Artist as Work as Art By Javier Rubio Nomblot

…In a way Japan does not exist: it is a dream world into which we escape when we want to flight from ours. This unreality is what we call the desire of Japan. A desire to live an easier life but at the same time more profound. A life without essences, other than the essence of not having them, a life that only has processes and desegregations, an decentralized life, unstable, different, a life without desire. (1)

The memoirs of a geisha, the famous novel published by Arthur Golden in 1997, located in the genesis of this sculptural work of Emilia Enriquez, raised a dust that even now, after twelve years, has not settled. This is not entirely surprising. Basically, the “alleged” hero of the novel, Mineko Iwasaki (Kyoto, 1949), sued Golden for two main reasons: for having made his, and his customers’ names public -thus leading to violate the sacred code of silence of the geisha – and suggest that his office was adorned with a form of prostitution. It seemed that he was particularly upset that the writer was referring to an alleged auction of the novel geisha’s virginity. Finally, Iwasaki reached an economic agreement with Golden and then chose to write his own memoirs, The Life of a Geisha (2004) in collaboration with Randy Brown. This from a documentary point of view is a far superior book. But if it is not surprising that both the first novel as the ill-fated eponymous film produced by Steven Spielberg in 2005, in which neither of the protagonists were actually Japanese- this stroked a controversy in Japan that even today remains unresolved. It is because of this discussion, the limits of prostitution, that it remains so attractive to the public. After all, the old forms, and sometimes not that old, of marriage, retrospectively examined and in the day light, which at times is excessively revealed following the post-modern ethics, is considered as a form of prostitution. There is no point, therefore, reiterate that the geisha is a prostitute, although she may in certain circumstances offer sexual favours. This then requires the use of money. Such debates can never have complete closure as they feed the fascination of the public.

The word, Geisha (geigi) literally means a person of art, or plainly artist a geisha is simply a traditional artist, or if preferred, a woman skilled with traditional Japanese arts; from music and dance to floral arrangements and poetry and tea ceremonies. Given this, it is much more revealing, interesting and complicated to show, like Emilia Enriquez has done, the idea of what geisha is as a piece of art herself. Because indeed, when examining this singular figure in an occidental traditional artistic light, which has since the derived conceptualists from the 70’s, like for example the Body Art, has assumed and explored in thousand different ways the implications of the artists, as well as the viewers, proper body. It is not impossible to represent the long and painful process of the maiko, the apprentice of geisha, as a journey destined to be converted into an artist of a piece of work. In fact, the maiko, literally meaning “girl of dance” has often been compared, with her entire face painted white (whereas geisha’s face does not carry such makeup), to porcelain doll, or, which is the same, to a perfect living sculpture. (2)

Evidently, the geisha as an artist- and even as a piece of art herself- immerses in the world of centennial tra- ditions difficult for the occident to understand. Geisha is by definition infinitely more difficult to analyze than a mere luxury harlot. Perhaps because of this, because of the uncertainty in which the character is evolved making it difficult to understand, that explains the phenomenal success of the Memories with all its superficialities and polemics as well as the critics that once promp- ted the book.

But it is not only the figure of the artist that is by itself complex and too elusive to be classified. The geisha also arouse certain attributes and certain symbols of femininity, which yet are to declare their final saying. The problem of femininity, as feminism is seen to this day, is much more striking and dramatically expressed in Japan than in the West. In few words: “in Japan the femininity is a masculine construction. (…) In this system there really are no women, but men and the contrary of man.” (3)

Because indeed, the notion of gender understood as a performance relies on a centuries old tradition in Japan, as the theatres No and Kabuki abundantly show. This idea appears even in mythological works of the 13th century. In Kabuki, an actor portrays a type of woman or man, not a woman (feminine) or a man (masculine). The ideal gender is marked by a repertoire of formal meanings (kata) – gestures, wardrobe, postures, make-up, and linguistic aspects – coded as masculine or feminine. Historically, the Japanese woman has been encouraged to follow the standard of the feminine ideal, created and portrayed by the onnagata, “a male actor who represents feminine roles in Kabuki”. (4)

In the same way that men represented feminine roles in traditional theatre, the geisha herself was, in her origin, a man, and only later, in the 17th century, did the masculine geishas (hokan) disappear and give way to the onna geisha (female geisha). The geisha understood as a work of art is, therefore, a construction; but, furthermore, is a construction that is purely masculine, all the more so because, as mentioned, the situation of the Japanese woman continues being, even today, special: “the present condition of the Japanese woman is ambiguous. For some there could be a rising of a new woman that is dedicated to her career, conscious of her condition plays with the prejudices and the stereotypes created by a patriarchal society. Japanese women could create a counterculture that reconstructs the dominant masculine ideology. For others, despite all of the changes in the last years, the Japanese society will continue forcing women to fulfil certain tasks and traditional roles. Japanese women still could be victims of a masculine culture, for which they constitute decorative objects. (5)

It is, otherwise, this phenomenon which Nobuyoshi Araki exploited in his well known photographs of bound women: Japanese models, who literally line up at the door of the photography studio, would attempt to liberate themselves through this cathartic ritual of binding from the oppression to which they were subjected in all of its demands.

When I lift the lace curtain that covers my mirror I cannot ignore the milky scent of the white make-up that I wore so often in Gion. I would like so much to return there to visit. On the other hand, I believe that it would disturb me to see all of the changes. When my friends come with photos of their trips to Kyoto, I often think that what has happened in Gion is that of a poorly tended garden, each time full of more weeds (…).

When I arrived in Gion for the first time, eight hundred geishas worked there. Today they are less than sixty, in addition to a hand- ful of apprentices, and it is diminishing each day, since the rate of change never decreases although we want to convince ourselves of the contrary (…)… Now I know that our world is never more per- manent than a wave that rises over the ocean. Whatever be our struggles and victories, however we endure them, soon they disappear in the tide like watery ink on paper. (6)

In Memoirs, Golden essentially describes the fall of a world. in Japan, there would not remain more than a few hundred maikos and geishas, harassed and solicited by tourists and nostalgics, and more rarely, by authentic lovers of karyukai (“the world of flowers and willows”) in which these artists developed. It is not only that the Japanese aristocracy was integrating itself after the war in the egalitarian regimen of the democracies, thus losing in a sense, a series of rituals that characterized and distinguished them from the commoners, but also that the young Japanese women were still not really interested in a poorly understood occupation and that, furthermore, required a large and strict training process: in okiyas- “inns” or “geisha houses”- the young women learned to play traditional instruments, like the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) or the taiko (drum), popular songs, classic Japanese dances, studied sadō (the tea ceremony), ikebana (floral arrangements), literature, poetry…Without doubt, for Japanese women, more professional careers exist or, in short, more connected to the hectic modern world than a tradition in decline. And it is this nostalgia, this obsoleteness, this affiliation of the geisha to folklore, which has inspired Emilia Enríquez’s dramatic collection of sculptures on which he has been working during the last few years.

I will not deny that when I contemplated one of these great and enigmatic figures for the first time, I was astonished by its majesty and originality but, at the same time, I was disturbed by the bound and gaunt appearance they had and that, although it is a direct result of the process the artist followed for its production, it could also reveal symbolic meanings: the geishas of Emilia Enríquez not only are made of entirely recyclable materials – which allows for relating this work with the art, póvera –but also, from the first moment, they shown a strange similarity to mommies. And although the artist doesn’t seemed to have consciously searched for such a resemblance – having to rule out, therefore, the easy analogy, that the figure o the geisha at the brink of extinction is displayed here like the rest mummified or artificially conserved from a past world – this is produced precisely because she rebuilds the figure using antique objects of used cloth and rope, and, above all, because she incorporates all of this memories and visions that the readings suggest: the geishas of Emilia Enríquez exhibit all of these complicated adornments that constitute her traditional style, but, above all, turn out to be tremendously expressive, they represent, as a last resort, an attempt to recreate the woman that is hidden under the eye-catching kimono, to question her about that which underlies convention, to probe the person and her emotions. In this sense, it is fitting to talk more about constructions than sculpture; more about figures destined for a ritual use than monuments: it’s a matter of incarnations of all of these questions that motivate readings and that have to do with the role of the artist – an artist in a world of men whose art consists, precisely, in satisfying the man, as much as that of the women – the woman as a living sculpture made in the image of masculine ideals.

That is not, however, to refuse the formal relationship that exists between the sculptures and the peculiar aesthetic of the mummified bodies: the gaunt figures contract, contort; they appear wrapped in ropes and rags, their extremities bend abnormally, their proportions are extremely distorted, their features appear to have been roughly reconstructed. The artist was, indeed, impressed with the pre-Inca mummies – some of which, aged more than a thousand years, are among some of the oldest in the world – during a trip to Peru in 2002, she herself defined these enigmatic beings as a “box of memories.” Although the mummy is not exactly a box of memories, since they do not hold anything, given that exception, in some cases of the heart of the individual, in that which one finds intelligence, is memory in itself and, for a palaeontologist, a very important source of information about the morphology of our ancestors and their routines and customs. Its purpose is – or was, (7) simply to conserve the best possible body of the deceased so that this could revive it in the coming time, it is to say, after the soul has overcome the pertinent trials, that vary from one culture to another.

But, what is conserved is neither the brain nor the organs – that they extract dama- ging the least skin possible – rather, precisely, the encasement, the epidermis. The mummy is – like the sculpture – pure epidermis because, as Paul Valéry stated, “the most profound is the skin”: the maximum depth of thought, the ultimate expression of the self is that point in which it encounters the world and, thus, the epidermic sculptures Emilia Enríquez concentrate on her vehemence for the mishaps of the skin.

Emilia Enríquez has always been an expressionist artist. As much as in her paintings during late nineties – of cutting satire, next to that of Gutiérrez Solana – as in the beginnings of the following decade – in which bodies and faces begin to be deconstructed and look like those of the Geishas we now contemplate – it is apparent in that same oversized effort evidenced by these sculptures, with their large heads and slightly superhuman proportions. But today, this artist is distinguished by the unmistakable passion that she employs in her work: the paintings by Emilia Enríquez, especially at the beginning of the series, Ojo del Mar, which was exhibited in Madrid’s Casa de Galicia in 2009, consist of great partially sculpted collages that mix glued objects, thick fillings, materials of all types and vivid color. It’s always a matter of an extraordinarily powerful work in which the most common of materials and objects tend to seem raw and free from manipulation. There is resonance of póvera in these sculptures made of rags, sacks, ropes, rabbit tail, wires, and other fragmented objects but, in the end, what interests the artist, more than the recycling or the exaltation of the quality of the worn materials, it is the imprint of use, the previous life of the object, its memory; in the same way a mummy preserves something of what the individual was, the sculpture conserves the history of the object but, at the same time, tells us of its present, of being in the world throughout time. And if the geisha is a work of art in itself because the totality of her life is a performance, her sculptural representation cannot only inform us about the labour of the artist, an ensemble of remnants of memory, of emotions and perceptions, of feelings and icons that flowed in the time, “like a wave that rises above the ocean” and whose only meaning was in her own evolution.


(1) Julio Baquero y José Pazo. Deseo de Japón. Revista de Occidente, no 334. Marzo 2009. In this epigraph I refer to this particular issue that Revista dedi- cated to Japan few months ago.

(2) “Selfpainting is an evolution of painting. The canvas has lost its function as the only carrier of expression. Painting has gone back to its roots, to the wall, to the object, to be alive, to a human body (…) Everything is painted white, everything is converted into a canvas.” Wrote Gunter Brüs in the 1960’s.

(3) Nina Cornyetz. Aquí no hay mujeres. Revista de Occidente, Cit.

(4) Jennifer Robertson. Takarazuka: Sexual politics and popular culture in mo- dern Japan, 1998. Citado por Nina Cornyetz, Cit.

(5) Silvia Acierno. No sólo geishas. Comentario a Elena Barlés y David Almazán: La mujer japonesa: realidad y mito (2008). Revista de Occidente, Cit.

(6) Arthur Golden. Memorias de una geisha. Punto de Lectura, Madrid, 2006.

(7) The mummy can be an object of veneration, it can inspire fear, or can seem pa- thetic, according to the period. The modern mummies, like those of Lenin or Eva Perón, have the object of the survival of a culture or character. In this case, yes, one could say that they are “boxes of memories,” in the sense that they are capable of maintaining the memory of their deeds alive.