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letter from tokyo

by Kay Itoi  

Video still from
Miko no Inori

Mariko Mori
in Tokyo

The Nagoya/Boston
MFA building

The Nagoya museum

Museum director
Tadao Ogura
   The Morimania Mystery
Mariko Mori. She's what the Tokyo art world is gossiping about these days. After a string of successful gallery shows and plenty of media coverage (including an ARTnews cover in March), the reputation of the New York-based cyber princess really sky-rocketed this summer. Her 3-D video installation at the Venice Biennale netted her an honorable mention in the festival's prize awards, and her first U.S. museum exhibition opens at the Dallas Museum of Art, Sept. 17-Nov. 9, 1997. Mori gets even more exposure towards the end of the year, participating in the big art biennials coming up in Kwangju (Korea), Istanbul and Johannesburg.

Japanese observers find Mori's enormous overseas success somewhat puzzling. "I am a bit surprised -- though I'm happy to see a Japanese woman artist being successful," admits Fumio Nanjo, the art critic who curated the Japan Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. (Mori was featured in the Nordic Pavilion.). "I suppose that she has a kind of exoticism that meets Western expectations that the Japanese are technology-oriented," he said. "It may seem as if she has broken new ground."

Mori's exhibition at Tokyo's posh Koyanagi Gallery, where she showed her Venice installation in May, attracted many viewers and mild media attention -- but not much more than that. "I appreciate her work," protests Daisuke Miyatsu, a contemporary art collector. "Many Japanese do. It's not like we don't like her or anything."

But the question remains for artsy people here: Why is she so popular in the United States and Europe? Every year dozens or possibly hundreds of Japanese try their luck outside their own country. What does Mariko Mori have that other Japanese don't? Why do Western audiences find Mori so fascinating?

"There seems to be a renewed curiosity among Westerners toward the exotic, which today can be defined in terms of new Japanese culture (such as anime) rather than the old idea of Japonisme," notes Shugo Satani, director of Tokyo's Satani Gallery. Miyatsu suggested that Mori's characters, who vaguely smile in her works, provoke the Westerner's curiosity about something they think they will never understand -- as if Japanese, or Asians in general, actually might be "inscrutable." "The places she uses as her backgrounds -- the business district in central Tokyo, love hotels, game shops, virtual beaches -- or her outfits -- anime costumes, school uniforms and office-lady uniforms -- are all things that foreigners would find amusing," he adds.

Others point out the artist's appeal -- separate from her work. Attractive (she used to be a model), friendly, humble and polite, Mori is an extremely likable person -- the kind of person you find in short supply on the New York art scene! Plus, Mori, who appears in public in cute, funky costumes that are related to her work on view then, seems to know how to impress her audience.

"She is probably the first woman artist since Yayoi Kusama in New York who goes to an opening in kimono," says a Tokyo dealer. "It's probably irresistible to Americans." Some say her family background, which Mori herself hates to hear anybody mention, may also be a factor. Her late grandfather, Taikichiro Mori, was one of the world's wealthiest real-estate tycoons. "That kind of thing makes people curious," said a journalist.

The artist herself remains unfazed by the fame and the buzz. "People ask me how it feels to become so famous so quickly in the international art world, but I really don't see myself that way," she told this reporter in Tokyo. "In New York, I just stay in my studio and work, really not aware of what others are saying."

Japanese viewers are also curious to see where she goes from here. She looks surprisingly young at 30, but does she plan to continue to feature herself in every work she creates as she has done so far? A critic for the Japan Times newspaper wrote that "I'm not totally convinced that she is an artist to be seriously reckoned with... but it will certainly be interesting to see how her career develops."

Indeed. And all the while, she will keep the Japanese pondering.

Nagoya Struggles with Boston
When the news broke six years ago that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts would have a new branch in Nagoya in central Japan, everyone was thrilled. Instead, what followed was a series of crises. Now, with the Nagoya museum's projected opening less than two years away, the project's backers are keeping their fingers crossed.

It all began in 1991, when the businessmen who make up the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce and Industry (reportedly prompted by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs) offered to donate over $50 million to the Boston MFA in exchange for a 20-year-loan of a selection of its artworks. Back then Japanese businesses were enjoying record profits thanks to the booming economy. The MFA, which was running a reported annual deficit of nearly $3 million, happily accepted the offer.

A local newspaper ran an article with a large headline that read: "The World's Art to Come Directly to Nagoya." Getting something truly important directly from overseas -- not through Tokyo or Osaka -- had great appeal for the citizens of the Japan's fourth biggest city.

The excitement proved to be short-lived. The stock market crashed and Japanese firms began to find their cultural obligations hard to meet. A gap between the interests of the two parties became clear, too; Nagoya wanted the MFA's famous Impressionists (a Japanese favorite) and Asian art, while Boston insisted on lending works from all of the museum's ten divisions, including not-so-appealing textiles and furniture. The initial agreement allowed Boston to lend its collection to other Japanese museums, too, which would hardly help the new Nagoya museum attract visitors from all over the country. In 1993, the Chamber of Commerce, by then a target of fierce media criticism, debated whether it should scrap the project altogether.

At that point, Nagoya's municipal government, which had already spent millions of dollars on designing the building that was to house the museum and a Ritz-Carlton hotel, intervened. In the town where cab drivers still talk about the embarrassment of losing its bid for the 1988 Summer Olympics to Seoul, the last thing the then-mayor wanted was to lose face internationally -- again. He suggested that the Chamber of Commerce set up an endowment fund, which the city and Aichi Prefecture (where Nagoya is the central city) would help with the public money. That naturally intensified the criticism from taxpayers.

In the meantime, a Japanese hotel firm that was to manage the Ritz-Carlton withdrew from the project due to its own financial troubles. It left the Chamber of Commerce to look furiously for its replacement because there would be no home for the museum without the hotel. A Tokyo museum curator then called it "the most disastrous museum project" he had ever heard of.

Nonetheless, in late 1995, the Chamber of Commerce managed to kick in $43 million to establish a $75-million fund, with the other $32 million coming from the taxpayers. Soon afterwards, the final agreement was signed between Nagoya and the Boston Museum.

But the problems hardly stopped there. Late last year the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce announced that it would ask its member companies for more money -- about $5 million. The endowment fund had suffered from Japan's notoriously low interest rate -- a rate that keeps falling further. In addition, the value of dollar against yen has significantly increased since last year, making Nagoya's promised $1-million annual donation to Boston more expensive in yen terms.

Since early this year the project, which initially was to open in 1996, for the first time looks under control. The new museum's director, Tadao Ogura, and Kiichiro Ito, the head of the Nagoya Foundation for the Arts that will run the museum, have been named trustees of the Boston MFA. "It's a nice gesture on Boston's side," notes a Nagoya city insider. In the meantime, the Meitetsu Group, which includes hotels and railways in the region, signed on to manage a hotel in the building. Even a colorful website ( has been established.

The Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts is now scheduled to open in spring of 1999 with a show titled "Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape."

KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes about art, technology and lifestyle.