New York

Yasumara Morimura

Yasumasa Morimura began exhibiting his elaborately conceived self—portraits in ’80s Japan, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that they were shown in the West, where he was immediately perceived as an Asian Cindy Sherman. In his most recent exhibition of big color photographs, Morimura dedicated himself to embodying a host of legendary actresses—Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Jodi Foster, among others. Like Sherman, Morimura dresses up for the camera, disguising himself beneath a veneer of familiar stereotypes, crossing the boundary between art and mass media in skilled impersonations of female characters from the silver screen. But superficial similarities between Sherman and Morimura are quickly spent. Sherman strategically disappears into culturally prescribed feminine roles, leaving stereotypes to function as empty signifiers for a feminine self she places in question. Morimura’s work has never been that sophisticated, nor does he challenge spectators to interrogate the role of cultural conventions in their lives.

Morimura may be skilled in the art of female impersonation, but his real talent, acknowledged or not, lies in his mastery of the language of fetishism. Fetishism, as Freud first pointed out, involves compensating for the sight of woman’s imaginary castration with a variety of reassuring objects that serve as signs for the lost penis but that have no direct connection to it. With the exception of the “roles” they play, Morimura’s women are all alike, their “sameness” secured by the abiding presence of the masculine. We’re supposed to be amused by how these images set up a game of hide and seek, the object of which is to locate the elusive artist lurking beneath/ within each feminine character. Yet the game’s over before it’s begun: what’s hiding is actually in plain sight. Morimura seems to have only one object in mind—showing and confirming “his” masculinity. In a textbook case of neurotic masculine desire displaced onto female bodies, his images offer nothing short of a phallic dream come true. In every case the sign in these photographs is the sign of the phallus.

Consider, for example, Self-Portrait (Actress), Red Marilyn, 1996, in which the artist poses as a “nude” Marilyn. A pair of large, fake, perfect breasts fetishize her lack, but we’re supposed to be relieved once we remember there’s a real penis lurking between her legs. The same charade is enacted in Self-Portrait (Actress)/after Sylvia Kristel I, 1996, which suggestively targets the “problem” of woman’s genital wound. The spectator is supposed to be titillated by the bulge beneath the lace hiding the tender flesh between spread, stocking-lad legs, to identify with it as only “he” can. Do we actually see his “three precious,” as Chinese eunuchs called their castrated genitals, or do we just imagine we do? For Morimura, that’s not the point. Just in case we’ve missed it, Morimura’s quick to spell things out in a video installation in which he “performs” the famous image of Marilyn standing over a subway grate, her white dress fluttering high above her thighs. The video’s sustained climax is initiated when “Marilyn’s” skirt billows all the way up (a metaphor for erection) to reveal an enormous penis, towering larger than life at the vaginal site.

In the drama of the castration complex, women are no more than puppets whose only significance is their lack. Morimura, on behalf of his male audience, aims to make it all right by rendering the phallus as Real rather than Imaginary. At odds with Sherman and the artists of her generation who challenged the biases embedded in representational codes, Morimura’s true affinity is with male artists of an earlier generation—Mel Ramos, Richard Lindner, Allen Jones, Vargas—whose stock in trade was the fetishized female body displayed exclusively for the edification of male spectators. What’s insidious about Morimura is that his work is contextualized by and benefits from the enlightened discourse of contemporary gender and identity politics. Needless to say, it’s fallacious to assume that any art that manipulates gender conventions does so from an informed position. What a joke to see Morimura’s work as advancing anything other than the old sexist party line. An even bigger laugh is that he was selected as a finalist for the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize, which says a good deal about the utter lack of understanding of representational politics at an institutional level and sounds the death knell of multiculturalism by coopting it as style.

Jan Avgikos