There's not much to be seen in Aki Fujiyoshi's studio, which is located on 14th Street in Manhattan's meat-packing district, a few blocks away from AC Project Room, the gallery where her second New York solo show recently closed. Darkened with black curtains, the workspace contains mostly photography and video equipment -- tripods, extension cords and lights. A rack on the wall contains rows of labeled Hi-8 tapes. A few items provide clues to current and past obsessions: a poster of Malcolm X, a large jar of impression powder, a Columbo novel.
Fujiyoshi has gained a certain notoriety for vivid but mysterious installations in which she casts herself as a detective -- with the subject of her investigation being herself. Her work has something of the cinematic reflexivity of Godard's Alphaville, the mania of Crime and Punishment and the comedy of Inspector Clouseau.
Fujiyoshi's private-eye conceit adds up to a brilliantly comic metaphor for artistic practice, a muddle that combines a dark obsession with transgression and a passionate search for truth.
Fujiyoshi's installation at the AC Project Room, titled "From the Detective Series: Recent Impressions" (May 22-June 26, 1999), treated her own apartment as a crime scene. Central to the exhibition was a six-foot-wide whiteboard, labeled Case #2522 and covered with evidentiary photos and handwritten notes just like on television cop shows. Taped to the board is a map of Manhattan pinpointing the location of her apartment, photos showing entrance and hallway views of her building, and photo close-ups of an overturned glass, a broken fortune cookie, used matches, fingerprints and footprints. Ominously, a note on the board reads, "All attempts to wake up subject A were unsuccessful. No apparent foul play. 7:30 a.m., 4/15/99."
The show included large color photos of two night tables, which are littered with coins, medicine, glasses, a half-eaten bagel and suspicious-looking detritus. Visible in these pictures are traces of people -- a hand, part of a face -- but the images gave little clue as to gender or state of consciousness. A vitrine contained casts of small objects, placed on an apartment plan as if in a game of Clue -- keys at the entrance, a razor and part of a toothbrush in the bathroom, a bottle top in the bedroom. Against the wall, on a low plinth, was a set of plaster casts of boot prints.
Fujiyoshi creates a self-portrait through a meticulously accurate accumulation of minutiae. Her work grants a hidden potential to things that are usually passed over, yet so much undifferentiated detail adds up to a deliberate distancing. It's information overload, with its notorious decentering effects. "I follow myself around," she says, "to know where I'm at."
Born in San Francisco, Fujiyoshi went first to New York University and then the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she picked up graphic design skills that led her to a brief day job as production manager for Bert Sugar's Boxing Illustrated. In the early '80s, she became something of a video artist, working with a group called Rehab Video and producing her own public access cable television show. But as with many contemporary artists, her work moves across disciplinary boundaries.
One of her more emblematic videotapes is Self-Portrait as Still Life, July 23, Remembered as Best as Possible (1994). The tape shows an inverted garbage can set with various transparent objects -- an empty plastic cup, a beer bottle, a berry container filled with pieces of a broken light bulb, the clear plastic cover of an umbrella. As it turns out, the tape is playing on a monitor, and we see Fujiyoshi write on the screen with a black marker, labeling each object, making mistakes, wiping away the text with her hand.
On the soundtrack, Fujiyoshi narrates the action, her voice sometimes muffled and sometimes clear. With the serious persistance of a child, she insists again and again that these things, "constructed from discards usually considered valueless . . . function as evidence" of moments she might otherwise forget. By the end of the video, her memories have become fantastic. The cup of coffee was given to her by a stranger claiming to be her father, the umbrella came from a midget, and the bottle of beer was brought to her by Kurt Cobain. "That was the only tape I made in which I didn't tell the truth," she says.
Fujiyoshi's latest videotape, It's the Little Things That Matter, is part of her "Detective Series," and had its first showing at the 1998 exhibition "I Love New York" at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Almost entirely composed of excerpts taped from TV police shows, the tape opens with a beautiful shot of the New York City skyline at night and then proceeds into a editor's frenzy of clips from Law and Order, The French Connection, Report to the Commissioner, Emergency 911 and the like.
The fragments of Hollywood narrative are strangely compelling. And excessively violent, as actors (apparently) get slashed with knives and shot in the face. The artist's own image is insinuated into the mix, slowly rolling on rubber gloves. The repeated scenes of violence are accompanied by an out-of-sync sountrack. Finally, a warning: "Word of advice, don't play god."
It's a nasty business, this quest for omniscience. It gets you elbow-deep in the bloodiest evidence.