Mariko Mori’s Spiritual Exploration

Mariko Mori’s Spiritual Exploration

Winter, Gibson

The surge of religious interest in the late twentieth century puzzled and even confounded many prophets of the decline of religion. All the signs were against religion. The Enlightenment dream of the truly rational society seemed within reach. We were beyond religion and ideology. Science and technology commanded space, communication and even the human genes. What place could be left for transcendent values?

Mariko Mori struggles with this question in her artistic synthesis of religious symbolism, high-tech imagery, fashion design and a variety of performances from playful fashion model to religious figure. In the quiet of viewing these artistic performances, we become aware that she is chanting some of her own compositions to enrich the experience. As always with art, verbal descriptions cannot convey the real impact of this encounter upon the viewer, but a few words may whet the appetite of a possible audience.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery, London, displays some of Mori’s creations in a stunning exhibition on view through March 14, 1999. The viewer moves from humorous fantasies through pop cultural images into cybernetic visions of Nirvana. These works span only a few years of Mariko Mori’s creations but reflect her deepening religious concerns. Born in Tokyo in 1967, Mori has worked as a fashion model and studied art in London and New York. The exhibition makes clear her wide range of creative abilities as she uses fashion design, musical composition, and vocal performance to enhance her videos, photographs and sculptural works.

Almost upon entering the exhibit one meets a work titled Tea Ceremony. An “office lady” in bionic garb stands in the corridor of a skyscraper offering tea to passing office workers who go about their business, ignoring her. This seems a frivolous piece until one realizes that the tea ceremony is a serious religious ritual which has gained prominence in recent years. This work expresses Mori’s critical side, suggesting the indifference of a commercial culture to spiritual values.

Through her work Mori tries to maintain a tension between critique and celebration; this is clearly a work of critique, though it also has an absurd element. Critique also wins out in several works such as Beginning of the End and Play With Me; in the latter piece a mermaid appears in four different places simultaneously along a beach and is simply ignored.

Nirvana is the most ambitious work in the exhibition. The viewer first moves through a room filled by four photo-murals measuring approximately ten by twenty feet each: Entropy of Love, Burning Desire, Mirror of Water, and Pure Land. Magnificent natural settings-the Painted Desert, the Gobi Desert, the Massif Cave, and the Dead Sea-are the photographic stage for air, fire, water, and earth. The second installation is Mori’s 3-dimensional film (made in collaboration with G.I.T. Co., Ltd. and CSK Sega Group) which includes a bizarre though playful mix of Japanese cartoon characters and Buddhist symbols. In a trance-like ecstasy, Mori’s image moves toward the viewer creating an illusion of otherworldly experience. The final work is a sculpture in the shape of a lotus flower which uses a solar-transmitting device invented by Mori’s father. Nirvana is a complex, dramatically beautiful-almost mesmerizing-work.

Mariko Mori keeps two dimensions of ultimate meaning before her audience-tradition and personal identity. She achieves a critical appropriation of various religious traditions, striving to integrate them into the world of today. She also explores possibilities of personal transformation in most of her work, trying out various roles from cyborg to “boddisattva (a type of Buddhist deity) of compassion.” Mori strives to help us share her own hope for a liberation into “the ultimate truth of our selves and the whole universe.” This is an exhibition well worth sharing.


Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Winter 1999

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