Memory, fantasy and fiction; erotic novels, subversive histories and the cello
‘I am my work,’ Simon Fujiwara told me when I visited his studio. The implications of this revealing statement are two-fold, for not only does the artist personally deliver the performative elements of his work, but much of his material is rooted in the autobiographical. Born in Japan to a British dancer mother and a Japanese architect father, Fujiwara, who is the recipient of this year’s Cartier Award, studied architecture at the University of Cambridge, then spent time at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and became an artist. Or did he? Artist, architect, novelist, cellist, son, father, lover: these defining terms become impossibly entangled in a body of work that may take the form of imaginary buildings, erotic fiction or live cello performances. Fujiwara adopts a quasi-anthropological approach – presenting evidence and interpreting it – during which a simple autobiographical fact is quickly swept along on a current of metaphor, exaggeration and pure fabrication.
Take the series ‘Welcome to the Hotel Munber’ (2006–ongoing), a work that, as Fujiwara puts it, ‘retells my parents’ life as erotic fiction’. Before he was born, the artist’s parents ran a hotel and bar in southern Spain during the final years of General Franco’s dictatorship – a fact Fujiwara uses as a springboard to considering Franco’s censorship of pornography and homosexual activity, making up for the absence of gay erotica of the time by concocting his own, with his father as the main protagonist. The artist’s conceit of casting his own father as a homosexual adventurer in what is effectively an intra-generational exchange of sexuality is an uncomfortable one, which is amplified by the protagonist satisfying his repressed desires using the objects and architecture of the hotel itself as sexual surrogates; more revealing, perhaps, of Fujiwara’s own psycho-sexual investments in architecture than the approach of his architect father.
Part of ‘Welcome to the Hotel Munber’ takes the form of a lecture in which Fujiwara describes this awkward conflation of political and family history, reading extracts of erotica and illustrating the talk with a number of props arrayed on a desk in front of him. These include snapshots of and original relics from his parents’ hotel, newspaper clippings, flags, a copy of a typewritten manuscript, pornographic images and an ostrich egg inscribed with Franco’s name. Setting up this pseudo-academic environment of accumulated evidence, Fujiwara spins a tale that veers from the touching to the absurd, culminating in the plaintive admission that his erotic novel is incomplete, the artist-as-writer blocked by the improper conflation of family values and deviant sexuality.
The unfinished text is also the focus of Desk Job (2009), which Fujiwara showed at the 53rd Venice Biennale, as part of the exhibition ‘The Collectors’ at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions, curated by artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. The protagonist here was the fictional inhabitant of the Nordic pavilion: a writer attempting to complete an erotic novel based on his life. A typewriter sits in the middle of a desk surrounded by a litter of screwed up paper, notes typed on file cards, and reference photographs of architectural details, erotic sculpture and gay pornography. Copies of the one-page synopsis of the novel are stacked on the desk, setting the fictional parameters as it describes the novelist’s thwarted attempts to write, his ultimate seclusion and his indulgence in clandestine sexual activities inspired by and in defilation of the building’s sleek Modernist architecture. The synopsis ends with the first line of the novel: ‘A novelist is living in an exquisitely crafted modernist house …’, a line we see typed on the sheet of paper in the typewriter. Add to this the fact that the desk takes the form of Sverre Fehn’s pavilion itself and you’ll see something of the taut circularity that defines Fujiwara’s practice. Coincidence is embraced and even the weakest of interpretations is indulged, as elements come together in hermetic circular narratives so tightly woven as to become almost suffocating.
Though Fujiwara’s take on personal biography owes something to Richard Prince’s wilfully contradictory versions of his past, his tricky, engaging narratives have more in common with Tris Vonna-Michell’s spoken performances, whose seductive flow grooms disparate coincidences into urgent narratives, while his handling of material is similar to Danh Vo’s subtle excavations of alternate readings from culturally loaded artefacts. What differentiates Fujiwara’s approach is the key role of architecture – which becomes both model, site and collaborator, sequestered by narrative or daubed with erotic overtones – as well as the intimately personal material that seems to short-circuit analysis. Authenticity gets submerged in the embroidery of facts and anecdotes, identity disappears beneath overlapping surrogates, and the chinks and slippages that fracture the whole are lost in the momentum, tending to emerge only later. While the artist distances himself from the material he presents through rhetoric and pose, the audience, paradoxically, is granted little distance, implicated by the direct address of the spoken word and locked into the artist’s infinite, chamber-like construct of calculated revelation and self-reflexivity.
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