In 1995, Japanese artist Mariko Mori, who had recently completed her degree at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, created a self-portrait. In it she appears with spiky purple hair wearing oversized headphones, white boots, pink tights, a latex kilt, a black top with blue sleeves and futuristic plastic bracelets. She's surrounded by brightly coloured bouncy balls, and is smiling. The work is called Birth of a Star. By portraying herself as a 90s pop queen, Mori commented on an image-driven consumer culture, and her role in the fast-paced international fashion world. She was a model, as well as a critical artist occupied with gender issues and her work questioned the rules of a society in which women were expected to be pretty, happy and mindless.
In the thirteen years that followed, Mori's art, as well as her entire being, have undergone a transformation. Stars still occupy her thinking, but this time they're not the ones found in glossy magazines. During the last decade Mori became interested in prehistoric cultures, with ways of living deeply rooted in nature. Like the prehistoric Japanese Jomon (c.14,000 - 300 BC) known for its distinctive pottery and rituals surrounding the winter solstice, symbolising the beginning of a new life cycle, Mori’s exhibition is also timed around the solstice.
Mori's current show at the Royal Academy, Rebirth, attempts to elucidate this new beginning. Turning the institution into a temporary peace haven -- a welcome contrast amidst London's winter shopping frenzy -- Mori takes her visitors on a meditative journey, in which ancient cultures mix with modern multimedia installations, and where soft LED lights evoke new spiritual ideas.
Mariko Mori, Tom Na H-Iu II, 2006, Glass, stainless steel, LED, real time control system, 450 x 156.3 x 74.23 cm; Courtesy of Mariko Mori Studio Inc.; © Mariko Mori / Photo: Richard Learoyd.
The exhibition begins with Tom Na H-Iu Il (2006), an immense modern day neolith that lights up from within. The work, which represents the death of a celestial body, is the beginning of the cyclical narrative based on the fact that stars, when they die, leave a trace of dust, which eventually forms new stars. Mori plays with light with delicacy and ease, as if it were a piano, composing supernatural surroundings, capturing twilight zones in the aesthetic of a pagan ceremony.
Despite having embarked on this spiritual journey, Mori is still very much pre-occupied with aesthetics -- you would not catch her in sandals and socks and her work shines of beauty and perfection -- she is Japanese, and an artist after all, but she also remains, as you can see when she makes a public appearance, very much a model. Her New York Hell's Kitchen studio is just as pristine and serene as the works in this show.
Portrait of Mariko Mori; Courtesy the artist / Photo: David Sims.
Rebirth concludes with a star being born. Yet the concluding work doesn't include any latex or balloons: it is something else, completely different -- quiet, contemplative and captivating -- but, funnily enough, it's still unmistakably Mori.
(Image on top: Mariko Mori, Installation view of 'Mariko Mori: Rebirth' at Royal Academy of Arts Burlington Gardens; © Geraint Lewis 2012.)