|The Aesthetics of Frozen Dreams:
Kitsch and Anti-Kitsch in Jeff Koons and Mariko Mori
This article is about how two artists who come from different
cultural spheres develop kitsch into art. Jeff Koons, born in 1955, is
an American artist freely using kitsch elements in his sculptures, paintings
and other works. Video and photographic artist Mariko Mori, born in 1967,
is arguably the most visible Japanese artist in the West. Juxtaposing Western
art and Eastern mythology, she integrates, like Koons, elements of transfigured
kitsch that she alters on a profound level. Both artists’ works refer to
the traditions of Duchamp and Warhol and engage in “commodification” which
has a particular status in the contexts of their respective cultures. Koons
and Mori produce extremely stylized visions of Pop-cultural excesses and
present them as joyful kitsch-scapes. I compare Koons’s “kitsch as avant-garde”
principle and Mori’s “spiritual kitsch reality” and draw conclusions concerning
the position of kitsch in a global context.
The word kitsch was probably coined in Germany in the
1860-1870s in order to designate cheap artistic stuff (Dorfles 1975: 234)
and proliferated during the nineteenth century in Europe. The common understanding
of kitsch refers to a tasteless copy of an existing style, a system of
“bad taste” or artistic deficiency, which almost always involves exaggerated
sentimentality, superficiality, banality, and triteness. Clement Greenberg’s
definition of kitsch as a too formulaic aesthetic expression (Greenberg
1961: 10) is important but might not always be suitable, as will be shown
below. The same is true for Matei Calinescu’s definition of kitsch as an
aesthetic phenomenon that contradicts the “law of inadequacy” (1987: 257).
It has been said that in industrialized countries kitsch
has acquired a scope of cultural anesthesia (Lugg 1999: 4) often serving
as an aesthetically vulgar means to enter a consumer-oriented dream world.
Of course, this will not happen in all places of the world in the same
fashion. It is necessary in this article, which compares an American and
a Japanese artist, to distinguish between different local kitsch-cultures.
In America kitsch is most present in the imaginary of Walt Disney and Koons’s
works draw very much on this culture. His ironical way of pointing out
the “truthfulness of Disney” with its “complete optimism” (Koons 2000:
31) lets his works often appear as disneyfied landscapes of the everyday
For Baudrillard Disneyland is “the microcosm of the Occident”
(Baudrillard 1986: 56) which would exclude Japan. Though it has been claimed
that “Japan is a Disneyland, a focal point where history and locality cease
to exist” (Sato 2004: 340), this “Disneyland” has its own style. As a matter
of fact, Japan has its own cartoon industry, which has developed the aesthetics
of kitsch in a very particular direction. Even more than in Disney aesthetics,
in Japan kitsch is made to look cute (kawaii) which becomes particularly
obvious in the proliferation of youth culture for which the predicate “kawaii”
seems to represent a sort of national aesthetic standard. Kitsch and cute
things do also exist in Disney but they are designed as a romanticized
escape from industrialized society; Japanese kitsch and cute culture has
a similar objective but it defines this shift rather as an escape from
the world of adulthood altogether. Sharon Kinsella has pointed out that
from the beginning, “Disney cute was based more on a sentimental journey
back into an idealized rural society populated with happy little animals
and rural characters taken from folk stories [while] Japanese cute fashion
became more concerned with a sentimental journey back into an idealized
childhood” (Kinsella 1995: 241). The result is a cuteness that “differs
from Disney [in that it] invites an act of interaction [and] triggers fantasy”
(Allison 2004: 37) and offers a multidimensionality that one most often
searches in vain in Disney productions (cf. Napier 1998: 101).
The cute is generally defined as childlike, sweet, innocent,
pure, gentle and weak. In Japan, cute kitsch is a “large scale” phenomenon
developing since the 1980s and turning in the late 1990s into an explicit
kitsch culture (Kinsella 1995: 226). The aesthetics of cuteness is more
than an aesthetic style but appears as a full-fledged way of articulating
a subjective attitude that can become manifest in design, in language,
in bodily behavior, in gender relations, and in perceptions of the self.
Brian McVeigh holds that “cuteness is not just a fad in the fashion cycle
of Japanese pop culture; it is more of a ‘standard’ aesthetic of everyday
life” (McVeigh 2000: 135). Mori plays with the theme of cute kitsch in
the same way in which Koons plays with Disney props.
Koons’s Kitsch as Avant-Garde
Koons produces readymades placing – like Duchamp and Warhol
– ordinary objects into galleries and museums. Duchamp took objects like
a urinary and declared it to be art; Warhol adopted piles of soup cans
in order to reveal the falsifying discourse of capitalist marketing culture
which attempts to conceal the mass-produced nature of its products. Koons
applied the same approach to persons who are commodified to some extent
– Marilyn Monroe, Dennis Hopper, Joan Crawford – and who appear, once they
are transformed into a readymade, as Hollywood mass-productions.
Like Warhol, Koons chooses objects that are “defined not
so much by their function as by their audience, their market” (Caldwell
1992: 10), but his objects are much more commodified even in their original
state. He uses religious symbols, Michael Jackson, Pink Panther, or Cicciolina,
and commodifies them with the help of gold, stainless steel, bright colors,
and sweetness. To commodify means “to turn a valueless object into something
valuable” and this is also the main principle of kitsch culture. Kitsch
turns objects that have little value in themselves into cultural icons,
objects of desire, or other items that can be exchanged on a capitalist
market. Koons effectuates a second process of commodification that turns
(valueless) kitsch into (valuable) art. The fact that he reveals this “anything
goes” philosophy quite liberally provides the possibility to read these
acts of commodification at the same time as critiques of commodification.
There is not only a difference in the choice of objects
but also in the respective processes of Warhol’s and Koons’s kitschifications.
What Duchamp, Warhol and Koons have in common is that they isolate ordinary
objects from their context and attempt to make visible the strangeness
that these objects have probably always had but that we never noticed.
The objects used by Warhol as well as by Koons responded to emotional and
psychological desires long before they were used as art objects. However,
in the form in which Warhol presents them, the emotional content is “cut
off” (though not entirely negated) and this creates a sophisticated aesthetic
surplus. Koons employs, in principle, the same strategy but he goes one
step further: he voluntarily presents his objects as moments of kitsch
in themselves. Kitsch becomes art not because we would recognize in it
an artful element but, paradoxically, because its kitsch identity is singled
out and exaggerated.
Kitsch itself is produced through a similar device; the
only difference is that kitsch strives to obtain, in the first place, emotional
proximity instead of intellectual or aesthetic distance. Koons’s works
(more than Warhol’s) leave us bewildered because many of his objects are
attractive and repulsive at the same time, sometimes bordering on the uncanny.
They establish a distance between us and them and confront us with disconcerting
aspects of contemporary life that until now we have ignored. Kitsch, on
the other hand, sucks us into the fully articulated pleasure principle
of its own enjoyment.
It is clear that Koons eludes one of the principal strategies
of kitsch, which were decisive for Clement Greenberg and Norbert Elias.
For Greenberg kitsch uses “for raw material the debased and academicized
simulacra of genuine culture” (Greenberg 1961: 10) and for Norbert Elias,
kitsch is “nothing other than the expression for this tension between the
highly-formed taste of the specialists and the undeveloped unsure taste
of mass society” (Elias 1998: 32). Koons’s kitsch, on the other hand, cannot
be read as a degradation of high-culture; as kitschified kitsch it rather
degrades popular culture.
Koons’s strategy annuls also Clement Greenberg’s famous
claim that avant-gardism is necessarily opposed to kitsch. For Greenberg
kitsch is always the “rear-guard” (1961: 10) because it encourages us to
consume those parts of art that were initially not meant for consumption
but for more sophisticated aesthetic enjoyment. Koons reproduces feelings
and he does so even in a formulaic fashion (which formally qualifies his
works as kitsch), but his raw material are works that are already kitsch.
The stained steel used in the Luxury and Degradation series degrades
a sort of luxury that has never been one but rather a petty bourgeois version
of it: “To me stainless steel is the material of the Proletarian, it’s
what pots and pans are made of. (…) it’s fake luxury. If these pieces were
in silver they would be absolutely boring” (Koons 1992a, no page numbers).
The objects from this series are fake luxury objects bought by an ascending
middle class. If these things are kitschified, their kitsch-version will
be more truthful than the “real” thing. In real life people do rarely embrace
kitsch as kitsch but rather as the “real” thing. (Coca Cola sells one of
the most commodified products of the world and insists that it is “the
real thing.”) This is why Koons’s message enclosed to the Banality series
reads like a cynical appeal to fatalistic honesty: “You’re ambitious and
you’re trying to become a new upper class. Don’t divorce yourself from
your true being, embrace it” (ibid). In principle Koons announces that,
by undergoing a supplementary process of degradation, the ascending members
of the middle class will finally be able to fully embrace their degraded
All this is also the reason why the art of Koons and Warhol
(as well as of Duchamp) cannot be kitschified. Their works do not articulate
hedonistic emotions but suggest, through a paradoxical and tautological
re-articulation of a kitsch-reality, a kind of non-articulated nothingness
that necessarily remains beyond all expression.
Mariko Mori: Spiritual Kitsch as Virtual Reality
Like Koons, Mariko Mori excels in a combination of innocence
and calculation that she uses for productions of populist dreamworlds.
Mori states that she would be a child of Warhol and a grandchild of
Duchamp. As a matter of fact, she is also Jeff Koons’s younger sister.
Mori commodifies popular culture, fashion, and science fiction. Her early
“costume parties” focused on kitsch personae from popular culture and are
very similar to Koons’s early works. In Art in America (1988-89),
Koons appears as a starry-eyed teenage idol surrounded by bikini-clad beauties
which is, in its uncanny impression of unreality, similar to Mori’s Birth
of a Star (1995). Mori continues this approach with commodifications
of cyborgs, manga characters, and cute Martians.
An important difference between Mori and Koons is that
Mori’s evasions into spiritual kitsch landscapes are supported by computer
technology. Mori produces computer manipulated crafts and videos that aim
at a constant redefinition of the boundary between reality and illusion.
Her later works, in which she experiments with mixtures of spirituality
and kitsch culture, benefit from this ambiguity. Whether she creates oneiric
landscapes that border on an utopic reality (Esoteric Cosmos, 1999),
or whether she transforms herself into a flying divinity borrowing from
the pictorial language of Buddhist icons (Nirvana, 1996-97), her
interest in Eastern philosophy and mythology affirms itself in an almost
naïve manner, consciously shunning the historical depth of Japanese
religion, but rather shifting it towards utopian, posthuman mythology.
In Mori’s installation work Garden of Purification
(1999) the visitor is led through a Zen garden (on resin stones in various
colors) whose floor is covered with sea salt. In the middle of each carefully
raked stone circle is placed a “stone planet” that is supposed to affect
the charkas. Kumano (1997-98) is an installation that has five large
color photos of a Japanese forest as a background, giving the overall impression
of Tarkovsky’s Mirror having been laid over with Solaris.
Mori makes two dreamlike apparitions among the trees, overexposed as a
priestess with ritual headwear, while a turquoise temple is visible on
the right side of the panel. Her most recent work Tom Na H-iu (2007)
is a sculpture made from glass and a symbol for rebirth capturing the death
and rebirth of stars. A sort of spiritual consciousness is produced by
a computer, which catches the light that stars generate when they die.
With the installation Dream Temple (1998) Mori reached her so far
most complete fusion of tradition and technology. The artist’s own comments
on the work help to melt both into a smooth paste because “tradition” is
now referred to via more abstract references to Japanese culture (the Buddhist
principle of the interconnectedness of beings, the principle of non-foundation,
hidden energy, the mystical experience of being dead, etc.). The Dream
Temple is a utopian site, representing a futuristic glass and fiberglass
replica of the Dream Temple (Yumedono) in Nara built in around 739. The
original Dream Temple is an octagonal building in which Prince Shotoku
used to meditate and where he had dream visions that resulted in the creation
of the statue Guze Kan’non, a statue still placed at the temple’s core.
As Mori explains herself, the Yumedono in Nara was the place where “Buddhism
solidified its first spiritual base in Japan” (Mori 1998: no page numbers).
Interestingly, considerations of “another reality” that vaguely flow out
of Buddhist philosophy lead, for Mori, to considerations of “the virtual.”
For Mori this approach is very consistent as she explains: “The Japanese
artistic talent seems to evolve along two currents, one of which is linked
to virtual space, to the attempt of finding a passage from virtual space
to real space” (ibid.). The particularity of the Dream Temple is that,
though being a “real” installation, the exclusive use of transparent material
combined with a complex use of “mystical” light, lets this real object
look like an image produced through computer simulation. The Dream Temple
enables to “live in a three-dimensional virtual reality” (ibid.). The resemblance
that this has with the spatial experience of a real tearoom is baffling
if we consider Toshihiko Izutsu’s description of traditional Japanese architecture
(a tea room): “Moreover, the visual effect resulting from the lack of material
impression of solidity and massiveness, seen in a reduced light coming
in through white paper screens, seems to add a filament of ethereality
to the view, or shall we say a filament of tenuous mist over the whole
spatial field of aesthetic saturation” (Izutsu 1981: 61).
Religion practiced without a proper historical background
becomes the sort of synthetic mysticism that is vaguely directed into the
future. It is the mysticism that sects are often making use of. Myths are
probably, as has stated Gillo Dorfles, the vastest containers of kitsch
that humanity has ever produced as they relish in sentimentality, coarseness,
and vulgarity. Any separation of mythology from history (easily effectuated
by turning the myth into a utopian tale) produces almost automatically
the most kitsch-like gibberish possible. Mori plays with this sort of spiritual
kitsch that embraces the irrational, pre-conscious, “cosmic,” or fantastic,
by reediting the spirituality of romanticism with the help of high-tech,
occasionally integrating manga characters. Her Dream Temple is clearly
an example of utopian architecture, but in spite of the enthusiasm for
the future that Mori’s work vibrate in general, this work is different
from the eighteenth century utopian architecture of Boullée and
Ledoux. On all levels Mori refuses to represent the utopia in the form
of an articulated wish (a Freudian Wunschtraum) but prefers to let
the utopian concept empty itself into ethereality and undefined dreamscapes.
(This is also the reason why her spiritual kitsch does not end up as mass-produced
replicas of tea sets, meditation pillows, miniature rock gardens, or ads
for weekend retreats promising peace of mind with Zen meditation and short-lived
asceticism. Though this kind of kitsch does not really exist in Japan,
it is widespread in Western countries which set out, since the 1970s, to
kitschify much of Zen spirituality.) The point is also here that Mori’s
“anything goes” philosophy lets her acts of commodification simultaneously
appear as critiques of commodification.
Finally, the ironical attitude is the reason why both
Koons and Mori are driven towards self-commodification, a gesture that
can only be ironic and ambiguous: since commodification implies that the
valuable object had been valueless beforehand, we have to suppose that
Koons and Mori as persons were valueless before having been commodified
into works of art, a statement that the artists are unlikely to accept.
Self-commodification – for all times strongly linked to Warhol’s claim
that “everybody can be famous for one day” – reveals most clearly the ironical
input that this art underlies.
Mori’s work cannot be understood without considering her
cultural origin and Japanese aesthetics in general. In the Catalogue of
her Dream Temple, Mori refers to the tea master Sen no Rikyû
(1522-1591) and holds that his tea hut is a “work of conceptual art” (no
page numbers). Rikyû is one of the main developers of the wabi-sabi
aesthetics, a complex system dependent on Zen Buddhism. The term wabi-sabi
has come to the attention of a wider Western public through Daitetz Suzuki
and represents a Zen-inspired idea of beauty manifested in traditional
architecture and crafts valuing imperfection, simplicity, poverty, and
naturalness. Beauty and authenticity are found in aged wood, cracks, asymmetrical
forms, and decay, which makes wabi-sabi expressions compatible with the
principle of impermanence central to Zen Buddhism. Wabi delights Japanese
in the form of those things that remind us of the transient character of
all things. Historically, the rustic, bound-to-earth style of wabi-sabi
tea bowls and other artifacts used for tea depends on their conception
as “non-artistic” objects. The reason is that the Japanese received the
first elements of inspiration for this pottery style from Korea and the
“models” that sparked the development of are today art objects were, paradoxically,
ordinary rice bowls used by Korean peasants. Elements of an utterly low
culture became the most sophisticated items in traditional Japanese art.
This means that, formally, Rikyû’s approach corresponds
to what Calinescu has called “the law of aesthetic inadequacy” (Calinescu
1987: 258) which is one of the principles of kitsch and corresponds also
to the approach of artists like Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons. Duchamp’s ordinary
objects that we can admire in art galleries and kitsch are produced through
similar devices; the only difference is, as mentioned, that kitsch strives
to obtain, in the first place, emotional proximity instead of intellectual
or aesthetic distance. The law of aesthetic inadequacy is here applied
on a formal level but cancelled with regard to aesthetic content.
Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi has more affinities with
the Western modern stream of expression represented by Duchamp, Warhol,
and Koons, than with most Western art that has been produced somewhere
between Romanticism (which is the clearest precursor of kitsch) and early
phases of modernity. The reason is that all of Romanticism (Broch 1975:
50), a good deal of “modern” art, and almost everything that exists between
these two (that is especially the Nineteenth-Century period of industrialization
which is most typical for kitsch, Elias 1998: 28), contains kitsch in the
potential form. A great deal of Western art is potentially close to kitsch
because it refers to the idyll of a recent history, to the idyll (utopia)
of a near future, or articulates “something” in the form of a nostalgia
of another (better) world. Wabi, however, as much as the art of Warhol
and Koons, are fundamentally unable to give in to the transmission of a
potential kitsch content because the popular material they use contains
no sentiments in a potential form. Wabi art uses modest folk art objects
which have little kitsch potential because of their very low degree of
commodification; and Warhol and Koons choose objects in which kitsch is
not potentially present but articulated.
It has been said above that dehistoricized myths can easily
turn into utopianizing kitsch-like gibberish. It becomes obvious that,
while in Western art historical reality is often replaced with a fabricated
version of itself or with a fabricated myth or utopia (providing the possibility
of kitsch), in Japanese aesthetics of wabi – but also in the art of Warhol,
Koons and Mori – things develop the other way round. Objects exist here
for themselves and, in a way of speaking, anticipate any kitschification
through the tautological self-affirmation that is normally the unique privilege
of kitsch. Koons’s unapproachable objects that he has cast in steel for
his series entitled Luxury and Degradation literally take the fun
out of kitschification; they reach what a Zen-inspired aesthetics would
call a curious aesthetic degree of “nothingness.” The same happens when
Koons leavens his Made in Heaven pictures with “quasi-religious
glimpses of an ecstatic, celestial joy” (Rosenblum 1992b: 13) imbuing pornography
with the “aura of the religious image” (Butler 2007: 68). By “desexualizing
its sexual aspect” (Sylvester 2000: 35), pornography becomes “nothing”
in an almost Zen-Buddhist sense of being insignificant on purpose.
Mori’s works follow the same strategy but for her this
nothingness is represented by Virtual Reality when she says that she wants
to reach a “virtual center where all tensions are overcome” (Celent 1998:
no page numbers). Nowhere does the link between kitsch and the virtual
become as clear as here because Mori spells out Virtual Reality as a concretized
eternal present. This is similar to Koons when he says that his use of
baroque is meant to “show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual,
the eternal” (Koons 1992b, npn). To him “Cicciolina is the eternal virgin
[because] she’s been able to remove guilt and shame from her life, and
because of this she is a great liberator” (Koons 1992a: npn). The spectator
viewing these pictures is supposed to be “in the realm of the Sacred Heart
of Jesus” (Koons 1992b: 130). Spirituality is here instrumentalized in
order to level out all differences. Also Mori, as she conflates Eastern
spirituality and utopian mythology (which she combines with an aesthetics
of the cute derived from manga), avoids historical depth on principle.
An artificially established superficiality, joyously identified with Virtual
Reality, lets her appear as the Koons of the cyberage.
Koons’s works, which look like kitsch without following
its anti-artistic logic, settle on a degree of “absolute innocence.” His
in Heaven series is “not pornographic even though they are depictions
of explicit activity” (Caldwell 1992a: 14). The stylization takes the fun
out of voyeurism, which means, first, that these objects are no longer
suitable items for voyeurism as such, and second, even if they were, that
voyeurism has here become an “innocent” activity since it is no longer
nourished by “guilty” libidinal structures. In “first-level” kitsch, as
in voyeurism, an imaginary “more” is always intrinsically present, since
it represents the underlying power that makes phenomena like kitsch and
voyeurism possible. It is the voyeur’s dream of having “real” sex or kitsch-lover’s
dream of reaching the level of high culture and of being accepted into
the social class that has so far closed its doors to him.
This imaginary “more” does not occur in Koons’s works,
which is the reason why it can appear as innocent. Koons’ kitsch is absolutely
self-affirmative and tautologically expressive to a point that the “law
of inadequacy” is no longer applicable in regard to its content. The object
obviously “is kitsch” (or even pornography), but this statement can never
be formulated as a reproach. Already forty years ago Ugo Volli has analyzed
a phenomenon that today appears to overlap with Koons’ later elaborations.
Volli called this phenomenon “pornokitsch” and its formula is simple: “At
the moment man makes of sex an aesthetic or scientific thing there is no
reason to be ashamed of sex” (Volli 1975: 231). Pornography as art (or
pornography as science) is innocent because it has become pornokitsch.
Also Mori undertook the transposition of what Calinescu
has called the “hallucinatory power of kitsch” to a mode of reality that
is hallucinatory in itself. As a matter of fact, the “hallucinatory power”
or “spurious dreaminess” of kitsch (Calinescu 1987: 228) can be helped
– within seconds – to an absolute existence simply by calling reality “virtual.”
It is important to note that in Mori’s work, as in that of Koons, this
mechanism has no “cheap” cathartic effect because here we have to do with
art. Koons’ works ask deep-reaching questions about the status of objects
in modern capitalist society by revealing the presence of kitsch almost
Mori’s work goes one step further in the direction of
a technological Posthumanism. In her work not just the “thingly” reality
but the concept of reality itself has become kitsch, that is: reality with
its “real” as well as its spiritual side has become consumable, enjoyable
and “cute.” As in Koons’s works, the result is a type of self-sufficient
kitsch that appears as “innocent.” The use of cute elements is more than
just strategic: it is essential to Mori’s art.
In order to understand this we need to turn again towards
Japanese culture. Much of Japanese cute kitsch consistently follows an
ontology of the singular, annulling the tensions that in the case of “first
level kitsch” flows out of the very conflict with the law of inadequacy.
In the omnipresent Japanese kitsch culture of the cute (though not only
there) kitsch has a more “innocent” existence. Volli’s early reflections
on pornokitsch retrospectively retrieve a part of the contemporary Japanese
cultural situation in which aestheticized kitsch manipulates the limits
between conscience and innocence, or adulthood and infancy. The “shôjo,”
since twenty years one of the most typical creatures of Japanese mangas,
is a liminal creature settled between woman and child. This creature is
also very much involved in pornographic productions, so-called hentai anime.
I am not saying that this kind of pornokitsch is free of voyeuristic aspirations
but that it is ambiguous by definition. It represents a kitsch culture
that pretends to know neither guilt nor remorse because it attempts to
be only “what it is.” It is a kitsch culture that pretends to be nothing
“more.” This means that it annuls the “law of inadequacy” through which
kitsch normally functions because kitsch always strives towards “adequacy”
or simply the “more.” The pretension to be innocent as well as the stylization
on which this cartoon industry bases its entire project, are supposed to
produce a sort of innocent pornography that Volli anticipated already in
It needs to be pointed out that, in general, the Japanese
have a more innocent approach towards pornography, which has cultural and
religious foundations. Helen McCarthy wrote about the subject of sexuality
in anime and manga: “Sexual preferences or fantasies of any kind are not
regarded as strange or reprehensible in Japan, where a long tradition of
liberal thought has created an atmosphere in which anything is permissible
in the privacy of your imagination” (McCarthy 1993: 48). This is probably
also the reason why in Japan the smallest neighborhood bookshops, “well
stocked with pornographic magazines, comics, and books [and] vending machines,
conveniently located on street corner, offer a large variety of porno-comics
and ‘dirty pictures’” (Buruma 1984: 55). It is the reason why “leaflets
and free catalogues for porno videos are widely distributed to homes in
the suburbs” (Yunomae 1995: 108). A statement about the Japanese national
character penned down by the Italian anthropologist Fosco Maraini in the
1960s (a statement that would no longer pass as politically correct today)
explains a wide range of the phenomena that have been described here: “No
doubts, caused by the memory of some original sin in the backyards of the
collective subconsciousness, trouble their sleep. No need for psychiatrists
or couches. The world is good; man is a kami (god); work is good; wealth
is good; fruits are good; sex is good; and even war is good, provided you
win it.” According to Maraini, the Japanese would strive for nothing other
than the “knowledge of the world as it is” (ibid.) which is, curiously,
also the ambition of Zen Buddhism.
Shôjo culture, together with an ambiguous erotic
kitsch culture, represents the extreme case of a culture that has decided
to settle its aesthetic expressions in an ambiguous field between, as has
said Alessandro Gomarasca, “innocence and provocation” (Gomarasca 2001).
It is certainly no coincidence that Mori appears in her works as a shôjo,
but I would go as far as saying that both Mori and Koons are shôjos.
John Whittier Treat defines the life of the shôjo as “essentially
narcissistic in that it is self-referential, and self-referential as long
as the shôjo is not employed productively in sexual and capitalist
economies” (Whittier Treat 1996: 283). As the universe of shôjo kitsch
culture “celebrate[s] the vapidness of our contemporary existences” (ibid.)
it can at times come very close to Koons’s “Walt Disney version of an erotic
fantasy, complete with adorable animals” (Caldwell 1992a: 13) or a “collision
of love à la Disney with the reality of sexuality” (14). A typical
device of Japanese rorikon (Lolita-Complex) commodification linked to shôjo
culture is to “sexualize objects that are normally not explicitly sexual”
(Shigematsu 1999: 130). However, the vice versa is also true: Koons’s strategy
of “transforming … through innocence, beauty, security, and trust the visible
elements of the vulgar, pornographic” (Schneider 2001: 18) also echoes
a principle of shôjo culture. And even where it embraces no erotic
elements at all, a resemblance between Koons and a typically Japanese conception
of kitsch is striking. Take Koons’s Rabbit, which incorporates the
viewer in itself because it reflects him/her in its mirror surface. The
relationship that Rabbit establishes with the viewer approaches
the strategy of one of the most typically Japanese kitsch personages, Hello
Kitty. The producers of Hello Kitty explain that “the reason
Kitty’s mouth is not drawn is so that anyone looking at her can imagine
their own expression for her. When you are happy, you can imagine a smile
on her face; when you are sad, she’s sad with you. Kitty always knows how
you feel, and being your friend, she shares your feelings.” Both Rabbit
and Kitty represent the most typical cases of kitsch defined by
Ludwig Giesz which is for him always in the first place a “self-enjoyment”
in which the “enjoyer enjoys himself” (Giesz 1975: 41). In any case I find
Koons’s productions more shôjo-like than those of the most prominent
Japanese representative of Koons-style, Takashi Murakami, whose sculptures
of the insipid female manga character Hiropon rather represent the kind
of eroticized kitsch that Koons would probably like to avoid.
Being both innocent and calculating, both frivolous and
sincere, the shôjo as well as Koons and Mori attempt to exist narcissistically
and beyond critical dialogue. Refusing any open form of irony (though being
ironical and calculating on a more hidden level), they cultivate a juvenile
eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too attitude that has become more and more recurrent
in self-centered, capitalist consumerism. All three of them create a utopia
in which kitsch can no longer be called kitsch because this dreamworld
has its own rules. Koons points out that for him the dream of such a teenage
world is most explicitly exemplified by the Beatles: “Nobody ever said
that the Beatles’ music was not on a high level, but it appealed to a mass
audience. That’s what I want to do” (Koons 1992b: 114). In the Beatles’
universe the bad becomes good and it is possible to be avant-gardist and
still be loved by the masses. Mass culture can at the same time be elitist.
If kitsch is the legitimate taste of the twenty-first
century, the elaboration of Virtual Reality is its main technological achievement.
Permitting an immediacy that art must avoid, kitsch can produce the image
of a cultural anomie; and this kind of combination of kitsch and Virtual
Reality can most successfully be produced through an elaboration of the
“spiritual” side of kitsch. In virtual reality the “unreal” component of
reality (illusions, wishes, myths, etc.) can become “real.” Kitsch is the
real precursor of Virtual Reality.
Mori makes this particularly clear. Her “kitsch” produces
itself out of itself, being no imitation or simulation of a preexisting
reality. This is why this kind of reality looks so much like a posthuman
frozen dream. In this point it comes close to kitsch, but also to the aesthetics
of the wabi-sabi. In wabi-sabi, in kitsch, and in Mori’s treatment of the
virtual, dreams are “frozen.” Wabi-sabi lets emotions “freeze” in a state
of non-articulation, that means it freezes nature (natural colors, materials)
and avoids exuberance by willfully installing austerity. Kitsch simply
freezes emotions in their state of exuberance. Mori’s installations provide
us with a sterile spirituality that appears as a parody of kitsch because
the illusions of consumerism are here revealed as what they are: the frozen
dreams that Virtual Reality makes use of. What they all have in common
is that they manage to install themselves at a non-place of relativity,
or at an eternal present, in which the (present or historical) “real” no
longer represents an obstacle for creation.
* Dr.Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, PD, is Assistant Professor of Philosophy
at the Dept. of Philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences, Gulf University
for Science and Technology in Hawally, Kuwait. He also taught in the U.S.
Allison, Anne. 2004. “Cuteness as Japan’s Millennial Product” in J.
Tobin (ed.), Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokemon.
Durham: Duke University Press, 34-52.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1986. Amérique. Paris: Grasset.
Bornoff, Nicolas. 2002. ‘Sex and Consumerism: The Japanese State of
the Art’ in Lloyd, Fran (ed.) Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese
Art. London: Reaktion Books.
Broch, Hermann. 1975. ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’ in Dorfles, 49-76.
Buchloh, Benjamin. 2001. ‘Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Arts: 1956-1966’
in A. Michelson (ed.) Andy Warhol. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1-46.
Buruma, Ian. 1984. Behind the Mask. New York: Pantheon Books.
Butler, Rex. 2007. ‘Two Warhols’ in Andy Warhol [catalogue]. South Brisbane:
Queensland Art Gallery.
Caldwell, John. 1992. ‘Jeff Koons: The Way we Live Now’ in Jeff Koons.
San Francisco: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 9-14.
Calinescu, Matei. 1987. Five Faces of Modernity. Durham: Duke University
Celent, Germano. 1998. ‘Mariko Mori: Eternal Present’ in Mariko Mori:
Dream Temple. Milano: Fondazione Prada.
Doi, Takeo. 1973. The Anatomy of Dependence. New York, London, Tokyo:
Dorfles, Gillo. 1975. Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste. New York: Bell.
Elias, Norbert. 1998. ‘The Kitsch Style and the Age of Kitsch’ in J.
Goudsblom & S. Mennel (eds), The Norbert Elias Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
Fogarsi, George. 1997. ‘All that is Solidu Melts into Kitty’ in CTheory:
Theory, Technology and Culture 20:3, Article 55.
Giesz, Ludwig. 1975. ‘Phenomenology of Kitsch’ in Dorfles, 156-174.
Gomarasca, Alessandro. 2001. Poupées et robots: La culture pop
japonaise. Paris: Autrement.
Greenberg, Clement. 1961. ‘Avantgarde and Kitsch’ in Art and Culture:
Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.
Itoh, Teiji (with T. Ikko and S. Tsune). 1993. Wabi, Sabi, Suki: The
Essence of Japanese Beauty. Hiroshima: Mazda Motor Corp.
Izutsu, Toshihiko & Toyo. 1981. The Theory of Beauty in the Classical
Aesthetics of Japan. Haag: Nijnhoff.
Kaplan, Frédéric. 2004. ‘Who is Afraid of the Humanoid?
Investigating Cultural Differences in the Acceptance of Robots’ in International
Journal of Humanoid Robotics 1:3, 1-16.
Keene, Donald. 1988. The Pleasures of Japanese Literature. New York:
Columbia University Press.
Kinsella, Sharon. 1995. ‘Cuties in Japan’ in Lise Skov & Brian Moeran
(eds), Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. Honolulu: Hawaii University
Koelwel, Eduard. 1937. ‘Kitsch und Schwäb’ in Mutterprache 52.
Koons, Jeff. 1992a. Jeff Koons. San Francisco: The San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art.
Koons, Jeff. 1992b. The Jeff Koons Handbook. New York: Rizzoli.
Lugg, Catherine A. 1999. Kitsch: From Education to Public Policy. New
York & London: Falmer Press.
Maraini, Fosco. 1972. Japan: Patterns of Continuity. London: Hamish
McCarthy, Helen. 1993. Anime: A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Animation.
London: Titan Books.
McVeigh, Brian. 2000. Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling and Self-Presentation
in Japan. New York: Berg.
Mori, Mariko. 1998. ‘The Dream Temple and the Cave of Lascaux’ (with
Shin’ichi Nakazawa & Takayo Iida) in Mariko Mori: Dream Temple. Milano:
Napier, Susan. 1998. “Vampires, Psychic Girls, Plying Women and Sailor
Scouts: Four Faces of the Young Female in Japanese Popular Culture” in
D. P. Martinez (ed): The World of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting
Boundaries and Global Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 91-109.
Rosenblum, Robert. 1992. ‘Notes on Jeff Koons’ in R. Rosenblum (ed.),
The Jeff Koons Handbook. New York: Rizzoli.
Sato, Kumiko. 2004. ‘How Information Technology Has (Not) Changed Feminism
and Japanism: Cyberpunk in the Japanese Context’ in Comparative Literature
Schneider, Echard. 2001. ‘Surface and Reflection’ in E. Schneider (ed.)
Jeff Koons. Köln: König.
Shiokawa, Kanako. 1999. ‘Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese
Comics’ in Lent 93-126.
Volli, Ugo. 1975. ‘Pornography and Pornokitsch’ in Dorfles, 224-250.
Whittier Treat, John. 1996. ‘Yoshimoto Banana writes home: The Shôjo
in Japanese Popular Culture’ in J. Whittier Treat (ed.) Contemporary Japan
and Popular Culture. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 275-308.
Yunomae, Tomoko. 1996. ‘Commodified Sex (Sexism): Japan’s Pornographic
Culture’ in AMPO Japan Asia Quarterly Review (ed.), Voices from the Japanese
Women’s Movement. New York: Sharpe.