Tamiko Thiel:

The Travels of Mariko Horo

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The Travels of Mariko Horo: Background

interactive 3D virtual reality installation


Sometime between the 12th and the 22nd centuries a woman journeys westward from Japan, traveling through space and time, searching for the "Isles of the Blest," the Buddhist paradise said to float in the Western Seas. She will be called Mariko Horo, Mariko the Wanderer.

She encapsulates her impressions of the places she sees in her travels in a series of "Horo-gramms," 3D virtual worlds. She invites you to visit her worlds and see the West through her eyes.

The Travels of Mariko Horo is an interactive 3D virtual reality installation, a fantasy virtual environment that users explore at their pleasure and peril. Mariko is a fictitious character I have invented to incorporate the viewpoint for this project. Users will never actuall see Mariko - except perhaps in a mirror. In essence they will be Mariko, seeing the exotic and mysterious Occident through her eyes and her experiences.

I am conceiving The Travels of Mariko Horo as a modular piece, a set of Journeys that I will add to over time. Each Journey however will be a complete piece in itself. The first Journey, In Search of the Western Paradise, premiered July 29, 2006 inthe Edge Conditions show at the San Jose Museum of Art, as part of the Pacific Rim Theme of the ISEA / ZeroOne San Jose Festival in San Jose, California, USA. The second Journey, In the Land of Babarian, will premiere November 10 2006, at i-camp in Munich, Germany as part of the Dance2006 Festival. For more information see the "Events" link.


For 200 years from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s Japan was shut off from the rest of the world. As European powers subjugated the rest of Asia, Japan closed her borders and no one was allowed to enter or leave on pain of death. Only a trickle of goods and knowledge from the Western world were allowed in through Dutch traders confined to an artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor. From the few maps, books and prints brought in by the Dutch or via trade with China, a few enthusiasts tried to understand the culture and the learning of the West, recreating Europe, an exotic and unknowable universe, in their imagination and in their art. They appropriated Western artistic conventions such as perspective into their work, using this exoticizing gaze to depict their own world in a new way, just as a hundred years later Western artists would appropriate Japanese conventions to renew Western art.

For Japan, of course, the entire world lies to the West. For hundreds of years before there was contact with Europe, Japan incorporated artistic and religious influences “from the West” – from the Eurasian continent. For Japanese artists trying to imagine the West, but also for Western artists trying to imagine Japan, the power of fantasy could often take them only as far as a vague and undefined “Asia” – for both Far East and Far West the epitome of “foreign” and “exotic.” Thus some Japanese artists depicted Holland with the same buildings as they depicted China, and Western artists as late as Gilbert and Sullivan depicted the Japanese “Mikado” in the style of a Chinese Emperor. This geographic confusion finds echoes in Mariko’s Last Judgement scenes, inspired equally by Byzantine Christian frescos and Tibetan tankas.

In 2003 I spent 3 months at the Kyoto Art Center as a Japan Foundation Fellow, researching this period in Japanese history, gathering images and talking with Japanese art historians. In The Travels of Mariko Horo I use the viewpoint elucidated in this research to create my own fantasies of the Mysterious and Unknowable Occident. In addition to my research I also draw on my personal experiences: as a 5 year old child I returned from Japan to my native USA, a large, strange and empty land that I could no longer remember, populated with large, light-haired people.Although I live primarily in the West, every time I return from Japan to the West I relive this early culture shock.

As Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities used Marco Polo as the point of departure for a meditation on the meaning of cities, I use the figure of Mariko Horo as a point of departure for a meditation on the Mythic West. Her journey is of course an inversion of the "Marco Polo Syndrome." The 13th century Venetian traveler has long represented the exoticizing gaze that looks from Europe into the depths of Asia, a symbol of Western Man exploring, categorizing and analyzing the exotic cultures of the East. The exoticizing gaze thinks itself to be a magnifying glass, but in actuality it is a view through a half-silvered mirror: the viewer means to describe new lands, new peoples, new cultures, but in reality he sees images of his own culture superimposed over a vague and exotic background. I wish to reverse this gaze, invert the mirror and view the exotic West through Mariko's fictitious but observant eyes.