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Mariko Mori at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

Definitely the biggest event on Tokyo's contemporary art circuit this week was the opening of Mariko Mori's "Pure Land" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MoT). The fact that more than a few people were calling this exhibition a "retrospective" hints at how things are changing vis a vis artspeak, as the oldest work in the show dates back scarcely seven years. But that was all the time it took for young Mori (her actual age has become a closely-guarded family secret, but published reports peg her at 34) to get where she is today. Only seven years to rise from the Japanese kosupure craze (for "costume play," in which adolescents and adolescent adults use elaborate costumes and make up to transform themselves into manga and anime figures) to the station of international art superstar. Jeez, she must be doing something right!

This is a woman perfectly positioned. The political correctness wave that hit Western art in the 1980s washed away the idea that it was alright to organize museum and gallery shows by drawing only on white male artists. In the 1990s, curators actively sought out exotic personalities a la Haitian-born graffiti painter Jean Michel Basquiat. When it came time to throw an Asian into the mix, Mori proved the perfect ingredient. The artist's 1995's life-sized three dimensional photograph "The Birth of a Star," a delightfully sexy piece of eye candy which saw the ex-fashion model parodying a Japanese star-search style television program, was featured on the cover of the influential international magazine "Artforum." Naturally this caught the attention of collectors and curators, and Mori set up in New York City to best exploit her new cult status. She still lives there.

There are a half-dozen early works in the MoT show, billboard-sized and fantastic and always featuring Mori. In "Warrior" (1994), we find the artist in an arcade. She is a video game character come to life, done up in slick action wear, black boots and helmet, a machine gun clutched in her hands. One boy stares at hr, another continues playing his driving game, oblivious to her presence. In "Play With Me" (1994), Mori reifies the gormless cyborg doll, the otaku's dream, wide eyed and waiting outside an Akihabara computer shop. And so on.

Sometime around the middle of her career-thus-far, Mori morphed into the new age Eastern goddess character that she that she inhabits to this day. The transition began with "Miko no Minori" (The Shaman's Prayer), a 1996 video installation in which a futuristically-costumed Mori dreamily caresses a crystal ball while standing in the then-new Kansai International Airport. The spiritual affectation evolved in ambitious three-dimensional videos such as 1997's "Nirvana," in which viewers don special glasses to watch as Mori is born of one of seven floating balls of light, and flutters feathers outward from her fingertips. A droplet (of, I'm guessing, 'life energy'?) forms in Mori's midsection before floating off through the heavenly landscape which surrounds her. It returns to Mori and is sucked back inside her. The remaining balls of light, meanwhile, become little pastel-hued pixies, and one plays a mandolin while the others make cute little squeaking sounds and hover around their beloved Mori, who is dressed in a flowing silk kimono and can fly. Everyone dissolves into the cosmos, finally, and stars seem to shoot out of the screen and over the audience.

Best in show is "Kumano," a 1997-98 photo installation which features a Japanese garden and stone path. This leads one to the "Dream Temple," a room-filling piece based on the Horiyuji Temple in Nara. "Dream Temple" was first shown in Milan, at the Fondazione Prada, in 1999. Visitors can enter the structure (with appointment, and one at a time), and be sealed in a chamber which resembles the inside of a giant basketball. Here there are headphones playing spacey music and a concave screen on which is projected a four minute video program of abstract cosmic imagery, although I did think I saw a frisbee in there somewhere.

The show is rounded out by a series of works on round glass, these based on the images in the "Dream Temple" video and quite nice; and a selection of pencil on paper drawings which are, at best, forgettable. Stick with the high-tech, Mariko…

"Pure Land" is pop guru Mori's first solo show at a Japanese museum. Like a big pink piece of bubble gum, it is saccharine and it is fun -- and it is insubstantial.

Notes: Mariko Mori's "Pure Land" is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku, Tokyo, 03-5245-4111), until March 24 2002.
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