Mariko Mori, May 21 - Aug. 10, 1998, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, Ca.
From all indications Mariko Mori looms on the horizon as a major international art star of the millennium. The Japanese-born artist, who has studios in Tokyo and New York and who is known for self-portrait photographs in chic, futuristic costumes, has recently had several museum shows -- at the Serpentine Gallery in London, at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and currently at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, where it's on view until Mar. 14, 1999. I caught the LACMA show this summer.
The four-gallery survey opened with a video projection, Miko no Inori (1996), that took up a complete wall in a darkened room. The video shows the artist wearing metallic space alien garb and playing with a glass sphere the size of a baseball. The tape was shot in Osaka Airport, which gives it a dramatic sense of randomness. Tourists walk through the background while the artist ritualistically massages the glistening orb, traditional symbol of the universe. Mori wears mirrored contact lenses, which give her eyes a silver cast, like a visionary visitor from another planet.
The show's remaining three galleries housed the Nirvana project, a work that combines religious imagery with high-tech computer imaging and up-to-the-minute fabrication techniques. In one gallery were three 10 x 20 ft. photographs. Each immense photograph took up an entire wall, and showed multiple images of the artist in a dramatic landscape setting.
In Burning Desire (1996-98), for example, Mori is transformed into a four-armed Buddhist deity, sitting in the lotus position in China's Gobi Desert, encircled by a multicolored halo. She floats above four more images of herself seated amidst blazing flames. The photograph consists of five vertical panels beautifully displayed between two sheets of glass, which in turn are supported by metal runners cantilevered out from the wall at top and bottom -- unobtrusive, costly framing.
The dramatic imagery and huge scale is effectively mystical. And Mori, the 31 year-old ex-professional model who attended art schools in Japan, London and New York, is an appealing subject.
The third gallery devoted to Nirvana housed an extraordinary 3-D video installation. Viewers wore special glasses to watch the seven-minute video, which begins and ends with swirling, nebula-like forms suggestive of the creation of the cosmos. The central part of the video features Mori dressed as a bodhissatva, one of the disciples of the Buddha. She floats while singing in a high-pitched tone, gracefully using her hands to shape some of the symbolic mudras of traditional Buddhist art. For much of the tape she is surrounded by six cartoonish figures -- part alien, part Teletubby -- accompanying her with musical instruments.
At the climax of the piece, 3-D musicians seem to fly out into our space and swirl around our heads while she levitates calmly behind them. Her eyes seem to stare sightlessly, like those of a statue of a Buddhist devotional figure come to life. The tape is a tour-de-force, rich in multiple references to Hollywood as well as Pacific Rim culture.
The fourth and final room of the exhibition held a single sculpture, a five-foot wide lotus flower -- the traditional Buddhist symbol of purity -- made of delicately tinted, transparent plastic. The edge of each petal glowed a different color, as it was lit by fiberoptic light from a Himawari filter on the roof of the museum. The lighting system, according to the exhibition's catalogue, was invented by Mori's father. It required a thick black cord to descend from the roof to the lotus, which was visually dissonant to the glistening transparencies of the flower. Unfortunately, technology won out over esthetics. The piece also suffered a bit from Mori's absence -- but it was the exception in the remarkable exhibition.
Using herself as the central figure in her work, Mori continues the performance-based photographic practice of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. But her appropriations of traditional imagery have a different tone than Sherman's sardonic caricatures of Old Masters or Morimura's tortured recreations of Renaissance crucifixions. There is a serene sweetness in Mori's work, which suggests that she genuinely wants to convey a spiritual message. But casting herself as the Buddha strikes a feminist note, and the gender-bending revision of traditional sacred imagery may not go over so well with the more conservative members of her audience in Japan.
Interweaving performance art with the extravagances of the movie business -- lavish production values and a seemingly unlimited travel budget -- Mori's work is certainly a technologically precocious feast for the eyes. Few artists are able to mesh glamour, technology and theory as well as Mori, and she just may become the cyber-goddess of the 21st century.
The exhibition began at LACMA, and toured as follows: Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, (Jun. 20-Sept. 13, 1998); Serpentine Gallery, London, (Jun. 30-Aug. 9, 1998); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Oct. 10-Mar. 14, 1999.
TOM WOLF teaches at Bard College.