We've Got Twenty-five Years
Interview with Mariko Mori
by Dike Blair

A recent visit to Colin DeLand's American Fine Arts gallery yielded the kind of payoff I search for in my monthly drag around Soho--piqued interest. In the rear gallery were two engaging, early Dan Graham sculptures; but it was the tableaux in the front, by someone named Mariko Mori, that were unfamiliar and intriguing to me. They consist of striking, billboard-size color-prints--all featuring life-size images of an attractive, young Japanese woman, bedecked in futuristic fashions, posing in exotic locations that could only be Tokyo (never been there, but I've seen the movie)--and, placed on the floor in front of these prints, clear plastic globes which contain the garments modeled in the images. I was blissfully ignorant of both the identity of the artist and the "inside" story of the work, but very conscious of the works' compelling references; science fiction, comics, sex, advertising, technology and fashion. These obviously staged fictions were so seductive on a literal and figurative level as to need no translation. Perhaps the thing "inside" I was really responding to (the one perceived--not the market's anecdotal sales pitch) was that I knew the artist enjoyed making these tableaux.

I decided to investigate. Mariko Mori is a young Japanese artist who, after studying in London, has taken up residence in NYC. Having exhibited in Europe, she is hardly unknown (despite those monthly trudges, this writer is still out-of-the-loop), although this is her first solo-show in NYC. I was shown slides of previous work--sculptures and images whose subject is the interface of the systems of market strategy, seduction, desire and information between the fashion and art worlds. In this latest work, Mori has expanded her examination to include other subcultures but has kept some of the methodologies of fashion-think. She designs the outfits which she models in her pictures and selects the locations for her "performances"--the location shoots which, sometimes, involve the man-in-the-street variable. It then dawns on me (I've never claimed to be immune to advertising) that these images would look great in this (or any) magazine and I'd love to meet the artist.

Dike Blair: Do you read comics/manga?

Mariko Mori: Yes. I'm interested in them because they reflect people's desire, but I also enjoy looking at them. It's the same with my work--I don't make it only because I have to, but also because I enjoy it.

Dike Blair: Do you have comic fantasy? Your image in Warrior (inside a video arcade) is very powerful. Is there a heroine in you?

Mariko Mori: Absolutely. The works reflect my desires. I think all kinds of fantasy and dreams are very important to our life.

Dike Blair: Your fantasy roles, for the most part, present women in submissive or service oriented jobs. Can you talk about this?

Mariko Mori: The women are cyborgs--there is the "School Girl," the "Office Lady" and the "Prostitute." I call them cyborgs to speak metaphorically of the woman's role in Japan--it's a kind of social comment. The "School Girl" cyborg, for example, is in a Love Hotel (also the title). There's a popular kind of telephone club (Telekura) for older business men who wait in the service's small offices for a call from a high school girl. The service distributes flyers to young girls on the street giving the phone numbers of the rooms where the business men wait--men with Lolita complexes--hoping to arrange a date, to meet for a coffee or dinner and, occasionally, paid sex with the girl. For the picture I wore a typical high school uniform and posed in a typical Love Hotel room.

Dike Blair: Excuse me for being naive, but what's in it for the girl--money?

Mariko Mori: Usually not a lot. Recently, however, some girls made a date with a foreign business man, sprayed him with gas and stole around $2000 from him (laughter).

Dike Blair: The women in these submissive roles you create seem happy. Is it possible that the artist,a glorified servant,can also be happy in that role?

Mariko Mori: The women appear to be happy because they're cyborgs, not real women (laughter).

Dike Blair: Perhaps what I'm getting at is that you seem to go against the artist-in-pain, artist-as-victim stereotype that the culture invites. Do you consider pleasure?

Mariko Mori: What do you consider pleasurable? People should have fun making art. I don't see why not. We have enough pain and making art about pain has too much to do with guilt and justification.

Dike Blair: I'm curious about what I see as an evolution in your work away from the distanced subversive critique of the earlier fashion pieces toward a more celebratory critique.

Mariko Mori: The fashion pieces function as a kind of parody. Perhaps you can say that by choosing a subject I make an agreement with it. I've always tried to say that things are two-sided. One side of the system is critical the other is, as you say, celebration. Everything is validated through the media these days--through images. People believe in this power--they are used to images being manipulated, and being manipulated themselves, by images. Thus, when people see my photographs they allow themselves to be entertained by them. Technology often creates a synthetic reality. Especially with young kids--in Japan they're called the Otaku, but these kids exist in every country--they live in cyberspace and cyberspace becomes their real life. This is the subject of Play with Me. I created the cyborg after the type of characters that exist in computer game fantasies. I used the arcade where these games are played to show the reality and I designed a fantasy character to perform there. This exchange between reality and fantasy is one of my preoccupations.

Dike Blair: How did the boys respond to their fantasy made flesh?

Mariko Mori: They totally ignored me and concentrated on their games (laughter). In each performance people responded differently, and peoples' reaction is very important to the piece as their reaction appears in the photograph. In the red light district, people were generally confused by my presence--a small crowd gathered in front of me and started chanting "Alien." The "Office Girl" cyborg in Tea Ceremony generated a very different response. The office workers were threatened by me, they wouldn't drink my tea and looked at me with disgust. Even as a cyborg, one can clearly see social dynamics in progress.

Dike Blair: Is Tokyo a vision of the future?

Mariko Mori: I thought of using NYC as my location, but I thought that in addressing the topic of technology I need to use a place where people create a culture of technology--I then thought that's where I come from. In Japan people believe in technology, in Europe they are a bit skeptical of it, they seem somewhat resistant to change My pictures look futuristic, but in Tokyo, these places simply exist--there are all these monitors in the subways. It had to be Tokyo.

Dike Blair: Is there an Eastern sensibility of art making that is less schizophrenic than Western art making?

Mariko Mori: You think that western work is schizophrenic?

Dike Blair: Yes, but I think that quality has become style and we are questioning that style.

Mariko Mori: I think my newer work is less schizophrenic.

Dike Blair: Who are your favorite designers?

Mariko Mori: One of the reasons I wanted to study in London was because of Vivian Westwood. I really like her cynical attitude toward tradition. Right now Helmut Lang is very interesting for his utilization of new materials. When you wear clothes you become a personality, you become the clothes. Designers do something like what I do--they create the images that capture the desire of the moment.

Dike Blair: Do you think that art has more depth than fashion?

Mariko Mori: Fashion is predominantly a market strategy. It reflects an already existing structure in the consumer culture and always has a relationship to everything happening at a given moment--music, architecture, politics, literature, you name it. Fashion only has to be responsible for its product for six months, music for maybe one year and TV commercials for 10 seconds. Art doesn't come that easily.

Dike Blair: Do you take responsibility for more than the month that your show is up?

Mariko Mori: Yes. I make time capsules. They can't be opened for 25 years--you can decide then if you even want to open them (laughter).