Mariko Mori – Burning Desire (1996)

tumblr_mwcnmv7zyi1qzy6hio1_1280Japanese artist Mariko Mori, born in 1967, is known for her photography and media art.The contemporary artist creates work which feature cyborgs and Manga influenced characters. Mori is also known to dress up and use her own body in many of her art pieces such as ‘Play with me’ and ‘Tea Ceremony’ so it is no surprise that the people involved in her creation ‘Burning Desire’ (1996) are in fact portrayed by Mori herself.

Burning Desire - 1996
Burning Desire – 1996

The art piece is made up of 5 panels in which we see Mori as a flying Buddhist-like character as well as 4 Tibetan individuals all wearing Tibetan clothing seen as set on fire. Before we delve into the analysis of this art piece, some information about the Tibetans and their history.

Tibetans are distinct people with their own language and culture, amongst other things, who had their country and national freedom taken away from them by communist China in 1949. Since then, the people have been ruthlessly oppressed and to this day, are still fighting to regain their independence.

To analyse this work I will be illustrating various traits from the Japanese culture as well as explaining religious beliefs from the Buddhist religion, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. Focusing on the 4 Tibetans in the photograph, one can clearly see that they are enveloped in fire. In the Japanese culture, fire (Ka) can be associated with desire which describes what the Tibetans in the art piece are feeling – desire to be free from oppression, hence the reason as to why they are on fire.

kalachakra-mandala-courtesy-of-himalayanartThe element ‘Fire’ is often identified with the colour red and it is no different in the Buddhist religion. In Tibetan Buddhism the colour red is actually considered to be sacred and to possess protective qualities. In fact, it is also of great importance in the mandala which is the quintessential symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Althought the colour schemes vary from one mandala to another, the Kalachakra-tantra, used in Vajrayana Buddhism and is a main component in Tibetan Buddhism, prescribes its own colour scheme in which the protecting circle of the mandala is almost always drawn in red. Therefore, could this mean that the fire is actually a means of protection that the Tibetans are being provided by the floating deity in the middle?

Speaking of floating deity, a rainbow circling it can be seen in the photograph. In a Japanese myth, the male and female creators of the world descended from Heaven on a “floating bridge”, aka: the rainbow, to “create land from the ocean of chaos”. This could suggest that the character in the middle is in fact also a “god” which has come to save the Tibetans from the “chaos”.

In Buddhism they have the concept of “rainbow body” which is the penultimate transitional state of meditation in which matter begins to transform into pure light and it is said to be the highest state achievable before attaining Nirvana where desire and consciousness are destroyed. Nirvana is in fact described as the extinguishing of fires that cause suffering. So similarly to the Japanese culture, the center piece seems to be some pure “god” which is trying to stop the suffering of the Tibetans and “extinguishing the fires” enveloping the them. So in both cases, the story behind the work is similar. The character in the middle seems to be some Goddess who is trying to aid the distressed Tibetans.


The 5 panels which make up this piece also remind me of traditional Japanese folding screens. A Byobu, meaning protection from wind, are folding screens made from several joined panels bearing decorative painting. In Vajrayana traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, wind, known as ‘Lung’ is a key concept. It’s most important function is to carry the movements of mind, speech and body which might mean that the reason as to why Mori decided to present her work in the form of a folding screen is to potentially bring strength to her artwork and to give it a feeling of being “alive”.

I personally think that Mariko Mori makes excellent use of the two different cultures and religions and combines them in a clever way to convey a really powerful message. I also feel that this work might be Mori protesting against the oppression of the Tibetans and showing her support through this piece and expressing herself the best way she can – through art.


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