Mariko Mori: “The essence of art is to cross cultures, borders and nations.”

Mariko Mori: “The essence of art is to cross cultures, borders and nations.”

The thinking of Tokyo–born artist Mariko Mori is truly borderless. Living between Tokyo, London and New York, Mariko's curiosity has also taken her from Ethiopia to Brazil. This life spent exploring the globe has inspired her unmistakably futuristic and assuredly celestial work. Since creating her first piece in the late 1980s, Mariko’s art has sparked conversations around humankind’s trajectory and our global cultural connection. Most recently, Mariko's ongoing work for the Faou Foundation is seeing her create six monumental public artworks that nestle into an ecological location on each of earth's habitable continents. This unadulterated embodiment of what might lie ahead leaves audiences to question, is Mariko Mori indeed from the future? From her white walled studio in Tokyo, Mariko spoke to us about traveling to visit the past, preparing to move back to New York and her most loved places in NYC.

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On where creativity has taken you

From 1988 I moved to London from Japan, and stayed there for four years as an art student. Then in 1992 I moved to New York and stayed there for 22 years, then went back to London for seven years and now I’ve been in Tokyo for over a year. I’ll be returning to New York this August. I remember when I first moved to New York, I was often questioned about my cultural background. I became really aware of this, however I didn’t know enough to answer the question. If I hadn’t moved out of Japan and lived in different countries, I probably wouldn’t have paid too much attention to my own traditional culture and belief system. 

On what travel and life in new cultures teaches you 

Every summer, while back in Japan, I visited Kyoto and Nara. I became curious about my own traditional culture. That was the first big impact travel had, and it was the opposite way around — of me finding my own culture by living in different countries. Then when I started to travel around the globe for my work, I saw different cultures and was confronted with the different people living in our world. Obviously I expected there to be differences, because that’s initially what people think is quite obvious — that we are all different. But in fact, I found similarities. For example, after I learned about the history of Japan from say 12,000 BC to 300 AD, and then visited different places across the world, I found this similar primal culture. It’s universal. 

On a global family tree connected to nature 

There are elements of ancient Shintoism and Okinawan culture maintained in contemporary Japan, of worshiping nature. When I visited places like Australia or Brazil, you still find people who have kept that connection with nature and keep their culture deeply rooted in nature. I stayed with Aboriginal people near Alice Springs for three days in the bush. I discovered their life is so dependent on nature. It was a mind-opening experience to see that this universal idea has been upheld for thousands of years. At the root we are all the same. We are all human and we all emerged from Africa. We look different, but we are all in one huge family tree. That was another realisation that I had when I visited Ethiopia a couple of years ago. So I keep finding these primal connections about how we are actually one.

Mariko Mori has long been her own canvas, transforming herself into a cyborg, an alien and even a space princess. From the outset of her career in the early 1990s, Mariko has continually pushed her audience’s imagination and challenged others to see beyond. Images courtesy Mariko Mori.

On a borderless world today 

Experiencing this pandemic has made us realise that we’ve artificially divided ourselves by nations. The virus was able to easily travel around the world, this means that we just artificially build walls between different countries. But in fact, we are living in the one world and we are very much a part of nature. As living beings, we’re dependent upon and equally part of nature — I think the virus made us understand that and be aware of our own physicality. It’s also becoming easier to open up our consciousness. We experienced this by being stuck inside our homes alone, but remaining connected to the world through different networks. So the idea of inside and outside is disappearing. 

It seems to me that we artificially created these grids that don’t exist. Our creative mind is actually a symbol of freedom, which shouldn’t be limited by artificial walls, but should be open and broad. The art world and creativity has always been this medium of crossing borders. That’s the core essence of art, to cross cultures, cross borders and cross nations — there’s no limitation. The world is also now heading in that direction, so artists need to be the force to help art become more powerful. 

When I visited places like Australia or Brazil, you still find people who keep their culture deeply rooted in nature. I stayed with Aboriginal people near Alice Springs for three days in the bush… It was a mind-opening experience to see that this universal idea has been upheld for thousands of years.

On traveling to the past to get to the future

For me, my curiosity lies in wanting to discover places for myself. It’s nice to hear the stories from afar, but I have the drive to physically travel to the place to fulfill my curiosity. For now, while I cannot travel physically to the past, I often research stories from the past. Before the pandemic I was interested in the period between the 5th and 7th centuries. Now I’m into the 10th and 11th centuries. I’m interested in traveling to the past, because that brings me to the future. In fact, every time I research a culture in the past, I see the future. For example, 2000 years is not a lot of time in human history. But by knowing the past 2000 years, we are able to imagine the next 2000 years. For me, that retrospect is the only way to think about the future. We must understand what we’ve kept throughout the past, what we didn’t let go of, to know what we need to pass on to the future generations. That’s the trip in my mind that I take. 

On starting the Faou Foundation

I started Faou Foundation in 2010 and installed Sun Pillar in 2011 on Miyako Island. When I visited Miyako Island for the first time in 2007, the vision came to me. The vision was that the Sun Pillar would cast a shadow onto the Moonstone at the time of winter solstice, to mark the beginning of a new cycle of nature. At that time I was very interested in the prehistoric culture of the Jōmon period, which had strong ties to the winter solstice. When I completed the project in 2011, I went to the north part of the island that has beautiful, pristine coral. I was praying to express my gratitude for the completion of Sun Pillar, and this idea came to mind that I should extend the project to other parts of the world. I wanted to honour nature in the six habitable continents.

Since 2010, Mariko has focused on her shrine-like ecological installations for the Faou Foundation. It began with the winter solstice–inspired ‘Sun Pillar’ and ‘Moonstone’ (above, 2011) on Miyako Island in Japan, and was joined by ‘Ring: One with Nature’ (below, 2016) atop a waterfall in Rio de Janeiro. Images courtesy Faou Foundation.

On finding ideas on your travels 

I had a dream with this strong vision of a ring on top of a waterfall, and I couldn’t let go. Then I was invited to Brazil for my traveling solo exhibition. My first stop was in Brasilia and the curator said that I had a few free days and asked if I’d like to go anywhere. I said I’d like to visit a waterfall, thinking the one from my dream might be in Brasilia. But I couldn’t find it. My next stop was Rio de Janeiro, and I discovered that Rio is a treasure box of waterfalls. So I started to search for the waterfall from my dream and I visited over 30 waterfalls. 

I later found the waterfall in Rio de Janeiro. When I found it, I was so moved just by being on the site — the richness of the nature had so much energy. I hope that when people visit the Ring, they also experience the beautiful nature there. The Faou project has always just naturally grown. I wanted to gift these permanent installations to the locals who live near them, to those who see the art as a symbol to honor and protect that environment. The Shinto shrines in Japan help to protect and preserve the environment, because people believe that the nature gods are living within and that the area should remain as pristine as possible. I thought the Faou artwork could reflect that concept in order to exhibit our respect for nature. I’m now working on one for Ethiopia.  

Our creative mind is actually a symbol of freedom, which shouldn’t be limited by artificial walls, but should be open and broad. The art world and creativity has always been this medium of crossing borders.

On Oneness  

Oneness is made of six aliens holding hands. I wanted to produce something not to travel to space, but to allow our minds to travel and discover how connected our world is. To experience that oneness. When you hug them you feel their heartbeat, and when the audience hugs all six at the same time, the disc of the floor will light up. It is a representation of the disappearance of boundaries between the self and others – a symbol of the acceptance of otherness and a model for overcoming national and cultural borders. 

On what you love about New York

I see New York as the place for freedom because of its dynamism of multiculturalism. You can be yourself and have your own individual identity. Obviously you do have a cultural background, but we don’t have the existing social structure, like in Japan for example or even England. If you have a good idea and are motivated and energetic, you can make your dream come true in New York, there is no limitation. People really admire when you do challenging things and when you think big. I love that and I miss it very much. I have visited many places across the world, but New York is very special in that case. It really encourages people to push their limits.

A feeling of interconnectedness is always at play in Mariko’s work, from infinity lines looping through space to alien sculptures that respond to human touch and ‘oneness’. Images courtesy Mariko Mori.

On a memorable moment in New York 

At the very beginning I visited Central Park and there was this area for people rollerblading. It was really energetic and I didn’t know where these people had come from, but there were so many different cultures mixed all in one spot. In Tokyo, I live near Shibuya Crossing, which is also quite impressive in terms of volumes of people. But in this one rollerblading scene, there were people from all over the world of all different ages. The cultural mix of people in New York is quite unique. 

If you have a good idea and are motivated and energetic, you can make your dream come true in New York, there is no limitation. People really admire when you do challenging things and when you think big.

On where you’d take a friend who’s visiting NYC for one day

I would take them on the ferry that goes around Manhattan because you see the city from every angle. You can also see the Statue of Liberty from the distance, and you can feel the dynamism of the different areas. 

On where you find inspiration in New York

We used to have a Dia Foundation on 22nd Street but they moved. New York is really unique in that it has so many galleries and Dia is one that I miss very much. It has this huge open space and is again a symbol of freedom. For me, it’s like a sanctuary. I also like the Sean Kelly Gallery which represents my work and MoMA. I often visited the Metropolitan Museum of New York as you have precious objects from the ancient world. By looking at them it helps me travel my mind to the past and I enjoy that. 

On where you can get a taste of home in NYC

Kajitsu restaurant. It’s a hybrid of Shojin cuisine eaten by Buddhist monks, and Kaiseki food that you get for tea ceremonies. It is very delicate and beautifully arranged and brings me back to Kyoto.

Above: Mariko’s exhibition ‘Rebirth’ taps into her theory of the past informing the future, with futuristic versions of such historic monuments like the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar in Scotland and the Jōmon Stone Circle in Japan. Below: ‘Miko No Inori’, aka Prayer of the Priestess, is Mariko’s 1996 video piece with hypnotic appeal. Images courtesy Mariko Mori.

On your vision of the future

It’s more my wish, than what I actually see. I have been doing historical research about the evolution of humankind and how we, as homosapiens, have emerged. The research taught me that it’s not necessary to have different religions in the world — which is quite a sensitive idea. We have different stories and different histories of God. The story of the one God emerged in different cultures, at different times and in different places. But I believe that God is actually universal. Therefore, it’s really sad that we fight each other over something that we actually share. I believe that humans will come to the realisation that it’s unnecessary to have war. I think peace will come and this can be achieved through education. If we share a global education system and really understand world history, including the paleo anthropology, we will see that it’s unnecessary to have war over different religions.   

On a window or an aisle seat

I always sit by a window because I love the sky. It’s the closest place to heaven and you can feel that when you’re watching the sky. 

On New York in one word

Freedom!

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Nuggets in this interview

inspiration

Central Park, New York

“There is this area for rollerblading. It was really energetic and I didn’t know where these people had come from, but there were so many different cultures mixed all in one spot.”

–Mariko Mori

inspiration

Ferry Ride, New York

“You see New York from every angle. You can also see the Statue of Liberty and the dynamism of the different areas.”

–Mariko Mori

inspiration

Dia Chelsea, New York

“It has this huge open space and is again a symbol of freedom. For me, it’s like a sanctuary.”

–Mariko Mori

accommodation

Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

"I also like the Sean Kelly Gallery which represents my work."

–Mariko Mori

inspiration

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“You have precious objects from the ancient world. By looking at them it helps me travel my mind to the past and I enjoy that.”

–Mariko Mori

food and drink

Kajitsu, New York

"It's a hybrid of Shojin cuisine eaten by Buddhist monks, and Kaiseki food that you get for tea ceremonies. It is very delicate and beautifully arranged and brings me back to Kyoto."

–Mariko Mori

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