Kimiko Yoshida

Misfit Monochromes

Kimiko Yoshida’s face practically disappears into a black 
background—her eyes and lips being the only clearly discernible features. Painted a dusky gold, her lips perfectly match the intricate headdress she wears in 01 Painting (Goddess of War Athena), a large-scale photograph that references Gustav Klimt’s renowned “Pallas Athene.” Like a monk repeating a mantra, Yoshida’s work has repeated the same basic formal elements for nearly a decade: a figure dissolves into a monochrome background. Yet like a mantra, the work gains urgency with its repetition, becoming richer and fuller in each new permutation.

Yoshida moved to France from her native Japan in the mid ’90s and continued her advanced study of photography at École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie. She is quite public about the fact that she left Japan to escape what she refers to as the “mortifying servitude and humiliating fate of Japanese women,” and has described her often-ghostly monochromes as “a feminist stance of protest.”

At first glance, one can draw comparisons to the work of artists like Cindy Sherman and the Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun, both of whom have used the medium of photography as a method of exploring personal identity, social codes and larger issues of representation. Like Sherman and Cahun, Yoshida possesses an uncanny ability to reinvent herself through the medium of self-portraiture. Yet despite the elaborate costumes and makeup, her practice does not concern itself with a continual alteration of identity. Yoshida writes in her artist statement, “There is no search for identity in my work. I know that identity doesn’t exist. There are only infinite layers of me. If I peel them back, like the skin of an onion, there will be nothing underneath.”

Yoshida refers to her practice as a “ceremony of disappearance” and draws from a rich lexicon of historical, literary and mythological references to create complex and intimate tableaux in which she stages her own dissolution. In The Sakura Bride,” only Yoshida’s chin and mouth are visible behind a geometric cascade of hair. The pale rose-colored monochromatic wash imbues the image with a feeling of fragility and evanescence: blink and one might miss it.

“Kimiko doesn’t want to make self-portraits,” insists Jean-Michel Ribettes, Yoshida’s husband and collaborator, himself an independent curator and Lacanian psychoanalyst, who acted as a translator for our interview. “These images say something about representation through what is lacking in representation, through absence.”

Yoshida explores this idea through her ongoing relationship with the monochrome. These minimal, yet evocative swathes of color compete with even the most ornate of Yoshida’s costumes. According to her, “The monochrome is a pure figure of duration wherein all imagery and all narrative are dissolved. Here, before the infinite color, the gaze is exposed to the infiniteness of time. This paradoxical representation is presented each time like an impossibility, a powerlessness, and a precariousness. It is this effect of incompleteness which gives the idea of a rigorous unrepresentable, unlocatable space, the idea of a space beyond the image where representation exceeds the space of representation.” Indeed, it is the traces of presence in Yoshida’s photographs that give them their melancholy tug, and mysterious beauty. Some small trace is always revealed, at the brink of the figure’s disappearance, usually the eyes or lips coordinating with background or costume, sometimes only the traces of her facial features barely visible through undulating folds of fabric enveloping her head. To achieve this affect, Yoshida will spend hours working in her studio: always without an assistant and always using analogue techniques. “It’s all bricolage,” laughs Ribettes, “we do it all ourselves, without stylists, makeup artists or photoshop. It’s all direct shooting and what doesn’t come from a museum, Kimiko makes herself.”

Yoshida’s technical process clearly reflects her conceptual intent. Her portraits are lit using Tungsten lighting commonly used for still life photography. “The work is not self-portraiture, they are still lifes,” Ribettes explains. “Many of them are rooted in funerary ritual, where the origins of art and painting in particular comes from. Kimiko always says ‘I am not shooting myself; I am shooting a corpse.’”

While this may sound morbid, it’s anything but. Rather than concerning herself with the surface relation between things and identity, Yoshida explores the spaces in between, and proposes a dialectic of transformation and obliteration.

– Jesi Khadivi