Yasumasa Morimura

Sagacho Exhibit Space

Since 1985 Yasumasa Morimura has been photographing himself as the central character of various Western paintings. Although the satirical component of these works is readily apparent, and much of their impact lies in their sexual and racial ambiguities, they can perhaps best be understood as critiques of Japanese culture and its relation to the West, explored through the self-portrait format.

Morimura rightly sees the canon of Western art history as an important part of the visual culture of contemporary Japan. On several occasions he has stated that Western art and classic Japanese art are equally removed from Japanese life today, yet he remains suspicious of those who would seek to establish a contemporary “Japanese” art. This artist has expressed anger at what he sees as the unthinking superficiality of Japanese society, which, on the one hand, simply cannibalizes the visual arts for elements that can be appropriated for pulp culture, and, on the other, defies Western masters such as van Gogh, Manet, or Picasso. Morimura’s is an art of protest, against the Japanese image consumption machine, against the stultifying Japanese art education system, and against the docility of a populace which allows itself to be told what to think.

Nine monumental pseudo canvases based on well-known works by Manet, Velázquez, Goya, Cézanne, and Rembrandt and set in expensively carved and gold-leafed frames were displayed in the main gallery at Sagacho. Produced in Morimura’s typical trompe l’oeil photographic manner, the Manet café scenes and the Velázquez Infantas portray females to hilarious effect. The variations on Goya’s Maja are perhaps better called photomontages, since they utilize parts of reproductions of the original paintings as well as Morimura’s own person. In one a lewd motorized chrome ball moves in and out of a fur-fringed opening in the Maja’s pelvic region. In other works the artist’s studio is reworked into an approximation of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés.

For the Cézanne and the Rembrandt, Morimura has tried a new technique—computer imaging—with great success. The true star of the show is undoubtedly Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicholaes Tulp, 1632, which Morimura has altered and retitled Portrait, Nine Faces, 1990. The artist has seamlessly inserted nine photographic images of his head into a fine life-size photographic reproduction of the original work. In addition to his usual dual role of artist and model, here the artist becomes teacher, student, and cadaver.

What the artist has done is taken an ideal register of individual uniqueness (the Rembrandt) and create a portrait of the Everyman, in this case an Oriental Everyman gotten up as a 17th-century Dutch burgher (and being dissected on a table). At the same time, the artist has realized the human desire to expand and multiply the self, and to forge emotive links with others of widely disparate backgrounds. If, on the one hand, Morimura flaunts his desire to be other than what he is—Japanese, male, contemporary—on the other hand his work conveys a strongly felt desire to close the many gaps which separate humanity, to heal the scars of cultural isolation. In order to do this, a tremendous amount of debunking, demythologizing, and deconditioning must take place, and this artist has assumed the role of experimental subject.

Azby Brown