns in the amusement park, where a life-sized carousel continues to share the oral histories Sakai has collected. It features three psychedelically painted mythical creatures (for example, a mackerel and bunny fused into one) — mashups of various grandmothers’ favorite animals. Atop the chimera, a boxy cathode ray television set plays “Honey” (2022), in which the artist accompanies other grandmas as they sing their favorite songs.

Though Grandma Entertainment Franchise is a world of delight, it is clouded by the capitalistic desire to commodify youth. Water fountains are a recurring motif, where the ceramic obaa-chans spit out streams of water into porcelain basins, the fountain of youth turned inside-out. Though the establishments cater to the elderly, they capitalize on a yearning for younger days. A gift shop selling plushies, tote bags, and stickers is even staffed by the artist most Saturdays. Despite Sakai’s clear love of the demographic, these novelties suggest that elders might still be pushed to the fringes of society if they couldn’t be commodified.

Yet even under the specter of capitalism, Sakai re-humanizes the matriarch. Grandmas, young at heart, still want to love, be pampered, twirl on a merry-go-round, and twerk in the club.

Yoshie Sakai, “Grandma Nightclub Music Video” (2022), single-channel video, 04:20.
Yoshie Sakai, “Grandma Serenity Fountain II.” 2022. Stoneware Clay. Located in Grandma Day Spa.
Yoshie Sakai, “In the Beginning.” 2023. Single-channel video. Located in Grandma Nightclub
Yoshie Sakai, detail of “Grandma Day Spa”
Installation view of Yoshie Sakai: Grandma Entertainment Franchise at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Pictured: “Grandma Nightclub”
Installation view of Yoshie Sakai: Grandma Entertainment Franchise at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Pictured: “Grandma Nightclub”

Yoshie Sakai: Grandma Entertainment Franchise continues at the Vincent Price Art Museum (1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park, California) through February 3. The exhibition was curated by Dav Bell and Ana Iwataki.


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