PRINT September 2010


Simon Fujiwara, The Mirror Stage, 2009–. Performance view, Art Basel Miami Beach, December 3, 2009.

HALF JAPANESE AND HALF BRITISH, raised in a remote seaside village in England and gay, with an education in architecture as well as in art, Simon Fujiwara has a biography that is almost too full of potential for our “glocal,” multiethnic, multidisciplinary age. The temptation to read the twenty-seven-year-old artist’s practice through his personal life is irresistible, all the more so since his work—which moves among the registers of the performance-lecture, the sculptural installation, and the written word—is almost always ostensibly autobiographical, albeit with a liberal dose of fiction thrown in.

In the play and performance-lecture The Mirror Stage, 2009–, for example, Fujiwara explores his sexual and artistic coming-of-age. In the first version of the piece, presented at last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, a young actor played the eleven-year-old Fujiwara as he encountered British artist Patrick Heron’s Horizontal Stripe Painting, 1957–58—the artwork, Fujiwara maintains, responsible for his childhood awakening. The actor hardly spoke, while Fujiwara, who sat looking at a reproduction of the painting with his back to the audience, offered his thoughts on abstraction and sexuality. He discussed the difficulties of staging an internal emotional event: “Because it is only one scene—no drama, no dialogue, no action; no one dies; there is no sex—[it] is, essentially, boring theater.” The tentative nature of the play served as an excuse for various digressions and interpretive explanations, turning the piece into a complex exploration of this youthful epiphany.

Though not based on direct personal experience of the subject in question, Fujiwara’s fictional Museum of Incest, 2008–, partly originated in the artist’s thinking about his relationships with his own family. The installation—which includes vitrines containing maps, “archaeological” finds, and photographs—is accompanied by a guidebook and, at times, a tour by the artist, which starts relatively benignly by discussing the implementation of his father’s actual architectural designs for the physical layout of the “museum” and ends up, in Fujiwara’s words, as a “wildly personal portrait of a father-son relationship.”

Fragments of personal or family history and suppressed or not fully understood historical events hold endless promise for Fujiwara. Interpretations and subplots proliferate as if in a kind of hypertext. From a kernel of fact or artifact, Fujiwara constructs a towering semifabrication that weaves together literary, historical, psychological, and political references yet unabashedly keeps returning to what he knows best—his own life story—to reel in the audience’s affiliation.

Evidently, growing up gay and visibly “different”—in a house that Fujiwara has described as so filled with souvenirs from Spain (from a time, before he was born, when his parents lived there) that friends called it Casa Fujiwara—set the artist on course to become an ethnographically observant semi-outsider more than ready to imaginatively incorporate into his own biography a frisson largely absent from everyday life. Unlike the previous, late-1980s generation of artists concerned with issues of race, sexuality, and gender, Fujiwara seems to delight in capitalizing on his fortune to have been born into a life that demands both reexamination of what counts as “normal” or “deviant” and further consideration of what a racialized subjectivity might be.

Even so, he remains eminently aware of the privileged position that his nationality and class have afforded him. The experience of studying architecture at Cambridge University appears to have honed his skills of live presentation and helped him articulate his concerns though a particular combination of writing, lecture, and verbal proposal accompanied by images, models, and large-scale set design. Indeed, unrealized architecture might offer the ideal fictional realm for Fujiwara’s explorations, which revel in the partial truth and the untested claim.

On account of the ways in which Fujiwara combines psychological self-inquiry and absurdity with political and social concerns, curator Jens Hoffmann has compared Fujiwara’s performance-lectures to the (unfairly forgotten) monologues from the 1980s and ’90s by American comics, actors, and artists such as Eric Bogosian, Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, and Holly Hughes. Fujiwara similarly mines the personal for the humorous, using the dramatic skills of a raconteur and an unabashed smattering of one-liners to engage his audience even as he expounds psychologically and politically complex narratives. It is in relation to such figures rather than to the current trend of performance-lectures as developed by Aurélien Froment, Mark Leckey, Tris Vonna-Michell, and others that Fujiwara’s work is best understood.

Underpinning much of Fujiwara’s work thus far has been the unearthing or insertion of homoerotic content where we would normally expect to find none. Franco’s Spain, for instance, provides the setting for the multipart project Welcome to the Hotel Munber, 2008–, which originates in Fujiwara’s parents’ experience running the eponymous hotel on the Costa Brava in the early ’70s. Fujiwara in 2008 subjected this episode to a rewrite (in the form of an as-yet-unpublished novel), in which his father, the protagonist, awakes to homoerotic fantasy and sublimates his newly discovered yearnings through an orgy of architecturally inspired acts in the hotel bar. A warped reincarnation of this site was presented (under the same title as the overall project) this summer at Art Basel, where Fujiwara recounted the story in daily performances, in which he made the case that the fantasies depended on the context of Franco’s oppression.

Simon Fujiwara, The Museum of Incest, 2008–, performances, lectures, mixed media. Installation view, Frieze Art Fair, London, 2009.

The meticulously detailed stage set in Basel almost seemed to “perform” this story, too. First impressions were of a convincingly kitsch Spanish bar equipped with wrought-iron detailing, barrel bar stands, dark wood paneling, and fake jamón hanging from the ceiling. The items on the walls included framed portraits of Franco, a mounted bull’s head, shelves holding decorative horns, and wicker baskets containing empty wine bottles. But even a short period spent in Bar Munber revealed it as a site of gay erotic fantasy. Porn had been placed on a shelf high above the back counter of the bar (revealed in a tilted mirror); phallic sausages hung from the ceiling; castanets had been placed suggestively with walnuts on a barrel bar stand; and, more overtly, partly obscured pornography was on the walls. In addition, the installation was rife with references to intersecting micronarratives: from Franco’s rumored missing testicle, which appears as an egg within a cutout in a multivolume diary on a shelf (the ensemble is a separate, constituent sculpture, titled The Unwritten Erotic Saga of the Fujiwara Family [1st Edition], 2009), to an egg-related pornographic story set in a tortilla kitchen, which appears as if a recipe, printed on an apron and framed (Paquito, Egg-White Jack-Off, 2010).

Hardly a single element of the Welcome to the Hotel Munber installation is unconnected to the multifarious narrative Fujiwara has developed. Through this exaggerated fantasy, Fujiwara brings to light the uncomfortable conflicts of this era in Spain’s history: the commingling of tourism with a dictatorial regime (sun, sangria, fascism), the very real sexual oppression of the time, and the continued veneration of a despot in his vast and elaborate mausoleum—present in the installation through a commemorative ashtray, symbolically befouled by cigarette butts.

Fujiwara clearly has a kinship with Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, with whom he collaborated for their Nordic pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale (where he presented Desk Job, 2009, the desk of the fictional collector-owner of the pavilion-cum-house, replete with a typewriter and pages from the erotic autobiography he was attempting to complete). Like these artists, Fujiwara performs a revisionist history, inserting a queer perspective into various unlikely scenarios. Yet where Elmgreen and Dragset have used this approach to further an institutional critique of modernist art tropes (transforming the white cube into a site for furtive gay sex, for example), Fujiwara uses the homoerotic angle not only as a form of personal engagement but also as a means to explore new interpretations of accepted historical facts.

As important as the insertion of queer content is to his work, however, is the fact that Fujiwara has in his short career begun to develop an original practice that fluidly shifts from writing and performance to sculpture and installation, generally in this order. Although the artist will continue his live work with a series of four performances for the Performa biennial in New York next fall, his increasingly elaborate installations point in a direction that prioritizes the viewer’s physical surroundings. A monographic exhibition at Tate St Ives next year will no doubt include several examples of such pieces, which function almost like stage sets and do not require the physical presence or activation of Fujiwara himself. Also along such lines is Frozen, 2010, Fujiwara’s proposal for the Cartier Award project at next month’s Frieze Art Fair, for which he will establish an active archaeological dig beneath the fairgrounds. The piece will consist of various “open” sites, some activated by actor archaeologists and others containing relics preserved under glass.

Fujiwara has this year also made The Personal Effects of Theo Grünberg, 2010, a performance-lecture and sculptural installation first presented this summer at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf and on view this month at the São Paulo Bienal. The piece was inspired by the artist’s acquisition at a flea market of the effects of Theo Grünberg, a recently deceased German whose life and activities Fujiwara attempted to trace by following various clues offered by his books, records, postcards, and so forth—resulting in a journey that took the artist as far as the Amazon. Fujiwara’s installation is in the form of a portable museum devoted to the three possible Grünbergs who presented themselves during his research, who together offer a portrait of modern German history in the form of one composite man who lived to the age of 138.

In another recently begun work, Letters from Mexico, 2010–, Fujiwara again initially approached his desire to respond to a given situation through writing. On this occasion, he was in Mexico City, where he asked street typists to write—in English, a language unknown to them—the letters he dictated. These are rendered in a phonetic transliteration of Fujiwara’s words: The first letter begins, “This coleccíon of leters wer dictated in inglis tu the strit taipists of plz. Santo Domingo durin mai stei in México City, 2010 and sent tu Europ.” The dictated texts go on to describe Fujiwara’s intention to write an erotic novel whose action is set in Mexico during the upcoming bicentennial of the nation’s independence. The narrative will take up the country’s sexual revolution and conclude with the author’s death as someone associated with European oppression.

With this book, which Fujiwara plans soon to begin actually writing, the artist will once again explore the terrain of erotic liberation or transgression and its relationship to history, using the license granted by the format of pornography to create unexpected associations. Fujiwara’s approach can usefully be compared to the tradition of seventeenth-century Restoration comedy, wherein sexual humor is linked to the politics of the day. It seems that with time Fujiwara’s layered and endlessly associative works will begin to reveal themselves as an ongoing project of social critique, one not limited to one place or era but freely combining genre and period, high and low, in a capacious portrait of modern life.

Jessica Morgan is curator of contemporary art at Tate Modern in London.