Space Oddity: Mariko Mori

Mariko Mori. Photo by David Sims
Mariko Mori. Photo by David Sims

On the two occasions that I meet with Tokyo-born, New York-based artist Mariko Mori, she is dressed in austere white, in fabrics and a cut that looks chaste if not a little severe. It’s her trademark look, white on white, like a living, breathing Robert Ryman work. With her black hair pulled back into two buns, a soft soothing cadence to her speech, and a quiet serenity that governs her every gesture and movement, there is something ethereal and otherworldly about Mori. She resembles a high priestess, or perhaps more deliberately a miko, a Shinto shrine maiden or shaman. There’s a ghostly elusiveness about her too, as if she can slip out of reach at any moment. She is in fact, the embodiment of her work, which often deals with exactly that; the ethereal, the galactic, the impalpable.

Mori’s projects aim to inspire in people a new consciousness that celebrates our existing balance with nature. For her Royal Academy show in London last year, her exhibition, ‘Rebirth’, which included works produced over the past decade, explored death, rebirth, nature, consciousness and the cosmos. She tries to make the invisible visible, the incomprehensible comprehensible, to convey all of existence, our universe, in one exhibition. It couldn’t get any broader. Or any simpler. Her current works are infused with a cold, almost restrained, elegant simplicity.

A former fashion model in Japan, Mori hotfooted it to London in the late 1980s to study art at Chelsea College of Art and Design, later relocating to New York. The early part of her career drew on her experience as a model and involved lots of dress-up performances for transformative self-portraits in the vein of Cindy Sherman. They were the kind of predictable futuristic Japanime cyborg thing that deliberately drew on Japanese cultural and gender stereotypes, such as ‘Play With Me’ (1994) and ‘Birth of a Star’ (1995). But by the late 1990s she moved from performative photography into nonfigurative sculptural installation, juxtaposing contrasting languages of technology and spirituality while maintaining an aesthetic steeped in the tradition of minimalism and conceptual art.

Mori is fascinated with ancient cultures and traditions, both Eastern and Western, using technology to pay homage to these often forgotten lost worlds – from Japanese Jomon culture to Stonehenge to the entire cosmos. Her celebrated work, ‘Tom Na H-Iu II’, a futuristic monolith inspired by the ancient Celts, stands sentry, a 4.5m lone glass standing stone, resembling a left-over part of a stone circle. It pulses with coloured LED light as though it is breathing, transfixing the viewer with its hypnotic rhythm. The source of the coloured light are electronic particles, neutrinos, that are emitted during the explosive death of a star, and transmitted via internet by the Super-Kamiokande observatory at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Cosmic Ray Research in Japan.

The artist’s commitment to the creation of slick technological site-specific installations in nature, has resulted in an ongoing project, a monumental permanent installation, ‘Primal Rhythm’, rooted to the landscape of Seven Light Bay of Miyako Island in Okinawa, Japan. The installation consists of a sun pillar and an egg-shaped ‘Tida Dome’ that changes colour with tidal movements. Mori has chosen exact coordinates so that at the time of the winter solstice, the shadow of the sun pillar will cast over the ‘Tida Dome’ — a symbolic union of celestial and terrestrial, and masculine and feminine.

This is work devoid of cynicism, or irony; it’s dead serious, so don’t expect a punch line at the end of it. In an era where there is witty navel-gazing contemporary art aplenty, swelling with absurdities, jokes and references, her work may take a bit of adjusting to. But once you do, perhaps you’ll get that little bit closer to understanding her message of contemplation and communion with nature.

I caught up with her in Hong Kong on the eve of her performance for Asia Society and Kreemart‘s gala dinner during Art Basel Hong Kong week, and chatted about culture, consciousness, and the importance of ‘onesness’.

Mariko Mori, 'Tom Na H-Iu II', 2006. Photo by: Richard Learoyd
Mariko Mori, ‘Tom Na H-Iu II’, 2006. Photo by: Richard Learoyd


post-ism: Your work seems to have moved from performative photography and a preoccupation with technology and cyborgs into nonfigurative sculptural installation and in particular large site-specific installations. What prompted this shift?

Mariko Mori: Around 1996-97 I was creating a work using Buddhist iconography, and I started to do research on Eastern philosophy. And although I was using my own body to produce artwork at the time, I felt that I needed to talk about deeper consciousness. I found when I wanted to express ideas on deeper consciousness I no longer needed a body to create an artwork. I think that was a shift in the transaction of producing non-figurative work.

Technology plays an integral role in the production and creation of your work, yet a lot of the work has a spiritual element drawing from the past, especially ancient cultures. How do you reconcile these elements in your work?

After ‘Wave UFO’, which is an interactive work, my research was to find a universal language and universal ideas. When I visited a prehistoric site I realized that back then we didn’t have any cultural boundaries between different continents; we shared universal ideas. The prehistoric people were deeply rooted in nature and had strong ties with nature. I thought this is something I want to share with people in contemporary society, to remind us how we’re connected to nature, how our ancestors honoured nature and respected nature. But I also wanted to use contemporary language; the universal language of today is science and technology. I wanted to utilise science and technology to remind us of our connection with nature.

You talk about universality as a means for people to connect to you work, yet you’re constantly referred to as a Japanese artist, one of Japan’s most significant artists. But you left Japan a long time ago. How do you see yourself? Is Japanese-ness still important in your work?

Hmmm…. I’ll say yes. I think it’s very important to keep your traditional culture in order to respect other cultures. You recognize a difference, but you also recognize something that we share. On the surface of culture you see the differences, but essentially, on a fundamental level, all cultures are connected. The evidence of that can be witnessed in prehistoric culture and how our culture has evolved from prehistoric culture. We’re all part of the same human species. We belong to this earth. The idea of unity is quite important to remember.

Our society is part of life on earth. It’s a power of 10. The earth is part of the solar system; the solar system is part of the galaxy; and the galaxy is part the universe. This universe could be part of a multi universe … we are all connected. Our consciousness makes divisions between the inner and outer world. It’s only a perception in our mind. Every world is part of a whole. We share the one planet. In that sense we are all connected and we’re part of a whole.

Do you have a specific premeditated idea for a project or do your ideas evolve organically through your research and readings?

I think there’s always a path. When I get to some place, I discover something that leads to another, and that continues. So, it’s an endless learning process.

What’s the symbolic significance of white for you? It’s prevalent in your work and in your image.

I feel it’s the closest to light. Every being seems to me to be light, kind of invisible light. It’s a source of energy. You don’t see it physically, but life equals light.

How would you describe the purpose or message of your work?

I try to remember and remind of the idea of Oneness in my work. The performance at Asia Society is called ‘Oneness’ also. I really want to share this idea to remind us of this.

That performance draws on the tradition of the tea ceremony. Can you tell me why you’ve chosen to incorporate that into your work?

The tea ceremony is something I’ve been studying. It’s a window for me to study my own traditional culture. The most important thing I found in the tea ceremony is respect for the other; in a way it’s like the Buddha serving tea to another Buddha. It’s creating a space where you take out all your preconceptions or social structure and every day life and you enter into this space where you serve tea honoring the other person. It’s a simple gesture, but it’s a fundamental relationship between one and the other. I wanted to utilise this idea, so I invited a tea ceremony practitioner to my performance (Eliza). She’s Hong Kong Chinese but we were in the same class in New York. The ceremony was founded by a tea master in the 16th century, but the form hasn’t changed since. It continued to develop in contemporary society too.

Mariko Mori, 'Dream Temple', 1997-1999. Photo by: Richard Learoyd
Mariko Mori, ‘Dream Temple’, 1997-1999. Photo by: Richard Learoyd
Mariko Mori, 'Wave UFO', 1999-2003. Photo by: Richard Learoyd
Mariko Mori, ‘Wave UFO’, 1999-2003. Photo by: Richard Learoyd

Mariko Mori, 'Transcircle', 2004
Mariko Mori, ‘Transcircle’, 2004

Mariko Mori, performance of 'Oneness' at Asia Society gala dinner, HK. Photo courtesy of Stefano Todiglione
Mariko Mori, performance of ‘Oneness’ at Asia Society gala dinner, HK. Photo courtesy of Stefano Todiglione

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