anne lawrence

The Spatial 'Aura' of Mariko Mori's Pure Land

There is a question about whether mechanically reproduced art can have an "aura." Ever since Walter Benjamin published "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in 1936, scholars have debated whether mechanically reproduced art can have "aura" as Benjamin discussed this concept.[1] The debate has now included digital art and cybernetic systems, but the question has remained the same. Can a work of art not produced by human hands, but by a machine, have the same quality or atmosphere as conventional works?

Using Benjamin's own definitions, I would argue that it is possible for aura to be present even in digitally produced art, if the artist is aware of the spatial concerns necessary to meet Benjamin's expectations. As my example, I will examine the technique, installation, and metaphorical qualities of a specific piece of digitally-created art. I have chosen Mariko Mori's 1998 Pure Land because of the artist's sensitivity to and awareness of the importance of space and the viewers' perceptions and experience. Mori has repeatedly proven her dexterity and creativity with technology to create art over the last few years and has gained a reputation as an innovator in new technologies.[2]

Pure Land provides an excellent example of digital art that uses space to affect the viewer. Space becomes an important part of the meaning, as is the viewer's perceptions. The work consist of a 10 x 20-foot digital photomontage layered in glass. It is part of an installation created by this young Japanese performance artist/photographer.[3] Mori's background in performance and subsequent heightened audience awareness informs her sense of the spatial relations between the artist and the viewer, now mediated by the object.[4] The aura of the object stands in for the artist's presence, therefore decreasing the distance between the artist and the viewer. So, what is necessary for an object to have aura? To answer this, one must turn to Benjamin's original text.

Ian Knizek described Benjamin's essay as seeming to have a perennial life, being quoted again and again, because its very title is so challenging and provocative.[5] This is reflected in its continual appearance through the years in the work of countless critics, including Douglas Crimp, Rosalind Krauss, and Hal Foster.[6] M. Travis DiNicola calls Benjamin's essay the "most reproduced on the subject of mechanical reproduction."[7] In his essay, Benjamin focuses on aura and authenticity. According to Benjamin, even a perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in time and space -- its "unique existence at the place where it happens to be."[8] This sense of history or duration that builds the character of a work of art cannot be transmitted to the mechanical reproduction. This, by definition, means it cannot apply to a proliferation of like-things because they are not each unique in time and space, but duplicates of each other. He goes on to argue, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art."[9] Benjamin's aura is, then, a presence or atmosphere attached to a thing that is one of a kind (unique in time and space) and cannot be reproduced mechanically. Unlike "authenticity," aura is more ethereal and relates closer to space and spatial properties or characteristics than determining authorship.

Benjamin's aura requires a viewer to verify or prove its existence. If it is a particular atmosphere or quality that comes from a thing, then the viewer must recognize that the auratic object occupies a kind of space. Though it has no weight, mass, or physical presence, I believe that it has perceptual fortitude. For this reason, I argue Benjamin's aura is a spatial phenomenon and has a spatial presence that is unique in time and space. So, how does this definition relate to what kinds of art might have aura?

By focusing on the spatial properties of aura, that it has a unique presence in space through time, electronic media and digital artists through different approaches can meet this requirement. Artists that create a unique spatial environment for work that is mechanically reproduced or digitally produced can "transmit" aura through their work. In other words, an artist can create aura through a digital media by using space. Thus, an artist can contradict Benjamin's theory about mechanically reproduced art, while following his definition.

How can an artist from the postmodern era creating digital art produce Benjamin's kind of aura? First, we must consider what is digital art as opposed to mechanically reproduced art? The differences are a matter of relationships and technology. Benjamin was arguing against the copying of handmade works of art, because of the supposed "destructive" relationship between the original and the reproductions. He believed the many copies of a single work created through mechanical reproduction would depreciate the original and ultimately destroy its aura.[10] This entire relationship of an original or template to a proliferation of imitations does not exist in digital art because of the difference in technologies. Mechanically-reproduced art depended on the camera and photographic processes involving a negative, chemicals, development, paper, and the possibility of producing an infinite number of prints. The photograph could become a lithograph, or newspaper print, and so be reproduced again, taking on an entirely new existence far away in time and space from the original. So, how is digital technology different?

If the camera is the fundamental tool for mechanical reproduction, then the computer is its contemporary manifestation (this has been asserted by Bill Nichols in his1996 response to Benjamin, "The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems.") Nichols contends that computers and digital data obliterate the concept of the "original" or negative as in photography.[11] There is not one version, output, or product that is more or less authentic than another created by the same digital information by virtue of its structure. This difference has also been explained by Margot Lovejoy in Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media:

Although a digital image may look like its photographic counterpart, it is very different from the light sensitive granules of film or the variation of light intensities in video. A digitized image is composed of discrete elements called pixels each having assigned precise numerical values, which determine horizontal and vertical location value as well as a specific gray-scale or color intensity range... A digital photographic image is then, a representation ... achieved through encoding information about the lights, darks, and colors of reality captured and digitized through any kind of lens or scanning procedure.[12]

Having no negative in digital format and the ability to make as many originals as desirable (original because each is as valid as the next), how can digital technologies have the capability of producing an art that has a unique existence in time and space?

This question can be answered by examining the art and practices of Mariko Mori. To create her installation Esoteric Cosmos of 1998, which features Pure Land , Mori traveled around the world photographing on location different landscapes and scenes to use as backgrounds. Elaborate costumes and props were built for photo-shoots of the artist. Digital imaging specialists then inserted the artist into the scenes. New computer images were generated also and put into the pictures. For example, in Pure Land, the landscape was shot at the Dead Sea.[13] Other elements were photographed separately--the artist dressed as a Shinto goddess, the acrylic lotus blossom, and glass house in the background. The floating musicians were digitally created. Never before the final image were all of these elements together in any kind pictorial sense. Outside of a computer, the Teletubiesque musicians did not exist. As orchestrator of this elaborate tableau, Mori created a unique statement and visual presentation of an idea. Because of its nature as digital information, once created, her work could be printed on any printer, downloaded to a disk, stored on a computer, resized an infinite number of times, and even further manipulated. However, with Mori, the work is not complete as it exists in digital form.

As an artist, Mori employs technique, installation, and metaphor to convey meaning. Rather than simply printing the digital image to frame and display, she layers the print in glass. The effect is luminous, creating a "glossy ethereality," with the image glowing softly from being beneath thick glass.[14] The final product is a 10 x 20-foot billboard size glass piece. The image is sub-divided into five equal panels presented adjacent to one another. When considering the piece and its relationship to or influence on the viewer, the scale becomes very important. The viewer's body is swallowed in relationship to the 10 x 20 foot landscape--providing enough physical space to invite the viewer to lose themselves in the image. The piece is part of an installation containing three other similar photomontages. Each was created in the same way, uses the same techniques, and is the same size. However, they present different themes through landscape, costume, and digital creation and manipulation. Intended to be installed together in a rectangular room, their order and combined presence indicates specific meanings. Mori has assigned each image an element and a stage to enlightenment to represent: air and life, fire and death, water and dissolution, and earth and rebirth. The space in the middle of the room where the viewer stands represents the element space and physically embodies the "viewer," or his or her journey to nirvana. According to Mori, the entire installation creates a meditative environment that provides the audience with a sense of tranquility and transcendence.[15] Mori has moved beyond temporal or digital information and connected with the viewer by incorporating the viewer's space as part of the installation. The space has no meaning if there is no one to occupy it. It cannot function to represent space or a personal journey to enlightenment without bodies to fill the space and recognize their own physicality and proximity to the art, but also the scenes that the art represents or evokes. Using the installation as an extension of the images, Mori has imbued the space with a metaphorical property -- it represents something beside itself. Each of these strategies -- technique, installation, and metaphor--requires a viewer to interact with the spatial properties.

Space serves as a kind of watermark or sign of proof of the artist's intentions for Pure Land and the entire Esoteric Cosmos installation. There is no way to duplicate these spatial effects in other forms of reproduction, thereby limiting the image's proliferation. To be sure, the image may be printed in a book or made into a slide. However, the unique spatial relationship between the viewer and piece cannot be duplicated. First, the glass interlay technique does not photograph. Next, the scale is lost, leaving the viewer without a sense of their body in relation to the object. Finally, the sense of the installation and being surrounded by the work on all sides is gone. I argue that these elements are integral to the artist's construction of meaning for her pieces. Her subjects require an immersion of the audience in the work to produce a spatial experience that impacts the viewer and causes them to consider their own life, death, dissolution, and rebirth.

By recognizing spatial relationships between the viewer and the piece, has Mori created an aura for her work by Benjamin's definition? Pure Land has a unique presence in time and space as an installation. It will have a unique history as a physical piece and experience duration as Benjamin mentioned. Therefore, by meeting Benjamin's requirements, the piece can be understood or recognized to have an aura even though it was digitally created and not "handmade."

Granting aura to a single piece or installation of digital art is a relatively small gain and is short-lived if the media is allowed to be what it is--a tool for information transmitted in the bytes and bits of binary code. The media has no recognition that what it creates is "art" or is any different from any other file. Aura, or spatial uniqueness, is completely up to the artist to create or maintain. There is nothing about digital technology that prevents the artist from making multiple "originals" or editions of the installation. Once the entirety of the installation is replicated, time and space will no longer be unique. Pure Land would exist once again in multiple times and spaces with no original. Even though, spatially, digitally-produced art can have aura, it becomes the artist's decision. They decide whether to alter a piece to make it unique in time and space and whether to give it spatial properties to relate to the viewer. However, technological effects can be duplicated almost always and installations can be recreated, thus, losing the uniqueness of time and space. Therefore, it becomes a matter of choice on the part of the artist whether or not to preserve the uniqueness of the piece or pieces and maintain a sense of Benjaminian aura.

A question arises. Given a plethora of new technologies with which to make art, given the value--or, perhaps, non-value-- of art in society today, will artists be compelled to pursue aura? Will anyone value aura in art? What significance will aura, associated with art, have for viewers of art in the 21st century, or for other members of the art world? A hundred years from 1936, what will aura mean?

to the editor