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Kimiko Yoshida’s works unfold an infinite range of identities. While all the photographs feature her face, they are not concerned with the self-portrait as such. Yoshida dubs the photographic process “a ceremony of disappearance.” Photography for her is a performance for which she prepares at length: coloring her face and body the same color as the background, and transforming them into a mesmerizing scene of action, where she assumes and sheds form, color and identity via garments and accessories that change their purpose, accentuating her disappearance into them.
Yoshida was born in Tokyo, and in 1995 moved to Paris, working as an artist and exhibiting her photographs throughout the world. For two decades now she has been photographing the constant mutations of “all that’s not me.” Photography is a means that generates an illusion and dissipates it at the same time, producing an image that calls for observation beyond the self. This approach is manifest in the photograph Writing (White Square by Malevich, 1918, MoMA) from 2016, which presents Yoshida’s whitened face, fusing with the space around her. The photograph is based on Kazimir Malevich’s well-known painting, but while Malevich strove for pure, absolute abstraction, Yoshida refers to the fine line between being and void. She becomes virtually invisible, yet her face may still be discerned through the shifted white square.
The notion of selflessness is central to Buddhist philosophy, and echoes in Yoshida’s works as well. Leading Japanese Zen master Dōgen Zenji tells us that “to study myself is to forget the self.” According to Yoshida, her works do not explore the question of “Who am I?” but rather “How many am I?” Her photography is performative by essence, oscillating between exposure and disguise. Her first photographic series, in which she posed as a bride, were already centered on partial or full concealment of the face, a practice typical of ethnographic traditions worldwide. The color white stands out in many of them, highlighting the ritual atmosphere of the scene in which a significant change in one’s status and self-perception occurs. In most of Yoshida’s works her face is covered with either makeup or a mask. Interestingly, the meaning of the Japanese word men (面) is both face and mask. Coloring the face white (shironuri) is customary among Japanese geishas and Kabuki actors, allowing them to assume different identities detached from their selves. In Yoshida’s case, the multiplicity of faces or their “erasure” convey the view that there is no definite, fixed self.
The featured series, Painting. Self-Portrait (2010), was inspired by portrait paintings from art history. The affinity with the original paintings, however, is merely hinted. The works are charged by the dialogue and tension between photography and painting.
The diversity of paintings to which her self-portrait photographs allude cross styles, periods and cultures, but the minimalism at the core of her work encapsulates the figure into a single feature: in one photograph she is the all-white figure of celebrated Pop artist Andy Warhol; in another photograph, a cage with gold bars imprisons her black face, originating in a knight’s helmet from a Rembrandt painting, and in yet another work she is Hecate, the goddess of moon and the spirits of the dead from Greek mythology, a nocturnal figure engulfed by white disks. Thus she appears and disappears over and over again, using the figures as a vehicle for constant metamorphosis.
In most of the works, the face is fused into the white or black. It is dissociated from time and place, thereby becoming timeless. While the meticulous, centered positioning corresponds with the formal nature of portraiture, the surprising use of unusual accessories lends the face an unexpected, absurd appearance. Yoshida creates a new portrait, which resembles neither her nor the original portrait, thus posing the question: Who does the photograph ultimately represent?