Kunié Sugiura: Although we are generations apart, we both are Japanese women artists using photography who studied abroad and live and work in New York now. Why did you leave Japan?
Mariko Mori: Not much freedom there. I was looking for freedom freedom to express myself on the outside and as a whole. Japan is a unified society which does not allow for individualism. It was difficult for me. I was relieved when I went to London to study because of the opportunity for individualism there. In Japan people try not to behave outside of common standards. You are constantly reminded not to step out of line. I did not accept that. Even as a child, I knew that it was not that way in foreign countries. I was compelled to escape as soon as possible.
Sugiura: So after you studied in London, you came to New York to study some more and now you have decided to live here.
Mori: New York is terrific. It is like the museum of the world. As we visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and go to the Asian, European and Egyptian rooms, the city itself is progressing in terms of its cultural forms. If we want to learn about a particular culture, usually we would have to go to that country. But in New York, we can have some contact with those communities daily, so that it seems a very evolved society. I can be a Japanese, or a New Yorker or even a "transcended" person regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc.
Sugiura: When I came to New York in the late 1960s, the SoHo scene was starting. I used to go to SoHo from where I lived on the Upper West Side and I would see famous artists walking around, shopping. Art seemed to be juxtaposed with everyday life and not situated in a higher, rarefied space.
Mori: What is happening [in art] in New York is compared with the collective mentality in this society. In London the culture and social conditions are influenced. In both places time and culture are closely related. In Japan there is a situation where its culture exists apart. But they try to create art, music, etc. in a different context that does not reflect reality. But recently, work connected within its own context has been appearing in Japanese society. Confidence is appearing in contemporary culture. Japanese architecture and fashion are recognized respectively worldwide.
Sugiura: I recently got to know about the Gutai group of the 1950s and the Mono-ha school of the 1970s art that is compared to abstract expressionism, conceptualism, arte povera and process art here. When they were created, these works were not to be seen or communicated much outside of Japan. Maybe because Japan was not powerful economically and it is not generally recognized in the same cultural sphere as America and Europe. But since World War II there were always small but persistent contemporary art movements using traditional esthetics and this recent art could be considered as the extension of these movements. You and I have opportunities to know the situation and background in Japan and we are also are familiar with methods and technique. Since we studied in the West we have a chance to communicate with audiences here, which artists were trying to do in Japan for a long time. We owe this to people who support and encourage us.
I saw two exhibitions of yours in New York. There were photographs of you playing different types of women against backgrounds of Tokyo. Are they comments about Japanese society?
Mori: Yes, especially Tea Ceremony and Love Hotel.
Sugiura: Did you show them in Japan? What were the reactions to them?
Mori: Some of them were published in a magazine there. Some people said "No more uniforms for students," etc. Yet when I was at some company, a woman employee (O.L. in Japanese means Office Lady) not only served tea, but she knelt too. There are opportunities for women, but employers take girls for granted. Girls and employers both start from resignation not humbleness but abandonment. Most of the girls have desire for material wealth but not for higher ambitions. But girls are actually career women who are super women who must work harder than men and also take care of husbands and do all the housework.
Sugiura: It is also surprising to me that your photographs are about teenage not adult fantasies. The subjects and focus are new and fresh from Japan. Recently I saw works dealing with teen fantasies, memories and confessions done by other artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, AC2K, Sean Landers, Larry Clark, etc.
Mori: When I went back to Japan after a long stay here, I thought that the youth culture was most energetic. Up to then, culture consisted of western simulations and fakes imported from abroad. I was absorbed and stimulated and they were original and so powerful. When I was in London, I wanted to forget the fact that I was Japanese and wanted to express myself as an individual and singular entity. But since I moved to New York, there are so many ethnic groups and different cultures here that many people were curious about where I came from. I was reminded of my Japanese-ness and felt that I could not escape from it. And I was raised in that environment.
Sugiura: In your work, you use images of yourself.
Mori: That originates from when I was a fashion model, at around age sixteen. Often I designed my own cloths and made them myself (I studied at a fashion college) and I asked a photographer to take a photograph of myself wearing the cloths that I made. Some way my work is the extension of those experiences. Further back into my childhood, my father loved to take photographs of me. When I was nine I made my own costumes for a school play and I experienced becoming different characters. I loved to document myself as different images and I think my work evolved after this favorite activity. The photographs I exhibited in New York juxtaposed reality and fantasy. There was everyday life and fantasy was dismantling that reality. After this series I am now thinking of work which would remove me from the experience of everyday living.
Sugiura: What are you working on now?
Mori: My work is heading toward more public performance and fantasy. I am making an Enlightenment Capsule for the audience to meditate inside virtual reality in which people can experience ancient ideas from the East. In Mandala it says to have big passions, not small ones. In Buddhism to be human is egoistic and it is told that one must repress desire. But Mandala affirms human desire. Small passion is for the self but big passion is for society or for other people. But I'm not interested in using ancient things; rather I want to connect them with contemporary life through the technology we have now. On the surface it appears high tech but looking into it one feels the genesis of traditional matters.
Sugiura: I agree with what you are doing. I like to think of my photograms as primary photography similar to the early inventors in the nineteenth century who struggled to document the image on paper. I secretly hope that I can grasp their excitement and joy through making photograms. I was intuitively attracted to photograms but they connect with oriental art and esthetics too. Because by eliminating the camera there is no perspective from the camera lens and one can create space by a chemical process that is similar to the staining of Sumi ink. Also, photograms document objects as shadows on photographic paper in which real-metaphoric relations can be compared to Wabi-Sabi esthetics involving ideas of transience, time and nature. I was exploring photography and discovered photograms. Learning western techniques and ideas has lead me back into searching for Japanese esthetics and culture. This happens to many artists who go to other countries and find themselves reconnecting to the things and ideas they thought they had left behind.
Mori: I respect some excellent aspects of Eastern culture. For example, elegance permeates a form or object by its suppression, in contrast to the more obviously gorgeous elegance of the West. Lifestyles in non-western cultures are mingled with others, even in Japan. The Western world is getting acquainted with eastern philosophy. Of course, there are already the examples of Paul Gauguin in Tahiti and the Orientalism of the Impressionists. In cosmopolitan cities both cultures coexist now. We can have some language to make a balance for both worlds. And in contemporary art, expressions are changing to include many choices of media, not only painting, photography, photography as conceptual art, video, architectural sculpture, sculpture using costume or fashion. We are freer now to express in art. I like to express using new methods. Art is a common vocabulary among developed countries.
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.