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Birth of a Star

Last Departure

Beginning of the End
Body Capsule

welcome to 
the new Century 

by Robert Mahoney 

Mariko Mori has been adopted by the art-

world grapevine as the latest favorite. 

Since her first show last year at American 

Fine Art, the 29-year-old, New York-based 

Japanese artist has been in group shows at 

Apex Art and Lauren Wittels and most 

recently has had a solo exhibition at 

Deitch Projects called "Made in Japan" 

(Apr. 11-27, 1996). She has also done a 

mini-video installation in Postmasters 

Gallery's special "peephole" series (Apr. 

20-May 18) and is included in a group show 

at Elga Wimmer called "New Visions in 

Photography" (Apr. 13-May 13).

For me, it was love at first sight with 

Mariko Mori's work. When I saw her bright, 

funny, irresistible, even enchanting 

photographs of herself done up as a space-

alien "geisha" in the middle of Tokyo's 

Times Square, I turned to the person I was 

with and said, "They'll make a million with 

these." My remark is not to be taken 

literally, this is the `90s after all, but 

I keep coming back to it. Why, I wonder, 

did her work take instant hold of me, what 

am I looking for in it, what does it 

fulfill--and why do I think "Made in Japan" 

is one of the best shows in New York in the 

1995-96 season?

My first sighting of Mori was framed by 

three separate tendencies in the art 

market. First was the thought that fashion 

had usurped the bragging rights of culture 

in the early `90s. There I saw Mori as a 

fulfillment of some union that art and 

fashion had been trying to consummate, for 

better or worse, for some time. Second was 

the increasingly popularity in the art 

world of "casual antiphotography," 

spearheaded as a market phenom by Jack 

Pierson, whose moment first came at the 

1994 Gramercy Art Fair, as well as by 

Wolfgang Tillmans and Art Club 2000. I 

pegged this work in a generational way, 

imagining all these casual photographers as 

part of one vast project to take a snapshot 

of every 20-year-old face on the planet. 

Third was identity politics for under-30s, 

which includes a subcategory of feminist 

deconstructions of feminine stereotypes 

through the creation of images of devilish 

Lolitas. Lisa Yuskavage's voluptuous 

"Keene" girls at Luhring Augustine and Rita 

Ackermann's drugged-out hippie-daughters at 

Andrea, both in summer 1994, kept this 

framework in place. 

While my first impression was framed by 

Mori's arrival at the end of these market 

impulses, my "love at first sight" was 

occasioned by the way she broke free of 

these impulses too. First, she reversed 

recent fashion trends and found a unique 

style. Second, her photography was anything 

but casual. Third, while she was young and 

irresistible, there was also something so 

allegorical about her presence that it did 

not register in terms of sex-appeal alone. 

Something else was afoot. At a time when 

art seemed weakened by a lack of 

confidence, to the extent that it rarely 

provided moments of pure "contemporariness" 

(a sense of free-being often embodied by 

the image of a 20-year-old), Mori had 

clearly put everything into her work, and 

had as a result provided a completely 

convincing transport to a pure state of 

freedom that is the essence of the sense of 

the contemporary in contemporary art. After 

a period where such moments had vanished, 

Mori arrived as a lightning bolt, 

announcing that the 20th century was not 

going to pause to weep in fin de siecle 

millenarianism but was moving right on into 

the 21st century, and you better catch up--


In the past season, Mori's work has 

continued to press past the year 2000. In 

"All Dressed Up," a group show curated by 

Steven Rand at Apex Art in Nov. `95, Mori 

was grouped with Alix Lambert, Wolfgang 

Tillmans, Scott Carpenter and Camille 

Norments. While titled to suggest art and 

fashion, the exhibition was about a 

generation of artists that is taking 

identity discourse and transforming it with 

notions of self-creation. Clearly, Mori's 

dress-up was viewed as a kind of 

metaphorical "drag," by which she remade 

herself, like a club kid, into a purely 

artificial persona that satisfied her 

fantasies. In "Show and Tell," curated by 

Andrea Scott at Lauren Wittels in Jan. `96, 

Mori was grouped with Doug Aitken, Jennifer 

Bolande and Robert Beck. This exhibition 

took a slightly different angle: focusing 

on what appears to be a reemergence of the 

"photography of invention" in the `90s, 

stressing the performative, 

autobiographical and narrative-constructing 

aspects of new photography. Doug Aitken's 

highly synthetic photographs from 

"Searchers," a storyboard project for a 

movie Aitken never intends to make, were 

emblematic of the focus of the exhibition. 

In this context, Mori's work was read as 

performative and narrative. 

But the thing that struck me about these 

shows was the way in which Mori stood out. 

It was also clear, seeing "Show and Tell," 

that Mori was the energy center, the 

flashpoint, of these exhibitions: the 

curatorial project seemed designed to find 

a context for this startlingly "new" art, 

trying to understand just how new it is. 

The exhibition at Elga Wimmer, "New Visions 

in Photography," has a different valence: 

the show is clearly centered around a young 

artist, Ricardo Zulueta, who is given 

extravagant play. Mori is enlisted, again 

coupled with Doug Aitken, again as a 

talisman or fetish object, as if hoping to 

rub some of the energy off on others. I 

imagine an endless array of shows 

attempting to fashion a market on 

technical, generational, identity and other 

terms, all making use of Mori as the 

sacrificial lamb offered up to the God of 

art, attempting to bring back the full 

energy of the contemporary into more and 

more contemporary art.

Having seen Mori spinning through the 

season, it comes with a feeling of immense 

relief that her "Made in Japan" show at 

Deitch Projects makes it quite clear that 

she has listened to none of the curations, 

and has instantly overstepped them all. In 

scale, in technical prowess, in expanded 

vocabulary of personae and in presentation, 

this show marks a step up to a much fully 

realized art. Such an advance makes this a 

breakthrough exhibition. 

Several points struck and transfixed me in 

this exhibition. First, yes, the 

irresistible, cute, pliant Mori, apparently 

playing off stereotypes of femininity in 

general and Japanese femininity in 

particular, is there, but risen above her 

adopted role. Mori has leapt beyond 

singular autobiographical fantasy to play-

acting in several personae.In Birth of a 

Star she plays the undead Olivia-Newton-

John-style Japanese club kid, in a 3-D 

holographic panel that makes her dance, 

waver and wiggle in an eerily glazed way, 

as you watch...and watch. In Empty Dream 

she plays a mermaid, reappearing at an 

artificial beach several times: on the 

sand, in the water, on the rocks. In Last 

Departure she is severe and serene at the 

Kansai International Airport, manifest in 

fading triplicate. Only in In the Beginning 

of the End, when she lies in a capsule at 

the Shibuya Station, is she the one and 

only Mariko Mori introduced to New York 

last year. This expansion of her vocabulary 

and her role-playing indicates an increased 

control over her imagery and process, and 

the emergence of a stronger, more worldly 

point of view in her work. 

Second, Mariko Mori has totally broken free 

from association to mere photography, or 

discussion of means of production.Empty 

Dream is a tremendously satisfying 

multipaneled mural, evoking a startlingly 

contemporary Japanese space. Her Last 

Departure harks back to the knowledge of 

Poussin, who understood that grand scenic 

art must embrace and incorporate grand 

architecture. The injection of futuristic 

architecture into her work not only opens 

up "world space" in her art, but announces 

a new level of understanding of the 

function of her type of fantasy in 

contemporary life. Her work is not simply 

about fantasy per se, about identity 

discriminated by type (gender, race), but a 

realistic assessment of the gaps which have 

opened up between the individual and the 

totality of world life today. It 

acknowledges the fact that life and the 

world will for now on ever remain 

incommensurate, and that in mass life in a 

completely "westernized" planet (but isn't 

even that word sounding old-fashioned now?) 

we are all aliens to each other, and all 

must now construct fetish-zones for 

ourselves, our own virtual-reality capsules 

in which to breathe, dream and live. By 

tenderly mimicking some of the futuristic 

hyperreality constructs and hyperhygenic 

production values of Japanese culture, Mori 

also presents Japan as the only culture in 

the world fully in the present, confronting 

the implications of world space and all its 

gaps in mass world culture. 

One thing particularly drove this point 

home for me. In her earlier exhibition I 

had noted Mori's inclusion of large plastic 

capsules, set in front of her photographs 

and containing her crumpled costumes, as an 

installational gambit. Focusing on her 

photographs, I had expected that the 

capsules would eventually be eliminated. 

But what startles in her Deitch Projects 

installation is that Mori makes even more 

of these clear, smooth capsules. She 

herself has more fully appreciated their 

role in the gallery space. Before her self-

portrait in an amazing but at times 

frightening white "spacesuit," Mori sets 

down an egg-shaped capsule, containing all 

the accessories and dress of that 

particular shoot. Getting out of costume, 

shedding that moment, reverting to "rest" 

and to an "unborn" state: dwelling on 

emptiness, stillness, and the sadness at 

the end of the photo-op moment, all are 

conveyed by this and other shell-like 

capsules. (Mori's Body Capsule in Shibuya 

project for the Postmasters peephole 

accentuates the aerated remove from which 

she sees this process, framing the 

voyeurism in a video version of the work, 

with the voyeurism of art. Such a double 

framing is characteristic of a sensibility 

willing to explore the frightening gaps, 

and fetishizing defense mechanisms, needed 

to deal with the gaps in world space.)

Along with the large-scale photography, 

embracing architecture and culture rather 

than a Japanimation space fantasy, the 

plastic capsules tell us the real reason 

why Mariko Mori's work presents itself as a 

clarion call for a renewal of a discourse 

that speaks openly of the cultural trends 

of mass world culture--transcending all the 

division and separation that purists create 

when they react against the more 

frightening aspects of the mass organism of 

world culture that we are all trapped 

inside--and achieves a clarity, grandeur, 

seriousness (true) and dimension that art 

has not seen in a while. In her own 

futuristic way, Mori reminds us again of 

the global village, and fast-forwards us to 

a future where we had all better, and can, 

shed our so-called "identities" and get 

with it. 

Robert Mahoney is an art critic.