PORTRAIT OF KIMIKO YOSHIDA, Color Magazine
"Were is Kimiko?"" This question appears on the website of photographer Kimiko Yoshida, whose haunting, large, color self-portraits have earned her prominence in the global art scene. Beginning with the acclaimed debut of her series Intangible Brides at Paris Photo 2002, her works have been steadily exhibited and acquired throughout Europe and in other countries from Russia and the Far East to Israel and the United States. Between shooting and traveling for exhibitions, the Paris-based photographer is often in transit or in another country.
The other aspect to Yoshida's whereabouts relates to the hundreds of photographs she has created over the past ten years. In these, as in works by Cindy Sherman and a number of others known for self-portraiture, the photographer disappears beneath elaborate costuming, body paint, and artifacts, transforming herself into a range of women. From The Phoenix Bride, China to The Blue Kenya Bride to The Beijing Opera Bride, Yoshida's vivid ensemble blends countless cultures, rituals, and mythologies to summon timeless female beauty - goddess to warrior to pop culture icon.
Like a mannequin, Yoshida provides the form of the bride who emerges. Sometimes it is only the smallest visible facial feature or nuance that gives the bride life. In Tamates Bride, Vanuatu, the mouth with geisha-red lip paint establishes the human, which is otherwise nearly obscured by the insect-like headdress. And some Brides might even appear to be male, such as Torero (Remembering Picasso) and The Bride King of Vicus.
In Brides and subsequent series - Letters, Symbols, Paintings, and Writings - there is more than just the visual aspect to Yoshida's process. The photographer also undergoes an internal change. Describing her work, she has said, "Art is above all else the experience of transformation. Transformation is, it seems to me, the ultimate value of my work. Art for me has become a space of shifting metamorphosis." Implied here is the experiential basis of her photography, in which Yoshida disappears not only physically, but metaphysically, behind the women she creates.
Yoshida has further described her self-portraiture as the space where she stages her "ceremony of disappearance." Ceremony is a central aspect of life in Japan, which even today is deeply rooted in traditional ancient culture and discipline.
Serving tea in the formal tea ceremony is an art and spiritual discipline, and, for Yoshida, making art is a spiritual discipline as well. This element of her photographic practice sets her apart from photographers such as Sherman, whose works turn primarily upon surface meanings. Yoshida's experience growing up in a traditional family in Japan is key to understanding the significance of the disciplined experiential component of her work.
A life of multiple identities was hardly what Yoshida was raised to expect. She was born in Tokyo in 1963, into a family of venerable samurai lineage, at a time when marriages were arranged and women's roles were sharply defined. In this world, Yoshida felt alienated even as a child. "One day when I was three, my mother threw me out of the house. I left clutching a box filled with all my treasures. I went to a public park. The police found me there the next day. Since then, I've always felt nomadic, errant, fleeing."
As Yoshida matured, her independent spirit set her at odds with societal expectations for "everyone to act the same," and for women to assume a subservient role. Still, she was driven in "the way of warrior" - the code of fierce determination the samurai followed.
After earning a college degree in literature, she entered the commercial world of fashion, where she ran a fashion company. But it gave her little satisfaction to see the general public so easily seduced by skillful advertising to desire the latest fashion trends. Seeking a place to develop her individuality, she enrolled - against her father's will - at Tokyo College of Photography. She graduated in 1995, but by then realized that even with a degree her opportunities in Japan for a creative career in photography were limited.
Then too, the decades of living in fear of being bound by "the humiliated fate and mortifying servitude of Japanese women" weighed heavily upon her. So in 1995, in a life-changing move, Yoshida left Japan for France, to become an artist in self-imposed exile. She started over, learning a new language and returning to photographic studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie at Arles. In the safe environment of her adopted homeland, she eagerly opened to new ideas and aesthetic approaches. She immersed herself in European culture, discovering in her visits to cathedrals and museums the richness and appeal of baroque art.
In her creative explorations, she began to fuse elements of Japanese culture and art with those of Western baroque art. But despite her new artistic freedoms, there remained a heavy weight holding her back: a traumatizing experience from her childhood. When she was eight years old, Yoshida had been horrified and humiliated to discover the ancestral bondage of arranged marriages, and to learn that her mother and father "set eyes on each other for the first time on the very day they were married."
Yoshida had to unravel her past enough to work with it artistically. By 2001, she had begun the exorcistic self-portraits she called Bachelor Brides, which later became the series Intangible Brides. With the first important image, The Widow Bride, Yoshida broke through her fears and childhood dread of entrapment in marriage. The self-portrait is black on black, except for the bride's bare shoulders. Semi-opaque, tightly-fitting black material, like that in women's hosiery, covers her face. On her head sits a black cap with thin tentacle-like fabric extensions spiking out in crazy disarray. With her chin high, and an inscrutable tight-lipped smile, the bride looks upward, into the distance. She seems hardly a bride in mourning. With The Widow Bride, Yoshida offers a potent visual comment on the death-in-life aspects of marriage.
Unlike the ancestral bride of bondage in Japan, Yoshida's bride will never wed and subjugate herself. There are no victims in Yoshida's cosmology, no visitations to any dark times in her own life. Nor are there any pure representations of a particular group or community. Her interest lies in being universal, not unique, and in fostering global identities, not national ones. She subtly inserts the notion of a hybridization of cultures through her mixing of elements from different worlds and groups.
With Intangible Brides, Yoshida established her signature style, marrying the subtraction and minimalism of Japanese art and Zen with the seductive profusion of baroque art. Using a Hasselblad 6x6 and shooting film (and recently, shooting digitally on occasion), she works in a square format, the symbol of stability in Zen. Backgrounds are monochromatic, matching colors in the costuming, makeup, and objects in the image.
What is not seen is as important as what is. In the indirect, shadowless light from two simple Tungsten bulbs, foreground and background at times seem to change places. Among Yoshida's most enthralling images are those in which this threshold drastically narrows.
These photographs offer the experience of revelation, turning the unseen into a tangible presence. Then there is the other aspect to Yoshida's art, the part that cannot be seen but that she experiences. Like an illusionist, she controls her disappearance - submitting to it for the duration, and for the sake of the photographic process, but ultimately liberating herself, free to move on to her next fantasy incarnation. Having identified her dominant areas of inquiry as presence, absence, and transformation, and having forged a cross-cultural aesthetic as a way of exploring them, Yoshida is wed to undergoing the ultimate metamorphosis in each self-portrait: A symbolic passage into and beyond death.
Shooting sessions can be grueling, sometimes with serious physical consequences. Her face was burned in a lengthy shooting session (six consecutive days, ten hours a day) - a toxic reaction and allergy to the acrylic paint she uses for the makeup caused her skin to come off. After that, she limited the sessions to five or six hours for one picture, and no more than one session a day.
The final C-prints are heroic in scale, nearly four feet by four feet, mounted without borders on acrylic and aluminum. Yoshida's Brides have also appeared in unexpected sizes, specially produced for unusual venues. In September 2009, the photographer created a monumental, one-of-a-kind, The Mao Bride (Red Guard Red), for the Municipal Fashion Museum in Hasselt, Belgium. The city installed the vibrant, 33x33-foot, all-red presence on the museums' façade for a seven-month run.
Though she is first and foremost a fine art photographer, Yoshida does not fear she will compromise her work by accepting commercial commissions. She has incorporated projections, light installations, sculpture, and film into her exhibitions, which is where the baroque influence is most strongly felt. For her 2006 solo show, Parcours Saint Germain-des-Près, at Arthus-Bertrand Jewellery in Paris, she created a multi-sensory fusion of sight, smell, and sound. The photography component of the show featured The Green Tea Bride and The Sakura Bride. Her accompanying Immaterial Installation introduced a perfume fragrance, which she created, called Sakura. "Sakura" is the Japanese word for cherry blossom, which in Buddhism is the symbol of impermanence. In a room bathed in pink light and enveloped in the Sakura fragrance, she added a spoken-word piece called Echoes of Perfume to complete the installation.
Yoshida continues to add to Intangible Brides (which now numbers close to two hundred images), while simultaneously working on other series. In these she continues her exploration of presence, absence, and transformation, with variation.
In the series Letters (2003-2008) and Symbols (2007-2009), each photograph is a close-up of the artist's face, covered with paint, makeup and a single letter or symbol sized to her face. Yoshida commissioned artisans in Italy to blow each of these in Murano glass.
Rimbaud Regained. Self-portrait consists of five photographs of the artist with a crystal glass-blown letter on her face. Lying down, she holds the letter in position with the muscles of her face. Inspiration for this series was the poem Vowels, which Arthur Rimbaud wrote in 1871, at the age of sixteen. In her contemporary vision of Vowels, the monochromatic colors in the photographs correspond to those Rimbaud assigned in his poem, one color to each vowel.
Included in Symbols is the series Self-portrait with a Comma. Here, Yoshida replaces the glass-blown letter with a comma that is sized to her face. A comma is but the briefest of pauses within a sentence. Symbolically it may represent the brevity of life. And then again, it might just be an intriguing shape. Pollock's Silver Dripping alludes to Jackson Pollock's drip painting, while Ana Mendieta's White Gold Craqué gives presence to the Cubanborn artist who lived in exile in the United States, and came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, and conceptualist James Lee Byars, are among the many others in this series.
In Writings (initiated 2009), a series-in-progress, the single-color background is replaced by a two-color pattern that matches the costuming and body paint. This creates a dizzying kinetic interplay between foreground and background. Staring at this work can be mesmerizing. A Moroccan woman specializing in henna does the painting in acrylics. Marrakech Henna makes its print debut here.
As subject matter for the fifteen self-portraits in Paintings, Yoshida turned to the masters Rembrandt, Picasso, Gauguin, Delacroix and others. While maintaining the formal solemnity of all her self-portraits, she introduces a playful twist in costuming, abandoning authenticity in favor of a technique known as bricolage. Bricolage in general refers to using materials at hand or importing objects from one culture to another and changing their meaning. The layers of meaning are amplified by the substitution of an unexpected object for the one that would ordinarily appear.
For example, in Painting (Minotaur by Picasso), Yoshida uses yellow women's shoes upended atop the Minotaur's head to represent horns. Styling and costuming, which anchor the impact of Yoshida's brides, are equally important here, where she balances formal portraiture and whimsy without undercutting the seriousness of the artistic intent. In Rembrandt by Himself, the improbable fabrics swathing the figure and head, the black face paint, and raccoon-like, white-ringed eyes all easily co-exist. Even the series title, Paintings, subverts the word's meaning: Yoshida's "paintings" are not paintings, but 5x5-foot digital photographic images on canvas. In this incursion into the galaxy of male painters, Yoshida makes the territory uniquely her own.
In New York City in March 2010, the Manhattan debut of Paintings. Self Portraits opened at Ralph Pucci International for a run through May. Among exhibitions forthcoming, Yoshida will have a solo show in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie from September 7 to October 31, 2010.
Still early in her career, Yoshida has carved a niche for herself in the self-portraiture genre. Marrying aesthetics from East and West - Zen minimalism and baroque profusion - Yoshida's art lies between the figurative and the abstract, with a metaphysical edge. It aspires to poetry. It awakens the spirit, courts transformation, opens to epiphany. Her stance as an artist is both humanist and feminist, yet conceptually apart from the reigning visual culture that associates women with anomie, detachment, emotional confusion, or duress. She celebrates the timeless beauty, powerful presence, and lineage of women in the grand scheme of Being, not in relation to ego.
Art for Yoshida is not only the means of transforming life and inventing new meanings for herself. She creates, too, so that others may be enlightened, moved, or changed by experiencing her art. I envision the diminutive Yoshida deep within her work, a painted character theatrically embellished by costume, makeup, an object, artifact or some variation therein. She is seated or lying down against a monochromatic background. The light is subtle, such as that in homes in Japan. It is a light that embraces the magic in the shadows, enticing the viewer to look more deeply.
The camera is in position. Staging her paradoxical ceremony of disappearance, Yoshida becomes object so that the woman shown may be revealed as human. The final photograph will contain the record of Yoshida's being simultaneously present and absent in the image of another. In his poem To a Reason, Arthur Rimbaud wrote: "Come from forever, who will go off everywhere." So goes Kimiko Yoshida, and so, too, can each of us.