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October 29, 2013 5:35 pm
If you remember Mariko Mori parachuting into the art scene in the 1990s, striking wacky poses in gaudy manga outfits, you might be surprised by the mellow glow of Rebirth, the survey currently at the Japan Society in New York. Back then she photographed herself as a wide-eyed cyborg, an android idol or an extraterrestrial geisha serving tea to Tokyo businessmen on the run. In the monumental beach scene “Empty Dream” (1995) – her “Ile de la Grande Jatte” – she surfaced as four different mermaids in an indoor theme park. She was a techno Cindy Sherman festooned in cartoon colours, riffing on feminine tropes in Japanese pop culture.
But something happened to nudge Mori from hyper-hip princess to priestess of new-age spirituality. A member of one of Japan’s wealthiest clans, she was free from the pressures of the art market and the need to satisfy gallerists, collectors or curators, but she nevertheless wound up feeling trapped by fame. The costumes, the role-play, the manic stardom – all came to seem like the trappings of a burdensome life. So in 1997 she made a pilgrimage to Kumano, an area of Shinto shrines and spiritually resonant mountains in western Japan, where she experienced a revelation. The pop armature immediately fell away, along with the wink-wink criticisms of the fashion industry, sexism and consumer culture.
Rebirth is the product of that conversion, and in it we see her imagination cut loose from her body. Instead of being in front of the camera, she floats behind the scenes, translating her idiosyncratic acts of public healing into radiant abstractions. Bird-like balloons, cast in Lucite, swing from the ceiling of the Japan Society. A colossal lighted ring luminesces in front of a waterfall, and a crystal ball shimmers over a mound of salt. All that acrylic gives the work an insubstantial feeling as if it were nothing but blobs of ectoplasm about to dissolve into the ether. Mori hasn’t completely banished herself, though: in a hallway between galleries, we hear a childlike voice intone: “We are here/We came here to experience love/We came here to feel peace/We came here to share harmony.” That’s Mori, cutting what for her is a low profile. And even now she can’t resist posing for a publicity shot swathed in white robes, her dark hair in twin buns, like a zombie Princess Leia.
The muted mysticism of her latest orbs and biomorphs may appeal to viewers who share her spiritual sensibility, but those who find exaltation elusive can still experience a more worldly serenity. The trick is to overlook the references to cosmic movements and the “primal consciousness that transcends space, time, and language, penetrating through to our innermost souls”. Sceptics are better off approaching this exhibition the way a non-believer regards a painted crucifixion: attentive to its visual beauty, open to its emotions, and alert to its sacred intentions.
The most powerful pieces need no verbal armature. “Flatstone”, a composition of white glazed ceramic stones laid out on the floor, shimmers in a darkened gallery. The smooth, pale shapes, polished like riverbed pebbles and arranged in the form of a handheld mirror with a long grip, practically beg to be fondled. In the centre of the grouping an acrylic copy of an ancient earthenware vase rises above the ghostly landscape. The piece invokes the prehistoric artefacts of the Jōmon period in Japan, but its aesthetic is cool, modern and minimalist.
“Transcircle 1.1” convenes a band of nine translucent menhirs, lit from inside by coloured LEDs that brighten and fade at varying speeds. Each electric boulder doubles as a planet in the solar system, spun out of its orbit and united in a single ring. Traces of Stonehenge, Buddhist mandalas and Jōmon structures linger in Mori’s effort to find a universal symbol of eternity and rebirth.
In her solemn use of light, she adopts the sublime hyperbole of James Turrell. “White Hole” presents itself as an immersive experience of the heavens: you proceed down a narrow curving corridor and emerge into dark cylindrical space, where ribbons of light swirl in a slow dance above your head. But instead of evoking the brilliant death and rebirth of a star, as it is meant to, the piece offers little more than a moment of earthbound pallor, a dimly meditative spectacle.
Mori hasn’t quite left behind some of the signature obsessions of her youth. Traces of comic-book cuteness linger in her glow-in-the-dark lingams. Their pastel colours tell us she’s still thinking about gender – perhaps rebranding the Neolithic universe as feminine. This sort of kitsch reaches its apotheosis in the room-sized “Miracle”, where photographs of unidentifiable specks – stars or dust motes or magnified microbes maybe – are pressed between sheets of iridescent glass. A crystal pendulum skims a ring of glass globes. More glittering bubbles parade across her delicate drawings: little circles that cluster and bob, suggesting eggs, googly eyes, planets or capsules of breath under water. She may have intended them as droplets of enlightenment, but they gurgle too giddily to be taken seriously.
There’s a deadpan trickster quality to this exhibition; it’s hard to know whether Mori hopes to elicit a beatific smile or an ironic one. In the 1990s she distilled an entertaining mixture of high-gloss mockery and extravagant self-regard. Now her aura of astro-metaphysical graveness feels like another pose, one more incarnation of a shape-shifting persona in search of the next seduction.
Until January 12, japansociety.org
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