“I wouldn’t be an artist if it wasn’t for Tracey Emin don’t run that as a headline,” says Simon Fujiwara in one breath. “As a teenager, I was dealing with a lot of identity struggle – especially about sexuality – in this tiny town St Ives, and suddenly a headline appears on our kitchen table about an artist – and she’s not wearing a tie or calico shirt, she’s dancing around making things most people think are totally worthless – this filthy bed. I was absolutely riveted: I thought this thing I am sleeping in now could be art.”
Slight, dark-haired, with piercing eyes and mobile features, 29-year-old Fujiwara is the son of an English mother and Japanese father who, each unwilling to live in the other’s country, chose St Ives because picture postcards suggested “it didn’t look typically British”. In the end, his father refused to live there, and Fujiwara had a varied education: at a nursery school organised around his mother’s Aga, at Harrow and Cambridge, interspersed with a year playing cello – “I was a kind of Asian Nigel Kennedy” – at a Tokyo punk bar where “I dyed my hair a different colour every week.”
He must be the most unlikely prodigal son ever to return to St Ives. Tate’s Cornwall offshoot focuses on local avant-gardes – Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson – but Fujiwara remembers “the most exciting thing in St Ives was Woolworths”, and that his chief encounter with Hepworth was “a fire officer who came to school to tell us not to smoke because Barbara Hepworth died in a fire started by a cigarette”.
His show at Tate St Ives opens today. We met last week in London when he stopped for breakfast at the National Gallery café en route to Cornwall from his Berlin home.
“I moved to Berlin because there was no urban advertising. I’m very fickle, as soon as I see an image or interesting person I latch on to them,” he explains. “Berlin offers nothing, it doesn’t say, hey, today you could be this, it just says, deal with it. The Germans are so bad at advertising, it’s not in their psyche – coquetry, trickery, wit, self-deprecation, manipulation, they can’t do it.”
But Fujiwara can: these are precisely the techniques that play fact against fiction, autobiography against self-invention, in his tightly coiled performances and narrative installations which are garnering increasing international interest, and suggest he is in the vanguard of a new 21st-century genre.
“Desk Job”, an arrangement of props relating futile attempts by a modernist writer to set down his erotic memories, featured in the 2009 Venice Biennale’s Nordic-Danish “The Collector”, masterminded by Elmgreen and Dragset (Ingar Dragset is Fujiwara’s boyfriend). “Frozen” was the hit of Frieze Art Fair 2010: Fujiwara built fake remains of a decadent, art- and sex-crazed city underneath the fair’s tents, dazzlingly ridiculing the excess at Regent’s Park.
Fujiwara studied architecture, and games of faux-reconstruction, mental and physical, dominate his new show. In “Selective Memory”, “horrible, garish, enormous” lighthouses may or may not evoke childhood recollections, “innocence, a sense of safety”. “The Mirror Stage” recalls his teenage bedroom and adolescent erotic/aesthetic response to Patrick Heron’s “Horizontal Stripe Painting”, an iconic St Ives piece. “Creation is erotic,” Fujiwara says. “With sex there’s a glimpse of excitement, the offer of another world, another interior – it’s the great unresolvable, because to come down to real physical basics, it’s only resolvable by sticking something into a hole.” “Welcome to the Hotel Munber” recreates a kitsch Spanish bar, characterised by phallic objects – sausages, horns and homosexual porn: the setting for an attempt to write a novel about a repressed homosexual, supposedly Fujiwara’s father. The title refers to a hotel that was indeed run by Fujiwara’s parents in Franco’s Spain.
Shades of Emin’s Margate “Hotel International”? Yes, except a wall text reads “Fujiwara repeatedly claims that his conception and early years living in the Hotel Munber were strong influences on his work. However, accurate historical research has revealed that this could not have been the case, as Fujiwara was born over three years after his parents relocated to the UK. To date the novel remains incomplete.” Like all the exhibition’s texts, this was written by Fujiwara and embodies his oeuvre’s circularity, unreliability, mockery – of art, history, museums, his own narcissism.
“My ambition for a work is its believability,” he claims. “My work has been a lot about academia, freeing myself from it while making things look very researched, historical, but the root is to ask what the hell is the point, is any of it true or not, is it all fabricated? It comes from deep boredom with the status quo – including my own life.”
This is said enthusiastically: another self-parody, I presume. “I have no more personas than anyone else – I just formalise them!” Fujiwara counters, then surveys me intently. “You will have five personas today – you’re being lovely to me, then you’ll be an arsehole in the office, then you’ll sweet-talk the gasman . . . I don’t want to present my persona as exotic, it’s not a super-conscious choice like a politician, but especially with today’s – I’m only going to say these two words once – social media, my generation has been able to create such a theatrical world for themselves with no materials, just a collection of texts and images.”
Is this shaping today’s young artists? “My generation is different, its speed, the turnover of everything, that’s why there’s an increasing sense of fiction in our work, artists feel freer to move into narrative,” he says. “And this idea that everyone’s an artist – print your world, make the home cinema version of your baby being born, choose the soundtrack: all this technology sold to make us feel free, creative, individual. I’m completely absorbed by it, but the proliferation and de-elitism of art – it may be the end of art; unattainability was always the sex and attraction of it.”
He adds that he shies away from dealing with Facebook and social sites directly “because people accept stories when they are more removed – my work looks antiquated, my so-called research is done on Wikipedia, whoever can come and find all the references wrong. But we’re finally living out Naked Lunch [William Burrough’s novel about a junkie assuming different aliases]. This is Naked Breakfast!”
Simon Fujiwara, Tate St Ives, January 18-May 7