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Mariko Mori
photo David Sims

Mariko Mori
Dream Temple
view from the Royal Academy of Arts installation
photo Richard Learoyd


Burning Desire

Entropy of Love

Mirror of Water

Birth of Star


Tea with Mariko
by Kay Itoi

It was an impressive little piece of performance art. Mariko Mori, arguably the most visible Japanese artist in the West today, entered the all-white, glass and plastic tea room she had specially designed for the posh apartment that serves as her Tokyo studio. Dressed in a white, simple two-piece cotton dress and socks, Mori bowed to her guest (me), seated us both on the tatami mats and slowly proceeded to perform a tea ceremony.

Since I ignored my mother's order to learn the Way of Tea as a young girl, I could not tell whether her movement was exactly in sync with the traditional cha no yu -- although some of the utensils, like a glass chawan, or tea bowl, and a lime-green plastic chashaku, or tea scoop, looked rather unorthodox.

I was there because the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, had just announced plans to present Mori's first solo museum show in Japan, to be held early next year. So I finished drinking bitter tea in three gulps (as instructed) and took my pen in hand.

Mori, who was born in 1967 and has worked in New York City for 10 years, turned her smiling face to me. To me the tea room felt uncomfortably small, though obviously the artist was at home. Relaxed and in control, she spoke slowly, taking her time considering each question and answering in a low voice.

"Mariko Mori Pure Land" will be on display at Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Jan. 19-Mar. 24, 2002. It will be curated and organized by the Tokyo museum and the Milan-based Fondazione Prada.

Kay Itoi: You are having your first major exhibition in Japan. Excited?

Mariko Mori: I'm very happy. All the works [to be in the show] have been shown [in the West] before. The exhibition will feature everything that I have done, from my very early works to the latest, so they can see my history.

KI: Through your "history" as an artist, what have you been trying to achieve?

MM: An artist has a special, objective point of view, which is different from what people see in their conventional field of vision. An artist sees the world, or looks at the present time, with this special viewpoint. [My mission] is to express what I see in my field of vision. In my recent works I have tried to go into my consciousness and expressed my imagination in the consciousness. I hope that my works create the kind of universal communication that is understandable regardless of the gender or nationality of the audience.

KI: Do you create art for the audience or for yourself?

MM: I intend to make my work a kind of offering.... I have this urge, which might even be described as desire, to create. I would like to think that I'm not just trying to fulfill my desire. As long as I live, I am part of a bigger being, and I'm being allowed to be a part of it because I offer. There always was a force that pushed me to create. I must create the world in order to breathe in the world; I don't exist unless I create.

KI: Many critics and collectors adore you; there are Mariko Mori fan clubs. Are you aware of your market when you create?

MM: I want to be truthful to myself. I would like to express what is true to me. There isn't a target audience which I'd create art for.

KI: Your recent works feature motifs that were inspired by traditional Japanese, or Eastern, culture. Why?

MM: I find today's pop culture, or consumer culture, in the global context very flat. By that I mean today's culture excludes what we have had in our culture or tradition for a long, long time. You had to exclude it, because otherwise the kind of consumer culture we have today would not have been mainstream. But I feel myself to be part of a long history. I try to have what we inherited in this culture in my work.

KI: To change the subject, what is your reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks?

MM: For artists, New York has always been the land of hope, where they felt that they can be free and their talents are appreciated. Honestly, I fear that the attacks are forcing [the city] to introduce restrictions and [we] might lose this freedom. Many people there saw the attacks [in real life], not through TV, and that's still in the air. There is a feeling of crisis that they would be traumatized for a long time. But while the incidents were very sad, we must acknowledge that mankind has repeatedly made mistakes, as one sees in history, and is likely to continue to do so. The other thing is that we still have ideas, which are "walls" that divide us into two -- ourselves and the others -- in our minds. The two things I just mentioned are what motivate me to create art, because I want to break the boundary between them.

KI: What do you think you will be making in five years, or 10 years? Would you still be using your images?

MM: I would like to think that my work has a lifespan of at least a quarter of century. But what will be I making in 10 years? I can't say. I haven't used my body in the recent works. Ideally, I would just like to think that I would still be creating.

KI: Are you interested in the Japanese art scene? Are there any particular artists that you find interesting?

MM: Yes I am interested. But I believe in the power of art, or artwork, rather than in one artist, regardless of whether it is contemporary or not.

KI: There are high-profile Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami in your generation. Do you think you belong to the same generation or ...?

MM: A category? Basically I don't belong to anything. We still share the present time. Even if two people are at different places and trying to do different things, they might be thinking about something similar just because they exist in the same time. We could be using similar expressions, for example, by coincidence. That's possible.

KI: Have you had a teacher?

MM: No, but some have stimulated the energies for me with their way of life or attitude as an artist. It doesn't have to be somebody living. I practice tea ceremony, and I consider Rikyu (Sen Rikyu, the 16th-century master who perfected the Way of Tea) a conceptual artist. He revolutionized the idea of beauty, in a way.

KI: You are from one of the world's wealthiest families but you have never publicly spoken about it.

MM: No.

KI: Because... that has nothing to do with your work?

MM: (Smiles) Right.

KAY ITOI is a critic and reporter based in Japan.