Japan in Scandinavia: Cultural Clichés in Receptions of Works by Mori Mariko


Gunhild Borggreen


The contemporary Japanese artist Mori Mariko is well known in Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, especially after her exhibition Dream Temple at Rooseum in Malmö in 2000, which received a tremedious amount of reviews and critical acclaim. Indeed, Mori Mariko has become celebrated in most of the international circles of contemporary art, and occupies her own prominent position as "art star" on the firmament of fame.

This essay will focus on Mori Mariko and her art works in order to investigate how specific art objects are incorporated into a broader ideologically constructed frame work concerning cultural identity on a national or regional level. In this case I will deal with the idea of "Japaneseness" inherent in Mori's works and relate this discursive practice to the equally constructed idea of "Nordicness". I will focus on Mori's participation at the International Art Biennale in Venice in 1997, and argue that certain cultural clichés about the Japanese artist were used to frame participating Nordic artists in a constructed "Nordicness".

At the International Art Biennale in Venice in 1997, Mori Mariko had two works exhibited at two different places. One was the photo work entitled Empty Dream from 1995, which was a part of the large theme exhibition that year, curated by Italian critic and curator Germano Celant. The other work by Mori was the 3-D video installation entitled Nirvana from 1997, and this work was shown in one of the many pavillions. The Venice biennale is an appropriate place to look for cultural markers especially related to national identity because the main concept of the Venice biennale is based on national pavillions.1) Now, Mori's video installation Nirvana was not shown at the Japanese pavillion, but included in the Nordic pavillion. The question I would like to pose is: what was Mori Mariko doing in the Nordic pavillion?

One reason for including Mori in the Nordic pavillion could be connected to curatorial prestige. There seems to be a tough competition among curators in the international art circles to be the first to present new and innovative art works never seen before. Curators and critics compete to be the first to "discover" new aspiring talents and nurse them into a position of fame and high status among art institutions and collectors. This strategy seemed to have worked for the Nordic pavillion: while Mori had already at this time won critical acclaim in the United States, her appearance at the Venice biennale boosted her international reputition enormously, and made her an "art star" almost over night. One international critic describes Mori's video as "dazzling new"2), while another calls it "the kitschiest work of the biennale – if also one of the most fascinating."3)

Apart from the prestige connected to presenting a new art star at the Venice biennale, there seems to be other and more complex motivations behind the inclusion of Mori Mariko in the Nordic pavillion. The exhibition at the Nordic pavillion had the title "Naturally artificial", and Mori Mariko participated along with four other young artists: Mark Dion from the United States, Henrik Håkansson from Sweden, Sven Påhlsson from Norway and Marianna Uutinen from Finland. In the press material and in the catalogue text the commissioner Jon-Ove Steihaug explicitely makes a political point in this mixture of nationalities of the participating artists. Refering to Mori Mariko and Mark Dion, the commissioner introduces the exhibition by stating that it is the first time artists from outside the Nordic region have been included in the Nordic Pavillion. The purpose of this is to create what he describes as "a context that allows for artistic communication across continents, transcending the regional and national framework implied by a "Nordic Pavillion", and the Venice Biennale in general."4) In other words, the commissioner wishes to abolish the idea of national or regional representation, and instead focus on what the five artists have in common on an artistic level. However, as I will demonstrate, certain elements in the discourse surrounding the pavillion exhibition worked contrary to these ideals.

In the press material from the Nordic pavillion, the commissioner Steihaug presents Mori Mariko and her work like this: "In the work there is a unique sensibility which combines Oriental traditions, Buddhism, popular culture, femininity and futuristic aspects."5) This sentence is crucial for it seems to sum up many of the cultural sterotypes associated with Japanese art and Japanese society in general. I will return to this point shortly. The unreflected use of the term "Oriental tradition" in the commissioner's text about Mori Mariko indicates that a stereotyped notion of "the Orient" representing tradition is carried on from historical Orientalism of the nineteenth century and applied in the context of a contemporary art exhibition more than a hundred years later. In another paragraph the commissioner repeats the concept of the Oriental when describing Mori as follows: "She might be seen as something of an Oriental answer to for instance artists like Cindy Sherman or Matthew Barney."6) The construction of an Orientalist framework around Mori Mariko is clearly not accidental.

One effect of this Orientalist framing of Mori is that the seperation between "us" and "them" becomes more clearly. By letting in one single exotic Oriental artist, the other artists in a way become framed by this distinction and grouped into another compartment of cultural stereotypes, the Nordic.7) The title "Naturally Artificial" implies that the aim of the exhibition at the Nordic pavillion was to resent one dominant cultural cliché about the Nordic countries, namely the supposed close relationship between humans and nature. In this regard, one can say that Mori as representing Japan fits well into such a critique of cultural stereotyping because Japanese culture too is often constructed as a culture close to nature. However, the specific work by Mori is a completely virtual art work with almost no references to nature, and thus comes to form a contrast to the more hands-on works by the other artists. So even when the commissioner wishes to break down certain clichés, in a way the narrative of Nordic relationship to nature is confirmed by the appearance of a Japanese art work which is utterly artificial.

This inclusion of the "Other" as a means to confirm established cultural stereotypes that took place in the Nordic pavillion at the Venice biennale in 1997 had a significant predecessor which is relevant in this regard. In 1996 an exhibition of mainly Nordic artists was shown at Arken Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The exhibition was curated by American art critic Kim Levin, who had entitled the exhibition "The Scream". By this title, Levin was refering directly to the famous painting by Edward Munch, but also indicating a certain characteristic of people living in the Nordic region. In her catalogue text Kim Levin constructs an image of contemporary Nordic countries as a site of geographical and astronomical extremes, which apparently affects the inhabitants to behave irrational and destructive, expressing psychological instability and anguished existentialism.8) Works by 32 Nordic artists chosen for the exhibition provided a visual support for these claims. Levin had also included 11 artists who are not from the Nordic region, and one of these was Mori Mariko, represented with two works, the photo Last Departure from 1995 and the video installation Miko no Inori from 1996.

Again, we should ask ourselves: what is Mori doing in this particular context? Unfortunately, Levin's text does not explain the relationship, it only briefly suggests some kind of connection in a single sentence: " … Mariko Mori's alienated cyborg impersonations are equally delusionary constructions..."9) Could it be once again that the issue of curatorial discovery, the competition of presenting new talents on the art scene, made it necessary to fit an artist like Mori Mariko into a constructed frame work of Nordic melancholy? There are many opinions about Mori's art, but whatever standpoint, it is difficult to see Mori Mariko's figures to be especially delusionary, as Levin claims. It seems reasonable to believe that the organizers of the Nordic pavillion for the Venice biennale were influenced by the effect of juxtaposing a group of Nordic artists with someone from the "outside" and that they applied this concept in a much smaller scale for the exhibition at the Nordic pavillion the following year.

"The Scream" exhibition in Denmark as well as the Nordic pavillion at Venice were both supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers with the purpose of promoting contemporary Nordic art, and with some success: it was also in these years in the mid-1990s that contemporary art from Scandinavia was being exposed and well received on a broad scale in United States and in the rest of Europe. The American art magazine Art News from 1995, for example, featured an article about Nordic art. Under the headline "Northern Exposure", the very first paragraph claims that "while strengthening its cultural heritage, Scandinavia is no longer on the periphery of the contemporary art world."10) The article was written by Jon-Ove Steihaug, who later became the commissioner to the Nordic pavillion at Venice in 1997. Cultural clichés such as nature or Nordic melancholy may have been useful tools in the process of critical and market related promotion. The sentence quoted here states, unwittingly perhaps, exactly the point in my analyses: if you wish to move from a periferic position into the center, you must not try to appropriate the center culture, but rather emphasize your own uniqueness. A narrative of uniqueness on a national or regional level can be a glue which ties together citizens by the positive value attributed to being exclusive and exceptional. The danger may be that the symbol of a nation is so strong that it denies the possibility for other types of identity to be formed among those citizens who do not feel comfortable with the mainstream narrative. Construction of national or regional uniqueness may also result in seperation of one nations people from another, focusing attention on differences instead of what people may have in common, leading to nationalism in the worst meaning of that word. I believe the process of constructing cultural uniqueness took place in the case of “The Scream” exhibition as well as the Nordic pavillion in Venice 1997. And as I have argued, the promotional effect of cultural stereotypes about Nordic mentality became even stronger and more efficient when juxtaposed to cultural stereotypes about Japan.

Mori Mariko and other young artists from Japan are often framed, by themselves or by others, in Orientalist stereotypes about Japanese culture. The quotation I cited earlier sums up the most prevailing clichés about Japanese art in the late 1990's, namley "Oriental traditions, Buddhism, popular culture, femininity and futuristic aspects."11) These words may function as key words when we look at the art critical reception of a number of artists from Japan working on the international art scene. Mori Mariko herself is often seen as representing Buddhism in this respect, and several critics note the way in which Mori refers to aspects of popular science-fiction imagery, or include references to futuristic utopian architecture from the 1920s.12) Popular culture from Japan, and here we speak mainly of manga, anime, and computer games, are widely associated with contemporary artists such Yanobe Kenji, Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo.

Femininity as a special signifier of Japanese culture has also been promoted in certain cases. For example in the Japanese pavillion at the Venice biennale of 1997, where a large scale installation by the artist Naitô Rei was promoted by the commissioner as a "womb", linking thereby the content of the Japanese national pavillion directly to the female body. This way of promoting the nation Japan as "feminine" by the use of gender metaphors is an issue which a number of art historians and critics in the field of gender studies in Japanese art history oppose and severely criticize for its nationalist implications as well as for its anti-feminist position.13)

Some artists include cultural stereotypes in their works specifically as a way to address the issue and pose critical questions to the mechanisms behind. Other artists may play on cultural stereotypes on purpose as a marketing strategy, as a way of seeking personal significance on a still more competative international art market. On a broader level, it may be the system of national or regional sponsorship, such as the Nordic Council of Ministers or Japan Foundation, which invites generalizing cultural stereotypes.

One way to start demolishing cultural clichés could be to encourage awareness on the discourses that create or reproduce sterotypes. By revealing the politics behind certain images and discourses, it is possible to question, undermine and resent cultural nationalism.



1. In 1997, a total of 29 national pavillions offered exhibitions, as well as national exhibitions in separate compartments in other locations. "Biennale Vademecum", supplement to The Art Newspaper, June 1997

2. Dan Cameron, "47th Venice Biennale", Art Forum, Vol. 36, No. 1, September 1997, p. 120

3. Barbara A. MacAdam, "Venice Biennale", Art News, Vol. 96, No. 7, Summer 1997, p. 145

4. "Naturally artificial", Venezia 1997, press information from the Nordic Pavillion, distributed at the pavillion during the show

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. For the sake of brevity I am not dealing with the American artist Mark Dion in this relation, but of course the whole construction of cultural categories can be extended to include American vs Nordic, American vs. Japanese, and other combinations, just as the perspective of gender could be another meaningful point of analysis.

8. Kim Levin, "The Scream", The Scream. Borealis 8: Nordic Fine Arts 1995-96, Ishøj: Arken Museum of Modern Art, 1996, pp.13-20

9. Ibid., p. 18

10. Jon-Ove Steihaug, "Northern Exposure", Art News, Vol. 94, No. 5, May 1995, pp. 139-141

11. "Naturally artificial: Mariko Mori", op.cit.

12. "Eternal Present. Germano Celant vs Mariko Mori", Mariko Mori. Pure Land, Tokyo: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002, pp. 110-115

13. Gunhild Borggreen, “Livmodermetaforer. Køn og national identitet i japansk kunst” (Womb metaphors. Gender and national identity in Japanese art), Kunsthistorie + Visuel Kultur: Papirer, nr. 2, University of Copenhagen: Department of Cultural Studies and the Arts, 2003


Gunhild Borggreen has a Ph.D. from University of Copenhagen on a dissertation about gender issues in contemporary art criticism and visual arts in Japan. She has lived shorter periods in Japan, and established contacts to several leading young artists in Japanese art circles. This article is a part of a larger 2 year research project concerning the reception of Japanese art in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, supported by the Danish Research Council. Among Gunhild Borggreen's publications are "Gender in Contemporary Japanese Art," (eds.) Norman Bryson, Maribeth Graybill, and Joshua Mostow, Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003), "Livmodermetaforer. Køn og national identitet i japansk kunst," Kunsthistorie + Visuel Kultur: Papirer, nr. 2 (Københavns Universitet, Institut for Kunst- og Kulturvidenskab, 2003), and "Beskæringer," Øjeblikket. Tidsskrift om kunst – og det kunst handler om, årgang 11, nr. 43, 2004.









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