Mariko Mori

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 3

By Jill Elaine Hughes

Mariko Mori, whose work is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is an international sensation–and a bit of a puzzle. She is a fashion model. A clothing designer. A singer. Well-to-do, she spends tremendous amounts of money on her art, in which she’s the featured performer, object, subject, and star. Audio and visual technicians do much of the high-tech “work” associated with her art, which employs photography, videography, and sculpture. But is she an artist? Or just a superficial, egotistical, free-spending media star?

To call Mori’s art, however she produces it, superficial, excessive, cliched, or solipsistic is too easy. She might be a poseur hiding behind a beautiful but completely false facade, like a second-rate singing sensation hiding behind buff, lip-synching models the way Milli Vanilli did. But in fact Mori manipulates the elements of late-20th-century culture–empty-headed media stars, virtual reality, and dehumanizing techno capitalism–to create highly critical, beautiful art. Like Cindy Sherman in her “Untitled Film Stills” and Carrie Mae Weems in her narrative photography, Mori uses self-portraiture and stereotypical images and themes to explode stereotypes, creating new meanings.

Mori employs the most advanced high-tech means: photographs printed on huge (often more than 10 by 12 feet) opaque glass panels; two- and three-dimensional video installations with audio and sometimes temperature and wind accompaniment; computer-aided image replication, generation, and animation; and a new fiber-optic technique for capturing natural light. Yet her concerns are the condition of the individual and the place of spirituality in a world of rapidly advancing technology–common themes, but ones that Mori’s unique vision redefines.

Using her experience in the fashion world, Mori often appears in bizarre, futuristic clothing of her own design. But often this “star” is barely recognizable. In a recurring motif of her early photography, Mori appears as a strange visitor from the technological future, trying in vain to make contact with ordinary late-20th-century humans. Play With Me (1994), the enormous glass-panel photography piece for which she first became known, shows the artist in front of a Tokyo Sega parlor in shiny plastic attire and a silvery green wig: she looks like the characters in Nintendo games and anime, or “Japanimation”–indeed, she closely resembles the cartoon characters on the Sega advertising signs behind her. But in her guise as a messenger from the video-game future, the artist seems sad and puzzled by the fact that none of the Tokyo passersby takes any notice of her.

Juxtaposing techno fun, anthropomorphized virtual reality, and city dwellers’ indifference, Mori delivers a fresh, subtle treatment of technology’s dehumanizing side. Other works also explore this theme, including the smaller, darker glass-panel photograph Tea Ceremony 3 (1995), in which the artist stars as another futuristic visitor, this time in elflike costume. Standing in front of a glass-and-steel Tokyo office building, she’s trying to entice passing businessmen to join her in the traditional tea ceremony; but once again Mori as techno-video star is ignored. Like Play With Me, this work critiques the inherent anonymity of late capitalism’s technological world; this time, however, Mori juxtaposes the serenity of the ancient ceremony with the hurried, high-stress world of Japanese business, questioning the order of a society with no room for ancient traditions. As her work evolves, Mori treats the distorting effect of technology with greater complexity.

Asked to describe her objectives during a discussion at the MCA, Mori replied that she’s “questioning what is really real–virtual reality, advertising, and so on is supposed to be fantasy, but it is becoming reality….I have shifted to questioning how much of it is real.” Two works seem to address this question directly. Birth of a Star (1995)–a three-dimensional computer-graphics-enhanced photograph accompanied by music–seems to criticize the instant prefab fame of media personalities like the Spice Girls. It stars Mori in life-size pop-singer form, complete with sequined clothing and her own theme song, and its colorful holographic composition encourages awestruck viewers to surround the work the way they might a celebrity on the street. Something of a media sensation herself, Mori creates a self-reflexive image that not only blurs the line between reality and media fantasy but satirizes and deflates her own apparent solipsism.

Mori’s video-audio installation Link of the Moon (1996) depicts the artist not only visually but aurally–it’s accompanied by her own a cappella singing of a song she wrote herself. Shown in a circular room on a number of wall-mounted monitors, the video–called “Miko No Inori”–shows smooth close-ups of Mori wearing the most otherworldly dress in any of her creations, dancing with a crystal ball in a train station. Her singing is pumped in from unseen speakers; the only sounds from the video itself are the train station’s arrival and departure bells. These fit perfectly into the a cappella music, however, helping to blur the viewer’s sense of where the reality of the train station ends and the near hallucinatory crystal dance begins–where Mori herself begins and ends in her own work. The video is so completely mesmerizing that I watched it loop three times, leaving only when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked politely if he could have a turn.

The works in this middle period go beyond the simple idea that technology is isolating to argue that, in a world where both personalities and reality are for sale, it’s not only difficult to be an ordinary individual, it’s difficult to dwell in ordinary space.

The exhibit’s final installation, and the one that has received the most fanfare, is Nirvana (1996-’97): it brings Mori’s earlier themes to a brilliantly ironic conclusion. The question behind the work is what place nirvana–the Buddhist state in which the individual rejects all worldly goods, pleasures, and sensations to dwell in spiritual peace–has in a megacapitalized, high-tech world that places wealth and sensation above all else.

Nirvana is essentially a trilogy. The first installment consists of four enormous (about 10 by 20 feet) glass-panel photography pieces–a familiar medium to Mori but much larger here, with natural instead of urban backgrounds: the Gobi Desert, the Dead Sea, Massif Cave, and the Painted Desert, all often viewed as holy places. Each piece represents one of the four elemental forces: wind, fire, water, and earth. Hung on four opposing walls, they seem to surround the viewer with the forces of nature.

Mori thrusts technology through the heart of each holy place, however, with computer graphics and replication; she’s also chosen sites infiltrated by technology–hundreds of electrical turbines whir in the middle of the Painted Desert. Computer-enhanced photographic images of Tibetan monks float in the Gobi Desert, and Mori, wearing ceremonial Japanese robes, rises above the Dead Sea surrounded by a court of computer-generated cartoon jesters. These pieces convey the same theme as her earlier photographs–the anonymity, solitude, and distorted reality associated with technology–but place it in a radical new context. Mori’s point seems to be that the world of megacapitalized technology has accustomed us to virtual solitude, opening the way to peace and enlightenment. All we have to do is wake up to the serenity that technological solitude, like meditation, can bring about. Technology doesn’t have to be dehumanizing–it can be liberating.

The second piece in Nirvana, an incredible three-dimensional video extension of one of the glass-panel works, aims to help wake us to this reality by using elemental images, three-dimensional computer animation, music, and even wind to create a new kind of meditation. Viewers entering the darkened room put on a pair of 3-D glasses, setting up the expectation of something hokey, like the 3-D movies that used mutant-octopus tentacles or streamers flapping in the wind to show off their effects. Here we see the jesters from the previous room and Mori again in her majestic garb. The jesters dance for a bit to piped-in music, then small, simple objects like colored spheres slowly move from the screen to just before your eyes and dwell there. For a moment these objects become all that exists for you, like the visual “mantras” that Tibetan monks use in meditation. Just before the video ends, an electronically cued burst of wind breaks your concentration and you return from your trance to reality.

But your self-awareness has been radically changed. Meditation makes you aware of your sensory impressions, and being aware of your senses can make the world difficult to navigate at first, even overwhelming. Thanks to the moment of meditation Mori provides, your senses are heightened, and as you leave the room you come upon the third element of the trilogy, the “Enlightenment Capsule.” This sculpture–a plastic “bubble” filled with transparent colored objects–glows during daylight hours thanks to a fiber-optic technique Mori’s late father invented to help transmit sunlight in dark, crowded Tokyo apartment buildings. Leaving the video installation with our senses full, we come upon an artificial structure glowing with natural light, and our senses are finally overwhelmed. Reaching a point of saturation, we attain an artistic and technological state of enlightenment.

With Nirvana Mori has gone far beyond the cliche of the loss of spirituality in a high-tech world, instead using technology as a vehicle for meditation, uncovering the spiritual reality in which we already dwell. And ironically her appeal to the senses–the quintessential weapon of techno capitalism–is what brings about our spiritual enlightenment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Birth of a Star” by Mariko Mori.