Simon Fujiwara remembers a photo of his mother taken before he was born. She was a British dancer on a beach in Beirut, being carried out of the water in the arms of a hirsute Lebanese man. At least he could have been Lebanese; Fujiwara knows nothing about him, beyond what he looks like, and even that’s a memory.
“Studio Pietà (King Kong Komplex),” a sly video installation in “Simon Fujiwara: Three Easy Pieces,” at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, begins with the artist’s memory of that lost picture, and nimbly reveals a web of belief systems and power structures. Fujiwara comically and sometimes disturbingly unpacks assumptions about gender, skin color, and sex.
In each of the works in this show — the first mounted by new Carpenter Center director James Voorhies — Fujiwara uses himself or his past as a prism through which to view epic societal tensions. Autobiographically, he has plenty to work with: His mother is British and his father is Japanese; he grew up in England, and lives and works in Berlin.
He sets out to re-create the snapshot. The video projection unspools surrounded by the trappings of a photo studio — lights, a mound of sand on the floor to suggest a beach. Fujiwara hires actors, Lisa and David, to play his mother and her companion. We never see the artist, although we hear his voice.
Fujiwara is clearly attracted to David, and the scene develops an electric charge. The camera lingers on David and Lisa as they meet, kiss, and begin to strip down, and the artist, who interviews himself throughout in an audio commentary, falls silent, as if riveted.
To flip the power dynamic, Fujiwara asks Lisa to carry David (with the help of bolsters suspended on trapezes; he’s a big guy), and we learn about the “King Kong Komplex,” a cultural fear of darker-skinned or hairy figures, appearing through art history from Pompeii to Japanese manga.
The image of Lisa holding David looks simply goofy; the stereotypes are too rigid for it to have any deeper meaning. Indeed, Fujiwara deems the whole photo shoot a failure — the actors look stiff. The installation, however, is a crafty success.
Across from the video projection, Fujiwara has posted photographic fractions of Michelangelo’s Pietà, in which Mary holds Jesus’ dead body in her arms. These little glimpses return us to maternal love. For a moment, that’s comforting, until you remember the context of sex and power that surrounds it.
In another piece, “Rehearsal for a Reunion (with the father of pottery),” Fujiwara scripts a visit he had with his father after years apart, adding his own, symbolic ending. As he utilizes material from his own life for his art, he shows us how unstable and slippery autobiography is. Every memory, every encounter, is a pastiche of beliefs and hopes, different for each individual but steeped in cultural expectations.
We humans hungrily grab at truth, reality, and meaning. Exposing the dynamics of desire, power, and symbolism, Fujiwara leaves us hanging, uncertain of what the truth is. And maybe — if I may, here, compulsively apply meaning — it’s only in the experience of not knowing that we grasp just how insubstantial reality is.
Where is the pain?
Art objectifies the body. So does medicine. It’s not often that the two come together. “Performing Illness,” a compelling show at Howard Art Project, features the work of three artists who manage chronic illness.
Suzi Grossman and Rosie Ranauro have fibromyalgia, and map their pain on their bodies. In drawings and photographs, Grossman uses watercolor, colored pencil, and thread to mark where it hurts.
“31 Pain Maps, 1/1/2014-1/31/2014” makes a calendar of the data, with red marks flowering and contracting over her back, chest, and face. In the photos, she stands in front of a patterned curtain that echoes her feminine shape and the inscriptions of her pain, as if the outside world reflects her inner one. For “Mark the X Where Your Face Hurts,” she has stitched little Xs along her jaw and toward her nose. Patterns on her skin look like ritual markings, scarification or tattoos — marks of distinction. Yet in real life what they symbolize is hidden.
Ranauro’s figure drawings and animations also show little red paths of pain, but her postures are more expressive, like that of a dancer, and in “hold it together,” her usual single figure explodes into a tangle of limbs, like she’s trying to cover herself. Her interactive video animation “Touch Me (Gently)” invites viewers to tap a huddled figure; when you do, she trembles — creating an unnerving dynamic. You might want to soothe her, but you always cause her pain.
Jodie Mim Goodnough was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on lithium for 14 years. She’s also taken anti-depressants for chronic fatigue. In her video “36,835,” she sits on a bed counting out the number of pills she has consumed over the years. The performance took more than nine hours. She gives us a taste of what “chronic” means.
Patients, like artists, have to express something inchoate if they hope to move forward. These works may not heal anything, but they communicate plenty.
SIMON FUJIWARA: Three Easy Pieces
At: Carpenter Center
for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Dec. 21. 617-495-3251, firstname.lastname@example.org
At: Howard Art Project,
1486 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, through Dec. 3. www.howardartproject .wordpress.com