PRINT January 1994


MOTHER (JUDITH II), 1991, is the second in a series of images by Yasumasa Morimura based on the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In the first, Mother (Judith I), the figures are portrayed à la Cranach; Morimura appears as both Judith and her decapitated victim. In Mother (Judith II), the Cranach-based image is revisualized across the style of Arcimboldo, with all the portrait elements replaced by inanimate objects: Holofernes turns into a still life with potato head, his neck a slab of beefsteak, while Judith develops a mask of symmetrical pale-green cabbage leaves. It’s a brilliantly executed performance, as eerie as it is hilarious.

Rather than write about an artwork that has settled in my mind over years, I have chosen a piece that is still turning over, a work to which I am still adjusting. And part of what disturbs me in the image probably has to do with the circumstances of my first viewing it, in Morimura’s Osaka studio this summer. The journey from Tokyo, by train and subway, was a long one. I felt with more than usual acuteness the discomfort of being a traveler in Japan: more than a century after the country was opened to the West, foreigners (gaijin) still attract the gaze to an unnerving extent. It can be wearing to step into a subway car and feel all the eyeballs turn to scrutinize one’s person—to be the object of so intense (and prolonged) a stare. In Tokyo the effect is muted; nowadays foreigners are everywhere in the city, and their fascination may have started to wear off. But Morimura’s studio is in the provinces, where the gaijin gaze is still formidable. By the time I reached Tsuruhashi Station my patience had worn thin; I felt as if I had two heads.

This was not my first visit to Japan, but it was a visit in which I often had recourse to a word that seemed to explain a good deal about Japan’s relation to the West: “Occidentalism.” Orientalism I was familiar with: the West’s construction of an imaginary Orient, the place of all those complex fantasies of the Other articulated by, for example, Ingres, Delacroix, and Gérôme. But what about its less familiar counterpart, the East’s constructions of an imaginary Occident? What does the West feel like, and look like, in Occidentalist art? Briefly: right now it looks and feels like Mother (Judith II).

It’s partly to do with economics, and new wealth, and new technology. The consumer economy in Tokyo is currently more heated and more exoticized than in any city I know; Japan now finds itself at the center of vast flows of commodities, information, and images from abroad. As far as Japanese images go, one is struck by the tendency of the visual media in the new Japan to take all the cultural legacies of the world and grind them up into a grotesque juice. Even more than in Western cities, the history of the West you experience in Japan can feel strangely weightless.

Everything Western has undergone radical decontextualization and mixing: Greco-Roman sculpture, Hollywood cinema, British punk, Renaissance art, Modernist architecture—all are shorn of history, purged of their embeddedness in concrete historical situations, and melded together, orbiting in the simultaneous present of consumer time.

The “Judith” series is, among other things, a brilliant satire on cultural greed—on the avidity of a Japan now able to buy whatever it wants, from anywhere in the world, and swallow it whole. But what engaged me in Mother (Judith II) was its portrayal of Occidentalism itself, the general desire to fashion a West through representation, in every area—industry, architecture, fashion, politics, art. And it also summed up the oddness of being a foreigner walking through the Occidentalizing landscapes of Japan. In general, a lot of the Japanese cityscape looks much the same as things in the West. One should feel entirely at home. Yet during the journey to Morimura’s studio the public gaze upon my not-so-very-freakish person was as if I had landed from Mars. Why? The whole environment had been modeled on the West, so how was it that one still felt such an intruder, so alien a presence, riding there in the subway, alongside everyone else?

Perhaps it was something to do with one’s body. Mine is, I promise, not that unusual. But in the landscape of a constructed West there had suddenly appeared an actual Westerner, myself. The environment had everything you find in the West—except the Westerners. Now onto the stage walked the real thing, and at once a wave of ontological panic rippled through the subway car.

And looking at Mother (Judith II) there is for me a comparable shock. I recognize the West—its cultural legacy, its art-historical landmarks, from the Renaissance to appropriation art. But in a strange way the mirror does not reflect my own face. Looking at Occidentalist art, Western viewers can perhaps experience some of the shock of misrecognition that an Islamic viewer might experience looking at the imaginary Orient of Ingres or Delacroix or Gérôme.

Yet Occidentalism and Orientalism are not symmetrical structures. Victorian viewers in the West might have enjoyed the brief encounter with the exotic Orient that Orientalist art supplied them, but they were hardly about to go out and rebuild the West along Oriental lines. Occidentalism is a much more radical affair. Since the opening of Japan, modernization has entailed an all-out refashioning of the self under the sign of the Occidental Other, at every level. Which may be why Morimura’s games within the Western imaginary are so intense: they have behind them the momentum of a whole culture’s drive to modernize, and hybridize, identity.