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Artist Profile: Simon Fujiwara by Pavel S. Pys

Six faux-archaeological digs lie on the floor of a chilly Hackney warehouse. Part of this year’s Cartier Award recipient Simon Fujiwara’s installation Frozen, the pseudo-excavation sites will be dispersed throughout the premises of Frieze Art Fair, offering a glimpse into the fictive ancient city ‘discovered’ directly beneath the fair’s site. Ceramic artefacts, ancient daggers and 500 Roman coins are but a few of the elements to be discovered in Fujiwara’s largest installation so far.

It would be surprising for themes of social norms, visibility and difference to be missing from Fujiwara’s practice, taking into account his bicultural (British/Japanese), homosexual and geographically diffused background - raised in Cornwall, Japan and London, he now divides his time between Berlin and Mexico City. With training in architecture (Cambridge University) and Fine Art (Städelschule Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt am Main), he speaks unhindered and comfortably about his work, confidently unthreading the many narratives permeating his projects.

‘Everything starts as text’, he states, and indeed script, narrative and characters are central catalysts for his works which formalise as performative lectures, published fiction, theatre plays and sculptural installations. At heart, Fujiwara is a story-teller. Rooted in the autobiographical, his works collate archaeological finds, curios and souvenirs, in effect blending fact and fiction, embracing chance and allegory. ‘I’m a free agent’, he claims, and it is the power of narration that underlies most of his practice.

The ongoing project Museum of Incest (2007-) consists of a lecture, A Guided Tour, plans for a fictional building and finally, a sculptural installation, Ancestral Grave Dig - a Site Survey for the Museum of Incest. Triggered by Fujiwara’s visit to the Olduvai Gorge burial ground in Tanzania, better known as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’, the project conceptualises the myth of human origins and inbreeding. Assuming incest as inevitable to the survival of the small tribe confined by geographical proximity, Fujiwara’s project spurs questions of race and human survival. What emerges is a history of the sexualised family, a questioning of assumed notions of social norms and deviance.

Fujiwara’s quasi-anthropological approach exerts a sense of authority as the audience is ‘educated’ through his lecture, while the glass vitrines and their displays of archaeological finds embrace a language of museological display. Maps, slides, labels, sketches and newspaper clippings are entry points to a burgeoning archive, which includes supposed diary entries by Louis Leakey, the Kenyan archaeologist who pioneered excavation work at Olduvai Gorge. The invoked artefacts and the layers of meanings unearthed in the project point towards humanity’s inclination to blindly accept overarching story-lines, in this case of man’s origin. The scientific character of the work is punctuated by autobiographical and humorous aspects; a banana peel is spread across a glass vitrine, while a pair of portraits of Fujiwara senior and junior posing almost identically in the supposedly same spot at the Tanzanian burial grounds figures in the background. The work of Fujiwara’s father informed much of the design of The Museum of Incest - his architectural projects acting as a blueprint for the imaginary museum’s design.

Reflections upon the difficult relationship with his father, and perhaps the very nature of what constitutes familial relations, have informed Welcome to Hotel Munber (2008-). Taking its title from a hotel and bar that the artists’ parents owned in the Costa Brava region during the 1970s, the project virtually transposes Fujiwara’s own biography of a gay, mixed-race male onto that of his father. Through published stories, a reading and an installation imitating the hotel’s bar, the project tells the story of the father’s lust for a homoerotic adventure which finds its alleviation in orgiastic encounters with the hotel’s architectural elements. The charged suggestiveness of the props simulating the bar’s décor - fake sausages, bull heads and castanets, paired with the recurring presence of General Franco - a portrait, commemorative ashtray, his name inscribed on an ostrich egg - tell a story of censorship, oppression and deviance. Fujiwara’s interest in the injustices of Franco’s Spain has lent itself towards another project, Letters from Mexico (2010-). Consisting of a series of letters dictated in English to Mexico City street typists, the letters inform the body of a novel focusing on themes of colonial imposition, sexual liberation and the present impotence of political action.

Stumbling upon a postcard at a Berlin flea market sparked another recent work - The Personal Effects of Theo Grünberg (2010) - currently exhibited at the São Paulo Biennale. A cumulative and elusive portrait of a 136 year old German, the work proposes an archive rife with the convoluted and conflicting narratives of 20th century German history - Nazism, new world explorations, sexual medicine. In effect the project involved Fujiwara travelling deep into the heart of the Amazon rainforest, an exploration mapping a potential ‘clue’ leading back to Grünberg.

It becomes evident that the act of inserting personal biography and experience into specific historical contexts underlies much of Fujiwara’s practice. Similarly the artists’ presence will linger within his Frieze commission, Frozen, made manifest conspicuously in the form of portraits, but also through more obscure references. As a site-specific installation, the work problematises age-old questions of ascribing meaning and value to art, capitalising on exchange and trends.

Nominated for the much publicized Pinchuk prize and with works currently at Manifesta 8, the São Paulo Biennale and soon at the David Roberts Art Foundation and Performa, Fujiwara’s projects will undoubtedly grow increasingly multifarious, encircling many more stories and characters. Breathing life into the objects he collects, Fujiwara conjures up stories often erotic and ridiculous, yet simultaneously touching on themes of liberty, oppression and deviance. ‘Art is always read biographically’ begins Fujiawara with a smile as we sit down, and perhaps it is his audience’s relentless yearning for a sense of truth that allows his work to inhabit the fertile ground between fact and fiction.

Simon Fujiwara, born 1982 in London, UK, lives and works in Berlin and Mexico City. He is represented by Galerie Neue Alte Bruecke.

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