Mami Kosemura’s photographic and video reworkings of sumptuous 17th-century still lifes and animated 15th-century profile portraits are very postmodern in their focus on copying and re-examination of historically significant Western art.
Her 2018 digitally edited photograph “Banquet,” for example, closely follows the composition of “Flowers and Still Life” by Flemish artist Cornelis de Heem (1631-95). In both pictures carnations, grapes, peaches and plums are heaped on a table, while a curl of lemon peel and a cherry, among other things, hang over the edge towards the viewer as a trompe l’oeil, seeming as though they are just about to break out of the picture plane.
Where still-life painters combined fruit, vegetables and flowers that could not normally be picked in the same season, and portrayed them together in an imaginary, but highly realistic pictorial space, Kosemura uses contemporary tools to achieve the same with photographic detail. Another instance of experimentation with a genre of painting that was simultaneously a celebration of proto-globalization but also a reminder of the evanescence of life, is the 2015 piece “Drop Off,” a silent monochrome video projection that shows objects smashing to pieces on a dining table in slow motion.
An earlier 2004 series of video pieces “Portrait of It,” which combine portraits by Italian Antonio di Puccio Pisano (1395-1455) with photographic profile portraits taken by Kosemura can be seen to slowly blink. As the images hover between the Gothic stylization and the anatomical correctness of Renaissance art and photographic realism, the effect is quite uncanny.
The images in Kosemura’s first solo museum exhibition are, throughout, accompanied by the artist’s own descriptions of her process and thinking. This is slightly unusual as exhibitions go, where the norm is to have a curator or critic pronounce on the work’s significance or the artist’s unique vision. While the texts generally stick to background information on how the artist set up the work, or what source material inspired it, occasionally Kosemura hints at how the still-life is, for her, a medium to explore life, death and time.
One of the most interesting art history debates around Flemish still life is on the matter of descriptiveness and how this contrasts with the narrative-driven art of the Italian Renaissance, explored by art historian Svetlana Alpers in “The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century.” It is therefore an interesting possibility that Kosemura’s recurring voice throughout the exhibition, describing what she is doing, is a supremely canny commentary on this issue. Equally, it could just be that Kosemura, having gone through a post-graduate art education, has become accustomed to explaining her work.
Whichever the case, there are pros and cons to this approach. A con is that it makes the exhibition feel like a collection of visual experiments. This could also be considered a pro, but for the fact that it’s not the first time that fruit and flowers have undergone postmodern tinkering. British designer Peter Saville used a Henri Fantin-Latour still life on British post-punk band New Order’s “Power, Corruption and Lies” (a phrase once spray-painted by Gerhard Richter on the wall of a German art museum) album cover in 1983, and Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2001 Caravaggio-esque “Still Life” was a time-lapse video of fruit rotting in a bowl. Kosemura’s work is certainly ingenious and visually seductive in its own right, but times being what they are, simulacra aren’t what they used to be.
An additional issue raised by Kosemura recreating extravagant 17th-century still lifes so beautifully is to revisit another conundrum that is particularly acute with these paintings; that is, why were the original works created in the first place? The artist acknowledges this in one of her captions, saying “that there is a fine line between the ugliness of greed and the desire for beauty.”
“Mami Kosemura: Phantasies Over Time” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs until Sept. 2, ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.haramuseum.or.jp.