Chapter 34. Dialogues with Great Photographers: Kimiko Yoshida

Holden Luntz Gallery
Jun 11, 2019 5:43PM

Kimiko Yoshida was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1963. Feeling oppressed as a woman, she left Japan in 1995 and moved to France to pursue her artistic ambitions. “Since I fled my homeland to escape the mortifying servitude and humiliating fate of Japanese women, I amplified through my art a feminist stance of protest against contemporary clichés of seduction, voluntary servitude of women, identity and the stereotypes of gender,” Yoshida says. She studied at the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles and the Studio National des Arts Contemporains in Le Fresnoy. Since gaining her artistic freedom, Kimiko Yoshida has been working prolifically. Her work revolves around feminine identity and the transformative power of art. The visual elements in her work, coupled with the titles’ reference to artists and paintings of the past from Titian to Warhol, are meant to come together to challenge conventional notions and traditions of art and cultural identity. “I want an image that tries to rethink its own meanings and references.” By constantly changing what at first appears to be a self-portrait, Yoshida says, “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.” For her self-portraits, Yoshida received the International Photography Award in 2005. She continues to exhibit worldwide, and her work is found in the permanent collections of such museums as the Fine Arts Museum of Houston, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.

Kimiko Yoshida, The Miao Bride, Guizhou, China, Self-Portrait, 2009, C-Type Color Photograph Mounted on Acrylic and Aluminium

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT HOLDEN LUNTZ GALLERY, ON JANUARY 1, 2019. READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE.

Luntz - How is your experience as a woman living in France different from the one you had in Japan? Did living in France contribute to your expression and liberate your creativity?

Yoshida - I chose to leave Japan to flee the humiliated fate of Japanese women, to escape the deadly obligation of arranged marriage, to renounce voluntary servitude. I chose France, in 1995, because I knew a little French semiology, poetry, philosophy: Roland Barthes, Mallarmé, Voltaire ... When I arrived in France, I had to learn the language like a child who had just been born.

By changing cultures, I gained new meanings; I learned to say no. Thanks to the freedom that the French language allows me, thanks to the very structured thought that it induces, I make today an art which knows how to say no, which does not consent to the state of things as they are, who dares to go against the obviousness and the habit of clichés or stereotypes.

Kimiko Yoshida, The Massai Bride Wearing a Warrior’s Face Ruff, Kenya (Self-Portrait), 2005, Chromogenic Photograph

Luntz - Did your move to France have a significant impact on your ideas about the notion of identity?

Yoshida - Today there is an ideology of identity, which is especially dominant, I think, in the art world and wreaks havoc in France as well as in the United States. The theme of “identity” is, with that of “memory” or “roots,” a stereotype that artists find easy to put forward when they do not know what to do. To promote an alleged identity seems to be a place of thought or speech when you have nothing to say, and you lack the thought.

Of course, identity makes sense, but which one? What does “identity” mean? The very notion of identity is largely an imaginary fantasy, what Freud calls the narcissism of the small difference. We speak freely of individual identity as well as of “national identity” (this is even a major ideological theme that is particularly debated at this time in France among the most serious politicians). In reality, identity is, for everyone, made of odds and ends, bits and pieces, successive borrowings and chance finds. This is a heterogeneous and disparate assemblage, consisting of a series of imaginary identifications.

The self is certainly not what clutters my self-portraits. A French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, figurehead of the “return to Freud,” rightly rejects the ideology of the self that the American ego-psychologists (Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, Rudolph Loewenstein) claim, re-educates and “reinforces” the self with the aim of social adaptation.

Far from this alienating psychology, the self, I do not doubt, is this “function of misrecognition” cluttered with an “illusion of autonomy” which Lacan argues as a bunch of lures and pretenses in “The mirror stage” (in Écrits, p. 80, Norton edition). Fundamentally, this superposition of imaginary peels is, like an onion being peeled, deprived of a central nucleus: “Freud writes that the ego is made of the succession of its identifications with the loved objects which enabled it to take its form. An ego is an object made like an onion, we could peel it, and we would find the successive identifications that constituted it” (Lacan, Freud’s Technical Papers, May 5, 1954).

The question that I am supporting in my work surely does not relate to an insignificant: Who am I? My work opens on the most essential questions of identifications: How many am I? This obviously has a different meaning.

You could say the same thing with Arthur Rimbaud: “For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its fault. This is obvious to me: I am present at this birth of my thought: I watch it and listen to it: I draw a stroke of the bow: the symphony makes its stir in the depths, or comes on to the stage in a leap.

If old imbeciles had not discovered only the false meaning of the Ego, we would not have to sweep away those millions of skeletons which, for times immemorial, have accumulated the results of their one-eyed intellects by claiming to be the authors! (Letter of May 15, 1871, to Paul Demeny, called Second Letter of the Seer.)

Or to say it with John Lennon: “I am he as you are he as you are me” (these are the first verses of I Am the Walrus) ...

Kimiko Yoshida, KyotoKimiko (Gold Leaves/Gold Merchant), 2018, Archival Pigment Photograph and Acrylic Paint on Canvas

Luntz - What did you gain from your education at the Tokyo College of Photography in Japan? What about your education in France, at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie, then at the National Studio for Contemporary Arts-Le Fresnoy?

Yoshida - When I arrived in France, I knew everything about photographic technique. I even taught teachers of the school of Arles the handling of the antique 8x10 large format view camera. Then, at Fresnoy, I learned to film in 16 mm with Jean-Luc Godard, Raoul Ruiz, Michael Snow ...

Kimiko Yoshida, KyotoKimiko (Zen Garden/Harlequin), 2018, Archival Pigment Photograph and Acrylic Paint on Canvas

Luntz - You do not want your works to be seen as traditional self-portraits, yet you are still involved in some way. Could you tell us about the vision you have of traditional self-portraits, and how this manifests in your work? And more specifically, how does your work go beyond our traditional approach?

Yoshida - In the images I make, I always look for a certain technical and formal excellence. Perfect images, which could involve heavy teams with assistants, make-up artists, lighting designers, stylists, designers, etc. Solely, I work opposite my husband Jean-Michel Ribettes, as a duo, without any other assistance. We design and create the works together, and we chose not to show the duo in the artist name, so we sign my name. Together, we do a kind of “DIY.” Initially, the choice of self-portraiture was an easy solution, a form of laziness: the raw material is at hand. From the outset, we have established a conceptual protocol, of which all my photographs have proceeded in a steady way since 2001; always the same subject (self-portrait), the same framing (frontal), the same light (indirect), the same chromatic principle (the subject is painted the same color as the background), the same format (square).

Make-up and direct shooting: no digital editing, no Photoshop.

The same figure, therefore, repeats itself but is not identical to itself: the more it is the same, the more it changes ... We must see these self-portraits as timeless and “abstract” images, that is to say, free of any anecdote, any story, any narration. There is a particular fixedness in my photographs, an indifference as if the image contained in itself its absence of limits, which corresponds to a very ancient process of infinite temporality in a restricted setting that goes back to the Flemish Primitives (early Netherlandish painting). This dimension of infinity, correlated with a dimension of abstraction, places these self-portraits well beyond the problematics of self-representation, far beyond egotistical meanings.

The self-portrait here is not a reflection of oneself, but a reflection on the representation of oneself.

Luntz - Conceptually, how does the monochromatic nature of your work become an essential component of your images? What are the consequences in terms of identity, transformation, disappearance, etc.? What leads you to choose one color at the expense of another?

Yoshida - In accordance with the conceptual protocol that I give myself, I always wear make-up: I invariably paint myself the same color as the background of the image. With this almost monochrome painting, I somehow introduce into my photography, a reference to abstraction.

Monochrome aspires to abolish the identity of the figure: the latter tends to dissolve in the tenuous shades of the monochrome color which constitutes the image at the same time as it completes it. This search for monochrome is a reflection on the successive moments of erasure. I’m looking for a color that floats like a touch of watercolor on the surface of the water. It is a research on the fading of the self in the revelation of the image. Emergence and erasure.

This monochromatic orientation, between disappearance and revelation, between appearance and abolition, seeks to give the invisible being a visible expression, to give sight to the intangible and immaterial, which is the expression of the spirit of Zen, where being, delivered from its ordinary limitations, tends to be confused with the infinite duration of Time.

Kimiko Yoshida, KyotoKimiko (Genji/Warhol), 2018, Archival Pigment Photograph and Acrylic Paint on Canvas

Luntz - Is your work influenced by the Japanese concept of “shironuri,” which encourages geishas to make up their faces in white, in order to eliminate their individuality?

Yoshida - It can be said that Western makeup, designed to beautify and magnify, promotes the particular and singularity. In contrast to Western makeup, traditional Japanese makeup (shironuri) is aimed at abstraction, indifference. The shironuri (literally “painted in white”) tends to only erase, depersonalize, hide. It condemns the singularity of the face, it clings on the figure by covering it with white, erases any individuality. A geisha made up of white does not look for perfection, she only wants to look like a model. Under the white mask, the geisha tends to identify itself not with an imaginary ideal, but, on the contrary, with an abstract idea, a generic form, a symbolic register, an eighteenth-century female archetype, a Japanese substance essential.

The shironuri is actually a mask. This aesthetic of effacement manifests a sensuality essentially fleeting, impersonal, cultivated. Japanese culture seeks, through the shironuri of the geisha, to express this impulse towards the unachievable, the indeterminate, the immaterial.

But what appears with the mask is, first of all, disappearance. When the face disappears under the mask, it appears as the disappearance of what has disappeared. The mask shows the fault of the identity, the separation dividing the identical, the splitting in the disappearance. In his Structural Anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss emphasizes the function of splitting the representation that the mask operates: “The duality [...] is the notion of a mask that brings us the key.”

Luntz - What type of lighting do you use, and does it play a key role in your images?

Yoshida - The color of my prints corresponds precisely to the natural conditions of the shooting. I use indirect lighting with the intensity of a candle and a low temperature, without filter or gelatin.

The ideal light that I seek is the sheer brightness that softly illuminates the traditional Japanese houses of typical samurai families of which I am a descendant. A delicate light, that is that of the house of my childhood in Tokyo.

I want to rediscover the glow that Tanizaki Junichiro celebrates in his famous Praise of the Shadow (1933): “It is the indirect and diffused light that is the essential factor in the beauty of our homes. [...] We indulge ourselves in this subtle clarity, made of an apparently uncertain exterior light, clinging to the surface of the twilight-colored walls and barely preserving one last zest of life. For us, this clarity on a wall, or rather this penumbra, is worth all the ornaments of the world and its view never tires us.”

Kimiko Yoshida, RorschachYoshida XC (Sitting Bull), 2018, Archival Pigment Photograph and Acrylic Paint on Canvas

Luntz - You refer to Western historical canons in your “Paintings” series. Have you always been interested in Western art, or is it an interest that is due to your life in France? Does your “Paintings” series refer to the traditional historical canons of representation in the course of history?

Yoshida - This series of Paintings is in fact conceived in the memory of the history of art. It is a mental and distant evocation of masterpieces by the old masters: Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Rembrandt, Rubens, Delacroix, Tiepolo, Watteau, Warhol, Magritte, Piero della Francesca, and Fragonard, transposed.

I wanted, by this reference to paintings painted by other artists, to introduce into my own works a function of otherness, of dissimilarity.

Also note that to give a photo the title of Painting is still to contradict the word and the thing; to contradict what is said and what is shown, to unite two opposites. What the word designates and what it means, here are two separate, contradictory registers.

Luntz - In your brides series, you represented yourself in several native or ethnographic wedding costumes. What is your personal vision of marriage? Has your mother’s experience of an arranged marriage influenced your Brides series?

Yoshida - My Brides are Bachelor Brides; I also call them Intangible Brides. It’s a kind of antiphrase, a way of challenging marriage. A way of staving off the horror that gripped me when I discovered, at the age of eight, that my parents had met for the first time the same day they married.

When I borrow the masks, headgear or attributes of the tribal chief, warrior, or shaman from museum collections, they are all male attributes. I am appropriating these sacred or sacred objects, and I divert them in the name of another ritual which is called art and which I accomplish without irony, without parody, without destruction. If you pay attention to the titles of the series of (Bachelor) Brides, the adjective that qualifies the bride is the name of the tribe or function related to the ethnographic attribute in question: it is never of a real bride ...

With the headdresses or masks borrowed from ethnographic museums, I introduce the otherness of myths and cults, the alterity of liturgies and rites and in doing so, I introduce their alteration.

Kimiko Yoshida, RorschachYoshida LXXXIV (Gold Merchant M), 2018, Archival Pigment Photograph and Acrylic Paint on Canvas

Luntz - Do you believe that your interest in Baroque art is due to its dramatic contrast with traditional Japanese aesthetics and the minimalist concept of “ma”? Do you manage to combine Eastern and Western aesthetics?

Yoshida - Japan is an island, as we know, but what we do not know is how much this island culture is not permeable to the very idea of baroque, to the permanent vital impulsion of the Seicento and to the issues informing the visual language of the Counter-Reformation. I, myself would certainly never have discovered the value of the Baroque sensibility if I had not come to live in Europe.

How can a Japanese woman living in a Buddhist culture - a reserved, formalist culture - imagine this art of seduction, of profusion and vertigo? The exaltation of caprice and of exception, the ornamental prodigality, the theatrical sumptuousness, the ostentatious eloquence, the shimmer and pomp of hyperbole, the decorative overabundance, the heroic emphasis, the voluptuousness of the tumult, the scatter and discontinuity… This Baroque imaginary is literally unimaginable for a Tokyoite. How, when one is in Tokyo, can one understand the gushing monumentality, the illusions of infinity, the ellipse and the instability, the frenzy, the oscillation, the fainting, the emotion, the worry that dazzles, disconcert, disorient and destabilize…?

All the more so since, the brilliant symbolisms of the culture of the image promoted by a triumphant Catholicism are so antithetical to the Shinto aesthetic of subtraction and silence, with the concise minimalism of Zen Buddhism, with the strict formalism of the Way of emptiness and detachment. . Nothing in the invention of the Baroque accords with the typically Japanese taste for fragile beauty and incompleteness, refined form and subtraction, asceticism and renunciation.

And so, inevitably, the discovery of the Catholic image stuns, the enchantment of Baroque profusion reaches deep down. The intact splendor of Rome captivates, that of Venice dazzles, the fabulous formal boldness, the continuous visual epiphanies, the volutes and voids that fill space mark a point of no return. Everyone is spontaneously swept away by these powerful cathedrals where everything is radiant - the frescoes, the sculptures, the paintings, the altars, the baldacchinos, the candelabras, the columns.

The golds and the virtuosities culminate in the splendor of a visual feast to bespeak the greatest glory of God invisible. The curves, the counter-curves, the broken lines, the folded and unfolded volumes, the vertiginous holes and spirals cover this silent God but throw over his silence a shadow in which speech remains without signs and without power. And I see in these cathedrals, where everything is resplendent, what they continue to be and what was the first thing they were, the resting place of the absence of God.

This vertiginous compulsion of the Baroque, which surprises and seduces, is no less active in my art than the minimalist orientation of Zen and Shinto: an assured, constant minimalism, tautly formalist. This formalism that Western fantasies spontaneously associate with Japanese culture is very much a reality in every aspect of life. Indeed, it is there, at the meeting place of two cultures, that an aesthetic is invented, in a thinking process that analyses and introduces into a dialectical relation, minimalism and the Baroque: subtraction against saturation, effacement against profusion, spareness against seduction - the immaterial plus sensuality, emptiness plus the inessential, lack plus splendor.

In what conditions might the will for instability of the Baroque become tied to the not-seeking-to-grasp of Zen? Art indeed is the only real enactment of this impossible knot. The work is that very knot, it is that transformation that is invented only in emancipation from that which never ceases to be not written.

Luntz - Do you consider that your goal is to embody “the transformative nature of art”?

Yoshida - This is exactly what encourages me: art is what transforms. The only raison d’être of art is to transform what art alone can transform.

Art does not consent to the reality of things as they are, to spontaneously bend the spine; it is a pathway that undermines the habit, the evidence, the fatality.

What is called “self-portrait” is for me the space of transposition, metamorphosis, mutation. Self-portrait is the space to tell you: everything that is not me, that’s what interests me. That’s why I named one of my monographs All That’s Not Me.

Recently, I titled another monograph There Where I Am Not. This title refers to the subversion that Lacan, in line with the Freudian revolution, accomplished by inversing Descartes founding philosophical proposition cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) with a displacement which deprives the subjective unity: “I am thinking where I am not, so I am where I am not thinking” (Écrits, p. 430, Norton edition)]...

Kimiko Yoshida, The Torero Bride with a Black Suit of Lights, Remembering Picasso (Self-Portrait), 2006, C-Type Color Photograph

Holden Luntz Gallery