‘That was Zen, this is now’
A photography exhibition of the artist Kimiko Yoshida opened this week at the Heder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, concurrent with another exhibition of the Japanese-born artist at the Israel Museum. The architect Bobby Luxemburg, an owner of the gallery, says that when you telephone Yoshida at home in Paris to propose that she take part in a project of some sort, she initially says “No.” “When I said that I thought they didn’t say no in Japan, she replied, ‘I came to Paris so that I would be able to say no.’”
“I still feel difficulty saying ‘No,’” says Yoshida during her visit in Israel. “When you want to say ‘I am cold’ in Japanese, you say ‘Cold.’ You don’t say ‘I am.’ Nor can you say ‘You.’ There is nothing personal. Even the words that describe emotions are a lot more abstract than in French, which permits me to express myself with greater precision. In France, I first learned to say ‘No,’ and then to say ‘I’ and finally to do what I wanted to do. I went to Paris to break free.”
One of Yoshida’s main bridges to Western culture is Jean-Michel Ribettes, her curator, producer and husband. Even now, when she is fluent in the language, she still lets him speak for her during the interview, finish her sentences for her, elucidate what it is she is trying to say.
Yoshida studied French literature at the University of Tokyo and went on to run a fashion company. In that work, which is based entirely on market demand, she got a sense of the extent to which people consume the same things and are channeled into being just like everyone else. She left the fashion field and began to study photography “so that I could do more personal things.” There, too, in her photography classes, she felt everyone was being directed to do the same thing. “I realized that if I stayed in Japan, I would have no chance to be different. All of the social and institutional pressures lead people in the same direction. There is no chance for personal expression.”
Similarly, she was incensed at the attitude toward women in Japanese society, and this accelerated her decision to leave. Although she does not speak of her own past - which is described as “traumatic” in the Israel Museum write-up about her exhibition - and does not explain why she calls herself a “Japanese refugee,” she does speak briefly about a fiance she loved who demanded she resign from her job so she could be at home.
In other texts written about her, one learns that her own discovery that her mother met her father on the day of their wedding was a source of much agitation. “I felt I had to run away from that society. I was truly on the verge of committing suicide. When I got to France, I felt reborn. I have never been sorry at I left. I only go to Japan when I exhibit there.”
Yoshida arrived in Paris about 10 years ago, when she was 33, without the language and without friends. In her first two months there, she did nothing but cry. Her shock was caused not only by her encounter with the foreign language but also with the Western culture with which she was not at all familiar. “I arrived in Paris and traveled to Venice,” she says. “We went into the Baroque churches and I had no chance to understand the meaning of what I was seeing. I understood I was in another world, and that I did not have the tools to communicate with it. I returned to Paris and began to read the Bible and the New Testament, to acquire a basis for understanding the European culture, which has strong connections to Christianity. Two years later I went back to Venice, to the same places, and then I could understand what I was seeing.”
In this same first encounter, she realized European art was based on temptation. “The perfection of this artistic structure is meant to tempt the viewer, to ensnare him, to constantly keep him under the influence,” she says. But within this great intensity, which derives from the struggle and the surfeit, she also noted a liability. It was very different from the minimalist Zen culture from which she had come. This encounter between these two polar opposites, the East and the West, the wealth and the emptiness, lies at the heart of her work.
“I wanted to connect between the two,” she says. “To empty the Baroque of its materialism, but at the same time preserve its temptation.” This combination is expressed in the series of colorful photographs that compose her work, in which she photographs herself in costume, wearing make-up. For the “All That I Am Not,” exhibition at the Israel Museum, she photographed herself wearing costumes, masks and objects she selected from the museum’s Jewish ethnography collection, as well as artifacts from other cultures. In the Heder Gallery exhibition, she appears with a glass object in the shape of a comma pressed against her forehead.
Each photograph is dominated by a different color. She wears make-up and colors her hair in the same shade as the background behind her in the studio. Her likeness projects out of the background while simultaneously blending into it. From afar, some of the photos look like a splotch of color, and as you draw closer you begin to distinguish details. In each photo, she turns into something else. In one photo an Indian chief, in another a bride. The likenesses are less important; what is important is the act of assuming a costume - which reflects the wealth and appeal of the Baroque age - and the act of erasure that reflects nothingness, and Japanese emptiness.
“I want to emphasize that I do not use filters and do not process the photographs with a computer. I only use lighting and make-up. It takes me a very long time to build the background and to prepare myself for the photograph,” she says.
Why not arrive at the same result by computer?
Yoshida: “The work process mentally prepares me for the change. It is a sort of ceremony, which brings out the human from the portrait and turns me from human portrait into object.”
If so, you are in effect subverting the definition of self-portrait.
“This is not an act of narcissism. It isn’t me; it is someone or something else. I use the make-up - which in Western culture has the intention of enticing, making you prominent, attracting people to you - in this process of self-erasure. When a geisha puts on make-up, she erases her private personality and becomes a product. They all look the same, they make it into a job. I do not stress the woman; I stress the idea of womanliness.
“The preoccupation with ‘I’ has become a cliche in contemporary art. I am basically saying that there is no such thing as a self-portrait. Each of these photographs is actually a ceremony of disappearance. It is not an emphasis of identity, but the opposite, an erasure of identity. I describe my photos as ’still lifes.’ Not still lifes in the pampered, bourgeois sense, but in the sense of disappearance, which is also a death. I am looking at death from afar. Without showing off, without pain, without involvement, without expressiveness. The portrait becomes an object.”
So in reality you haven’t broken free from that sense of discipline and of death, for which you moved to Paris? “Such is my fate. It is an inseparable part of my Japanese essence. I left there to be free, and not to be something else.”
‘I try to be universal’
However, in that new place in which she arrived, she is something else. This gap between worlds, languages and thoughts also arises in the course of the interview. At first glance, it is easy to catalog Yoshida’s work as engaging in the major themes that concern the contemporary art world: sexuality, identity, gender, colonialism. She almost always appears in the likeness of a woman; many are icons associated with the status of women - a black woman or a bride. Many of the images are those of blacks.
But Yoshida rails against this. “Terms like identity, memory and gender have become cliched in contemporary art. Everyone tries to do something special, tries to describe groups and identities. I see it differently. What is important to me is the universality, the internationalism, the generalist aspect of things. Everyone tries to be unique. I try to be universal. The narcissistic artist says, ‘I, I, I.’ I sneer at all that. I say ‘How very many I’s there are.’”
“You have to approach these works of art in a lighter frame of mind,” adds Jean-Michel. “It is there in the art, the viewer can connect with it, but it is not the main thing. All she is doing is in fact a combination of ethnographic art and contemporary art, of religion and art, of Japan and West, of black and white, impurely and improperly linked. It is the opposite of striving to make the piercing statement. For instance, when she photographs herself with a comma made out of glass, it is use at the most simplistic level of this punctuation mark, taking a little break to breath easy, less than a full stop.”
Asked what makes Japanese art so influential on the contemporary scene, Yoshida says, “The fact that we came from far away, and basically everything that we spoke about in this conversation. The disappearance, the void, the cleanness, and also the long tradition that still continues. But mainly the contrast between cultures, between perspectives and worldviews. In ancient Greek culture, that which was bigger was more beautiful. In Japanese, beauty is everything that is fragile and small. Symmetry, in Japanese, is an error. According to my culture, the gardens of Versailles are full of errors and mistakes, both in the planning and in the artistry.”
Herald Tribune/Haaretz,Tel Aviv, 2006