A Young New York Artist’s Death Devastated a Community. Now Friends Say It Was All a Cruel Performance—and She’s Still Alive

For more than two weeks, a young New York artist has been missing. What's really going on?

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

Performance artists have always blurred the line between art and life. Tehching Hsieh locked himself in a small wooden cage for one year, during which he did not talk, read, or write. Chris Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm. Now, one artist may have gone so far as to fake her own death. But the reception has not been positive.

The saga, full of false starts, red herrings, and twists and turns, began on May 1, when the studio of a young, New York-based artist known to friends as Ayakamay released some alarming news. The artist’s estate, it said, would hold a memorial ceremony and exhibition “of painting, photography, collage, and drawing made during early 2019 when she was hospitalized.” The posthumous show would be full of artworks to be given away free to the public.

On the artist’s personal Instagram page, a post appeared announcing a memorial event at the Atrium, a prime event venue in Greenwich Village owned by Ayakamay’s patron and friend, artist and producer Willard Morgan. The post included an “excerpt from Ayakamay’s last diary entry, April 30th 2019” that read: “Since life is so virtual now, why do I even need a body…?”

In his own post on Facebook, Morgan wrote that following a stay in Bellevue Hospital, “she was still looking for a way out of the conundrum of her life.” Although he never spelled it out, Morgan implied that the artist had died by suicide. His post has since been deleted.

Artist Willard Morgan's Facebook post, since deleted. Image via Facebook.

Artist Willard Morgan’s Facebook post, since deleted. Image via Facebook.

What followed was an outpouring of grief and sympathy, both online and at the memorial. Dozens of mourners turned up at the Atrium on Sunday, May 5, to offer condolences and take artworks, as per the artist’s instructions.

But the next morning, artnet News was contacted by Kurt McVey, a friend of Ayakamay’s, who shared screenshots of text message exchanges that cast doubt on news of the artist’s death and suggested the whole project was an elaborate hoax.

In one, a friend told McVey: “U know this whole ayaka death is fake publicity stunt. So NOT cool.” He responds: “I cried my eyes out earlier. Are you certain. I spoke to her assistant earlier and if you’re right, they lied to me.” (McVey did not share the names of the people he corresponded with because they did not give their consent.)

In the days that followed, skeptical and critical comments—ranging from shock to disgust—started to flood Morgan’s social media feeds. Slowly, he began to distance himself from the affair. In response to questions from artnet News, Morgan told us to contact the artist’s studio, which he said would be issuing a statement shortly.

On Facebook, Morgan later offered a cryptic comment: “I’ve been notified Ayakamay will issue a statement asap,” implying that the artist was still alive. Later, he added that he was “not aware of the degree of impact [the death announcement] would have, nor did I expect it to be prolonged for an extensive period of time…. I am deeply sorry for the emotional shock and pain suffered by those individuals who are close to Ayakamay, or know her work.”

A statement by Willard Morgan made on Facebook implying that Ayakamay had not died.

A statement by Willard Morgan made on Facebook implying that Ayakamay had not died.

As of Tuesday, May 14—more than a week later—no further public statements had been released by the artist or her representatives. In response to emails sent to the artist’s studio, artnet News received cryptic responses from a person named June Nomoto, who said that Ayakamay’s body had not yet been found.

We asked Nomoto if concerned friends and family had filed a missing person report, and how, if Ayakamay was still missing, there was proof of her death. Nomoto simply told artnet News that “the family knows what happened to her but it has not been announced anywhere yet.” She added: “I hear some people are getting contact from the artist but nobody has any evidence.”

Meanwhile, the criticism against Willard Morgan continued on Facebook. According to one commenter: “How in this age of families and friends dealing with heartbreaking suicides could the impact and the emotional damage and betrayal of this stunt have not been foreseen?”

In a an early morning Facebook post on Friday May 10, Willard wrote, “My Facebook has been corrupted. Until resolved, I will be signing off.”


The Memorial Exhibition

A 15-minute video from 2016 serves as something of a mini-documentary about Ayakamay, whose real name is Ayaka May Komatsu. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1985 to Japanese parents. At the age of 10, her father was transferred back to Japan, where she struggled to fit in. But her life changed when she discovered photography as a teen and began to make friends by photographing them. She returned to New York around 2006 with dreams of becoming a performance artist, supported in part by her photography.

The documentary captures her street performances, including titled Mimikaki, where she is dressed as a geisha and invites people to rest their heads on her lap so she can clean their ears with small instruments. In another, titled Unconscious, performers, including the artist herself, are dressed as private school girls in gym-class uniforms.

Last week, I went to see the Ayakamay memorial exhibition at Willard’s Atrium space. (It closed on May 12.) When I stopped by late Monday morning, the gallery was empty aside from a young woman seated at a desk, typing on a laptop. I introduced myself as a reporter and asked if it was true that the artist had died. The woman, who said she worked in Ayakamay’s studio, responded only that it was “sudden” and that she was communicating with the artist’s family in Japan.

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

She handed me a sticky note with a number on it and said to place it on any artwork I liked. She took my name and address so that it could be mailed to me at no cost, as part of the giveaway of Ayakamay’s work.

Hundreds of helium-filled, heart-shaped mylar balloons lined the ceiling. In the front of the space was a shrine to Ayakamay, with pictures, candles, flowers, and handwritten notes from friends and mourners. In the middle of the room were several red blankets with hundreds of artworks laid out side-by-side. At the back, a coffin-like white box with a large bouquet of flowers was placed in front of several folding chairs, where the memorial service had taken place the day before.

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

Days before the death announcement, McVey had corresponded with Ayakamay herself. In a text exchange dated April 28, she writes: “Hi Kurt. I’ve been very sick but just wanted to see if you are around tonight or this week to meet.” McVey, a freelance writer, responded that he was on deadline, but offered to meet her uptown and asked repeatedly if she was OK. He received no further response.

“What bothered me is the fact that Ayakamay reached out to me in some sort of nebulous capacity, which at first I assumed to be a run-of-the-mill, studio-visit type request, which I then misinterpreted as a cry for help,” McVey says. “And now I see it as either a means to pull me in as an accomplice or to simply sow the seeds of this unreality. In either case, it’s cheap.”

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

The memorial Ayakamay exhibition in Greenwich Village. Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

For now, the truth depends on who you ask. Last week, one of Ayakamay’s assistants, told me: “We just found her last letter and it was specifically for her family and her few very close friends and to the studio team basically saying she chose to end her life and her last wish was to give every work away.” She declined to provide the letter to artnet News.

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