Synthetic Dreams: The Art of Mariko Mori

Robert Jarrell

[T]he great challenge for artists is to find images that go beyond their personal circumstances to express something humanity can identify with. That something is usually one of five essential experiences: birth, death, love, sex, and beauty. When you encounter Mariko Mori’s otherworldly being (especially her penetratingly beautiful reflective eyes) in Link of the Moon (1996), you see all these aspects at once. The video installation utilizes DVD on five screens and shows a kata, (a form, meditative movement, or pattern — especially used in study of martial arts), performed by Mori’s sci-fi persona inside an airport. She handles a small capsule resembling a crystal ball, and her movements resemble those seen in butoh or mime. The capsule is like a seed, symbolizing transformation and transport. Curious travelers notice Mori, but have no time to stop. They pass her by, and are reflected in the capsule as minute, colorful distortions. Her kata is meditative, seductive, and haunting, like a strange dream that holds you spellbound, one you wish to never wake up from because it’s more beautiful than anything you’ve experienced in your waking state.

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Mariko Mori broke into the international art scene with her large-scale self-portrait photography in the mid-1990s. Not limiting herself within this medium she adopted multi-media techniques and has since created a mélange of installations, video, and performance that incorporate high-fashion, sci-fi pop, traditional Japanese rituals, Shinto Onmyodo spirituality, and music. Her themes are eclectic, embracing the fantasies of post-everything Japan and its extreme experimentation while recontextualizing traditional customs, mannerisms, and trends. You can’t point to a single style in Mori’s work, but you can find one common quality, the key to understanding her art and belief system, which is not Buddhist or Shinto, but rather based on technology. Here are five key statements by Mori:

1) “Technology insists on defining what is absent, the unknown center hidden within us.”
2) “Art and technology seek the new or the imminent future; they share the same anxieties and conditions, and aspire to resolve the essential problems of humanity.”
3) “The development of technology seems linked with the desire to make human utopias possible.”
“Technology is the unending search for both an eternal loss and an eternal present.”4)
5) “Visualization by means of technology—as in computer graphics and virtual reality systems—helps me to concretize a space in which it might become possible, through a visual and auditory experience, to look inside oneself: deeper consciousness.”

Technology is Mori’s art, subject matter, and in a sense, her religion. Inspired by the concept that all things in the universe are interconnected, Mori effortlessly fuses technology with artistic expression. In Nirvana (1996-97), for example, when Mori transforms into a flying divinity she draws inspiration from Buddhist iconography, but she is not recreating the classic symbol — rather she is presenting a divinity of the future.

A former model and fashion designer before her art career, Mori also attended art school in London, where she asked instructors why there were no sewing machines in the sculpture department. She began designing costumes and incorporated advertising and media techniques in her art. After she graduated, Mori’s kitsch-like photos instantly caught the eye of the art world, through her fabrication of a series of outrageous and provocative personas. “The clothes represent the skin, the shell of an individual,” she says of her costumes. “They are an expression of my identity and ideas.”

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Mori has transformed herself into a chic cyborg, artificial mermaid, and salient goddess, among other creations, and has placed herself in archetypical Tokyo settings such as the red-light district in Kabukicho, an Akihabara software store, Shibuya station, a love hotel, and subway train. These settings reflect a future in the present now, and what better place to emphasize this than Tokyo, the sant, or metropolis, of cutting edge technology and design, Earth’s most futuristic city to date?

Mori’s portraits are engaging not because of their slick, pseudo-contemporary presentation, or her experiments in persona transformations, but rather because of her ability to illuminate the illusory character of cultural perspectives and perverse desires. Japan is not her audience, rather Japan is her subject; she meditates on Japan in the context of a global audience, exposing foreigners’ perceptions of Japan, as well as Japan’s perceptions of itself.

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One of Mori’s early self-portraits, Birth of a Star (1995), depicts a teen rocker with spiky violet hair, dressed in pop music fashion. It’s a silly, colorful work that surprises with sexual undertones. The power of Birth of a Star is the way the viewer is both put off and seduced by Mori’s ambiguousness. Moreover, it is a self-proclaimed prediction of her own success, as if somehow Mori knew she would be an art star. It resembles, in its simplicity, portraits throughout history: Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1489) and Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Jug (c. 1655). Like those classic portraits, Birth of a Star encapsulates a specific time and place, and 200 years from now will exemplify what it was like to be in 1995 Tokyo.

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Also sexually covert and ambiguous is my favorite Mori portrait, Play with Me (1994). Mori presents herself as a manga heroine with blue-velvet hair, wearing a dominatrix space suit. She waits outside a konbini (convenience store), next to a manga video game. Prices are tagged on every object from store goods to sale items and one feels there is a price tag on her, too. Three Japanese men, caught photographically as a blur, enter the konbini and pay no attention to her. Waiting for a man to approach her, Mori’s heroine is momentarily distracted and looks to the sky as if gazing at a star. There is hope and innocence in her eyes and a mystical tension in her expression. The title of this self-portrait does not refer to the video game. When the cuteness of the photo wears off and the title wears on, one realizes that Mori’s manga persona is a commodity, a cute and seductive soapland prostitute recontextualized into a sci-fi sex fantasy. The power of this portrait is similar to Birth of a Star as it shifts from cute innocence to perverse sexuality.

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There has been a long-term identity crisis concerning Japanese women’s role in contemporary society. Should they behave in traditional manner, or be modern Issey Miyake women, or both? Mori’s Tea Ceremony (1994) explores this theme, casting herself as a Japanese office worker serving tea on the street to a male office worker. There are two unusual qualities about this portrait. Firstly, she serves tea outside on the street, not inside an office. Secondly, she wears a typical office uniform, but with the addition of a silver head-piece with pointy ears, giving her the appearance of an alien.

The incongruity of the contemporary office worker’s alien uniform and her behaving traditionally is subtle, but successfully expresses the dilemma she faces. Two salarymen walk by, one frowning, one smiling, but neither looking at her. Mori pays no attention to them either, but rather offers tea to someone approaching her, still outside the photograph. This is significant. The office girl (the contemporary Japanese woman) is a kind of alien and Mori, in situating the office event on the street, is commenting on the dislocation of tradition.

Mori’s later works have moved away from sant, from all earthly places, and fuse collage with computer generated graphics to create otherworldly, myth-like spaces. A recurring motif in these later works is the capsule, an updated technological symbol of metamorphosis. It is presented in various media: video, photographs, and installation. Mori’s physical relationship to the capsule keeps changing; either she is placed inside it, holds it in her palm as if it is a futuristic crystal ball, or the capsule exists on its own terms. The capsule was first used in one of Mori’s portraits, In the Beginning of the End (1994), where her persona was transformed into a hybrid alien-human living in a capsule at Shibuya Station in Tokyo. Mori uses the capsule to comment on Japan’s culture of hyper-hygienic aesthetics, but also its role of being fully present and partly responsible for the transformations in world space and world culture. The capsule is an alternate space to exist in and serves as protection, but also a way to breathe, dream, live, and in the end perhaps to hatch and transform.

The only work where Mori is separated from the capsule is Enlightenment Capsule (1998), an installation work consisting of a glass capsule made from fiber-optic cables. It is a prime example of how technology is a metaphysical, if not religious, medium for Mori. The capsule inside the gallery or museum is connected to a sensor placed on the roof and utilizes chromatic deviations that separate ultraviolet and infrared rays from sunlight, generating a synthetic lotus blossom. Mori is interested in light’s physical, spiritual, and metaphysical properties, and here she achieves a combination of the spiritual and scientific, uniting both visible and invisible forces.

Mori’s capsule is a preservation vehicle against time’s natural decay. It contains and prolongs, like a transformative seed. It is Mori’s refutation of the jisei, the farewell poem to life, which expresses the beauty and mystery of death. Her capsule does not celebrate death, it aids in distancing death. But for Mori, like the Buddhist. This doesn’t mean death is absent from Mori’s thoughts, rather, her concept of death, like Buddhist philosophy, is not of an end to life; the illusions of life and death are created by the ego. Mori muses:


Death is already present at the time of birth and even if one does not think about it, one is always more or less conscious of one’s own death in the future. I feel strongly that, both in the Orient and the Occident, the origin and the terminus of expression is death. What is very interesting to me is the idea that everything has its own consciousness. I have my consciousness and can recognize it, and I can also recognize the consciousness of others. If all the creatures in the existing world have consciousness, then the Earth should have it, and the solar system and all the planets, galaxies, the whole universe, and every single atom should have it. All of these things that seem to lack order are in fact ordered; and all things are united in some way.

Like the brush-drawn Buddhist enso circle symbolizing eternal recurrence, death continues the transformation of being. Mori replaces the enso figure with the capsule, a new symbol that updates death, time, and the aesthetic sensibilities of our technological age.

In her early twenties Mori had a life-changing experience; she couldn’t wake from a deep sleep and thought she was dead. The experience lasted six hours:

It was as if my consciousness had begun the program leading to death. I lost my sight and my hearing, I had a strange sensation of streams, and then I began to recall, in a short time, my entire life backward until the moment of my birth, or even before my birth. Then, suddenly I found myself in complete darkness. It took me a long time to regain consciousness. I passed through this stage and experienced the whole process of coming back. This process starts from a state of nothingness, a state without memory. The first thing I remembered was that I was a living thing, a life. A long time passed before I finally remembered I was a human being. Then I remembered I was on Earth. I recalled a mother and a child; and in the same way that I had returned to my origin, I came back to the present and remembered what had happened to me. In my consciousness I felt as if I were reincarnated, as if I had become a different being. Ever since, I have wondered and asked myself what that experience was, and now I look at death from the other side.

An experience like that makes a deeper impression then any artwork. Mori never forgot it. She recently stated, “I am always wondering why I am here and thinking that I will die because I am living.” The experience occurred before Mori’s art success, so one can assume that it influenced her work. Mori’s art, technological visions of immortality, death, and utopia, reflects this experience and indulges in these realms as a natural human impulse. Mori’s art is a reflection of human desire for utopia achieved by technology.

Dream Temple (1998) is Mori’s cynosure, her utopian manifestation as art object and most sophisticated work to date. Dream Temple was inspired by the Horyuji Yomedono (translated as “Dream Temple”) in the ancient prefecture of Nara located south of Kyoto. The Yumedono dates from around 739 AD and is one of the earliest meditation spaces in Japan. Prince Shotoku used the shrine to meditate and study Buddhist scriptures and had extraordinary Onmyodo-like dream visions resulting in the creation of the spiritually-charged statue Guze Kannon, which was placed inside the temple’s core and is the principal object of worship. It is the same height as Prince Shotoku and symbolizes his body and soul. The word “guze” comes from the Saddharmapundarika sutra and means “saving people from suffering.” Legend has it that Prince Shotoku was visited in his dreams by a boddhisattva who taught him difficult sutras. “I felt a strong link between the Horyuji Yomedono and what I wanted to do artistically,” Mori explains. “When I saw the temple in person I was struck by its incredible beauty and by the statue of the Guze Kannon, which has a spiritual strength beyond its physical form. After this experience I was driven to create my Dream Temple project.”

Visiting the Dream Temple is a unique experience. I had this opportunity when I attended Mori’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT) in Kiba, Tokyo. Anyone can see the Dream Temple from the outside, but to enter it you have to make a reservation when you pay at the museum entrance. The Dream Temple was sensibly placed near the end of the exhibition, followed only by Miracle (2001), a series of abstract digital paintings on glass. Prior to arriving at the Dream Temple I walked through the Garden of Purification, a large installation with crystal Zen gardens, footpaths, and a large-scale still taken from the video Kumano (1998). Conceptually purified, I was ready to enter the temple. Before I did so, however, I had to confirm my reservation. I was asked to take off my shoes and put on a clean pair of white stockings four sizes too small for my feet. They seemed like something an alien might wear, with a grid-like pattern on the soles to prevent slipping — cool, even if they were too small. I then waited on a bench with five other people.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do, or what I was going to experience. I had seen photos of the Dream Temple, but never realized you could actually enter it, or more significantly, enter it alone. Finally, when it was my turn, the attendant helped me up the steps to the core of the temple. She opened its central doors. Inside was a pure white space like the inside of a shell, a place of peacefulness and purity. I was told to enter, sit on the white mattress, and put on a pair of headphones that lay on the floor. She said she would return in five minutes, and closed the doors. Soothing ambient music began and I watched a series of abstract images flicker across a wide screen.

Dream Temple expresses themes of energy, meditation, and technology, but is limited in the ways that most art is, being less like an actual temple and more like a synthetic art object. We witness Dream Temple, step inside it, meditate in it, experience it, but then forget it, because the experience doesn’t feel as much like a spiritual activity as it does like going to see a movie. One reason for this is that we don’t go there daily to meditate in it. We pay 2,000 yen, and experience it as a spectator. Unfortunately, this limitation hinders most of Mori’s art. Her remarkable visions of technology don’t change our existence in the same way that a spiritual experience can. Oddly though, I must confess that I desire to experience a temple like Mori’s because, although verging on kitsch, it cultivates technology, beauty, good design, and a pleasing aesthetic…

In both traditional and contemporary terms, Japanese art seems mostly flat and two-dimensional; it has always lacked fundamental linear perspective. This notion reflects the most profound difference between Western and Eastern thought, culture, and religion. Mori ponders:

What is the difference between the vanishing point in European perspective and the Oriental concept of the void or emptiness? The unpainted space in Japanese traditional art is not meant as a void, but sometimes represents the infinite symbolic or mental sphere. The difference is an approach to death too, in a vision of life and death, that has resulted in extremely different expressions.

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Japanese artistic expression attempts to find passage from real space to virtual space. An example of this is the difference between Buddha images depicted in paintings and as sculptures. The Buddha statue primarily represents “becoming,” whereas the Buddha painting captures “what is” while remaining considerably stagnant and confined. The Buddha statue is more alive, but still has limitations. “This state of becoming cannot be completely expressed in a form,” muses Shinichi Nakazawa, author of Thirty Thousand Years of Teaching on Death. “The attempt to grasp this state when it appears, like bubbles from the void, is at the core of Japanese art as well as Japanese thought.” Mori’s art in this context strives for passages and searches to “become.”

Mariko Mori’s portraits, videos, performances and installations form a unique expression by a contemporary Japanese woman successfully uniting art, fashion, technology, and spirituality. Mori questions the conditions of her homeland and the way the world attempts to understand it. Her art transcends common notions, and, like the various perspectives of a prism lens, reveals different views of the identity of contemporary Japanese women, the cultural landscape of Japan’s place in the world, and Japan’s role as a technological culture. She offers a new aesthetic of beauty and peace, capturing the beautiful, positive possibilities of technology and depicting our dreams and desires as possibilities to come.

What is problematic with Mori’s art, specifically her self-portraits, is that it comes across as the indulgence of a pretentious, hip, 21st century wannabe shaman. Mori’s spiritual sensibilities are visible in most of her work. She succeeds to some degree, but I leave her work feeling the same way one does after watching a nifty music video — momentarily engaged, visually inspired, but somehow spiritually depleted. Mori’s art offers us visual brilliance without significant, life-changing wisdom. Her gift is on the surface, the beauty of images. Mori is dreaming, and her dreams are beautiful, but I long to see her art go beyond this — to capture something more profound and humanly real.

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Robert Jarrell

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