A Zone of Her Own

In her 3-D video, Nirvana (1996–97), Mariko Mori flies through the air with the greatest of ease—right at you. Decked out in pseudo-Shinto, Star Wars high-priestess drag, Mori floats over a glimmering landscape like a holographic Madonna, moving her henna-stained hands in exotic Indian dance motions—as if to bless us—and chanting a soothing song of peace. Weird spheres of light enter her torso, a burning egg appears, and the Milky Way revolves over your head.

Mori never reaches you, but her messengers do—dozens of violet feathers, shining orbs, and miniature bodhisattvas drift past you—and you are happy. When I saw Nirvana in Venice two years ago, the wafting feathers were synchronized with perfumed whiffs of sweet anise. Potential lawsuits and allergies forbid the smell-o-vision element in Brooklyn, but it doesn't really matter.

This vision of Mori's is one of the more astounding illusions to come along in contemporary art in a long time, and also one of the most expensive. It is the world's, or at least the art world's, first 3-D videotape, and it cost a reported $1 million to produce. It may be New Age–y, but Nirvana is the hands-down high point of Mori's 15-work, five-year survey (virtually her whole career) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. After this, everything else here feels old-fashioned.

Mori’s psychic building blocks are glamour, mysticism, and sheer optical extravagance: Burning Desire (1996–98). 
courtesy Deitch Projects, New York, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art
Mori’s psychic building blocks are glamour, mysticism, and sheer optical extravagance: Burning Desire (1996–98). 

Mori has moved fast. She started showing in New York in 1995, at American Fine Arts, and has already had solo museum exhibitions in Los Angeles, London, and Chicago (where this one originated). Born in 1967, she lives in New York and Tokyo. She worked as a fashion model and went to fashion school in Japan, then art school here and in London. There, I'm told, she asked instructors why there were no sewing machines in the sculpture department. Good question.

Two of the first Moris to be seen in New York are included here. Big, flashy color photographs, both star the artist. Play With Me (1994) features Mori dressed as a cyber-teenybopper in silver and black superheroine armor. She stands outside a video arcade like some replicant valley girl from another dimension, or maybe just a cute little fashion student. In Tea Ceremony III (1995) Mori, standing in the Tokyo financial district and dressed as a demure hostess (only with pointy silver ears), offers tea to passing Japanese businessmen. It's strange and humorous, but it's also a little familiar.

So the art world thought it knew how to handle Mori: she was a latter-day Cindy Sherman, dressing up and going out, and these early images were like the "Film Stills" filtered through a different culture, a different generation, and a sillier, more self-deprecating sensibility. Mori got slotted as a kind of ironist/identity artist—and that was that. But Mori must have sensed that her work was growing thin and predictable, so she made an unexpected and circuitous move.

Empty Dream (1995) and Birth of a Star (1995) capture Mori in aesthetic metamorphosis: she's leaving the confines of the Sherman-esque but hasn't yet arrived in the fields of the grand hyperreal—although Empty Dream, at 9 x 24 feet, is a pretty staggering sight. In it, Mori digitally inserts herself four times into a photograph of Ocean Dome—the largest indoor theme park in the world, including an artificial beach, waves and all. Posing among happy Japanese bathers, Mori is costumed as a coy mermaid. The picture is big and ditsy, but it doesn't add up to much, and it's still rooted in some half-baked gender/appropriation strategy. But its size and its seamlessness point to the vividness and eye-popping thereness of her subsequent work. Similarly, in the semilenticular, sort of 3-D Birth of a Star, we see Mori dressed as a futuristic/nostalgic Judy Jetson space chick. Here, Mori's art is too connected to its visual sources: Japanimation, comix, blow-up dolls, and fashion spreads.

In effect, Mori's art got religion with Nirvana. From here on out, for better or for worse, the foundation of her art is spectacle and artifice; its psychic building blocks are glamour, mysticism, and sheer optical extravagance. So many people help to produce her photographs and videos that, for now, there is no one Mori, but Team Mori. At the end of Nirvana, for example, more than 40 credits roll up the screen, including ones for 3-D computer graphics, landscape camera work, musicians, choreography, costume design, jewelry production, hair, and makeup. If this is Cindy Sherman, it's by way of MTV, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Zen Buddhism.

For all their wowy-zowie presence, Mori's pictures feel slightly canned. Look at Burning Desire (1996–98), a 20-foot whopper. Here, multiple Moris appear as deities sitting in rings of fire and flanking another Mori in a beatific lotus position, hovering over the Gobi Desert. The thing is, it looks a bit like an old Jimi Hendrix album cover. Mirror of Water (1996–98), poised somewhere between fashion and science fiction, pictures a translucent space capsule and another flock of Moris in a watery cave. Kumano (1998), meanwhile, depicts Mori in a glowing kimono, posing as some kind of enchanted princess in an almost Kiefer-esque primordial forest, where archaic Japanese calligraphy coats the trees. A mesmerizing videotape accompanies this colossal photograph and shows Mori gliding through that misty wood, doing some kind of tai chi dance, walking on water, and performing a supernatural space-age tea ceremony.

Purity and belief are more important to Mori than pure originality. To Mori, immediacy is all. Her art is not designed for depth; surface is everything. Her world begins and ends in artifice. It's as if she has invented some interestingly aberrant form of Donald Judd's "specific object," neither entirely commercial nor entirely art, but something new. Like Yayoi Kusama before her, Mori uses trippy razzle-dazzle as raw material. Meticulous, precious, and ingratiating, her art is slick. Combine this slickness with her sense of spectacle and spirituality, and you have an artist who elicits not only wonder from her audiences, but ambivalence and sometimes the creeps.

But it's important not to get caught up in preconceptions or expectations. Mori isn't altogether original, but she is an original. Her art is not profound, but it is profoundly present. Like Matthew Barney, Mori is the star of her art; she's in every picture. Unlike Barney, she is not inventing her mythology or her visual universe. For all the lavish attention to detail and the optical splendor she generates, her art lacks a personal touch. Instead, she fervently believes in total collaboration. This, in conjunction with her ardent sincerity, brings the work of Jeff Koons to mind. Mori's art has a wild, insane streak running through it, but she lacks Koons's messianic obsessiveness. Photography may not be big enough to hold Mori's magical vision. For now, she is defining an intriguing in-between space and floats in a zone of her own.

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