“The preoccupation with ‘I’ has become a cliché in contemporary art,” says Japanese photographer Kimiko Yoshida. For over a decade, she has created large, color photos of herself in which she wears elaborate costumes that reference a wide range of subjects, from haute couture to indigenous cultures to the canon of Western painting to the Zen minimalism of her own culture. By constantly changing what at first appears to be a self-portrait, “I am basically saying that there is no such thing as a self-portrait. Each of these photographs is actually a ceremony of disappearance. It is not an emphasis of identity, but the opposite, an erasure of identity.”
Born in Tokyo in 1963, Yoshida came of age in a tradition-bound culture where the attitude towards the role of women left her alienated and unhappy. She studied literature and worked in fashion. It allowed her to hone her eye, but she remained frustrated. Despite her father’s objections, she enrolled in the Tokyo College of Photography. Even with her degree in hand, she felt her options for a creative career in Japan were limited. She knew she had to escape the stifling confines of her life and she decided to move to France. (restricted constricted circumscribed limited stifling )
“Since I fled my homeland to escape the mortifying servitude and humiliating fate of Japanese women,” Yoshida says, “I amplified through my art a feminist stance of protest against contemporary clichés of seduction, against voluntary servitude of women, against ‘identity’ defined by appurtenances,”—or accessories—“and ‘communities,’ against the stereotypes of ‘gender’ and the determinism of heredity.” Yoshida came to think of the notion of a solid, permanent self as a “fantasy.” She quotes the Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “The ego is constructed like an onion: one could peel it and discover the successive identifications which have constituted it.” There is no Kimiko, Kimiko is saying: “the being is pitted; it has no central core.”
Yoshida critiques the idea of a firm and unchanging identity in a variety of ways, most obviously by changing it. In her “Brides” series, she often photographs herself in indigenous garb from around the world that she borrows from museums. In her “Paintings” series, she and her husband repurpose items from the archives of Spanish fashion designer Paco Rabanne. No matter what the source material is, Yoshida riddles the final product with playful anachronisms and cross-cultural references that undermine its perceived authenticity. The Paco Rabanne garments and accessories, made between 1965 and 2000, are themselves full of unusual materials, from plastic bottles to CD-roms. Yoshida adds a twist by refusing to wear them as intended: shoes become headdresses, dresses become hats, etc. Yet another twist comes when you realize that Yoshida’s odd remixes actually reference paintings from Western art history, from Caravaggio to Picasso to Warhol. And she places these figures, which often display a baroque opulence, against featureless backgrounds that recall the minimalism of Zen art.
Yoshida not only changes her identity, but she does it a lot—she’s made over 300 of these elaborate, time-consuming images since 2000. No one character appears to get special treatment: they are all centered in square frames and afforded only a single photograph each. What individuality that may remain often threatens to bleed into oblivion, as many of her images, such as “The Capricious Girl,” are nearly monochromatic. Her makeup doesn’t enliven or articulate her character, as in the West, but rather effaces it, as in the tradition of the Japanese geisha. Ultimately, Kimiko the person disappears behind these suspect masks into a wall of color.
Cindy Sherman is another artist who dons costumes in front of the camera and who even references art history like Yoshida. But while Sherman’s post-modernism feels ironic and satirical, and her craft intentionally clumsy, Yoshida’s work feels solemn and majestic, and her craft highly polished. And while the meanings of Sherman’s work reside in its flimsy surfaces, Yoshida’s work provides the artist with an internal, metaphysical space to metamorphose. “Art is above all the experience of transformation,” explains Yoshida. “All that’s not me, that’s what interests me. To be there where I think I am not, to disappear where I think I am, that is what matters.” In the end, perhaps the photographs themselves are simply evidence of this performance. But it is interesting that Yoshida, an artist who is driven by the denial of the self, has made them with such a singular and memorable voice.
In the end, the photographs themselves are simply evidence of this performance. It is interesting that Yoshida, an artist who is driven by the denial of the self, speaks with such a singular and memorable voice.
Yoshida has solo shows at St. Jakobshalle in Basel, Switzerland, and the Musée Pavillion Vendôme-Dobler in Aix-en-Provence, France, both opening June 13. Her work is also in a group show at the Musée de la Tapisserie in Angers, France that opens June 29. More of her work can be seen here.
Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.