Yasumasa Morimura

This midcareer survey, curated by Mayumi Otsuka and Eriko Kimura and originally presented at the Kumamoto Museum of Art, showed Yasumasa Morimura’s major works from 1985 through 2007 in a theatrical framework: The museum galleries became something like classrooms, where the audience is instructed in the appreciation of “Western masterpieces” via audio-guide lectures recorded by Morimura himself. The educational setup was ironic, as the “masterpieces” are, of course, Morimura’s own simulations of paintings by artists such as Vermeer, van Gogh, Cézanne, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, and Frida Kahlo. But the artist’s descriptions reveal his unique interpretations of the originals. Using nails to convey the texture of van Gogh’s cap, for example, leads Morimura to compare the nails to Christ’s thorny crown, evoking an analogy between van Gogh’s tragic dedication to his art and Christ’s martyrdom; the association of Kahlo’s monobrow with a moustache reveals an intense commitment to life and art that defies conventional gender distinction. Morimura’s personalizing approach attempts to explain the foreignness of modern Western art to a Japanese audience while pointing out his otherness in the European aesthetic context.

Morimura has built his career as a pioneer of Japanese postmodernism by salting his appropriationist simulations of Western masterpieces with disruptive details reflecting contemporary Japanese life. The sense of perplexity in the face of Western art history was eloquently expressed in his 1988–90 series of digitally modified photographic portraits, “Daughter of Art History”; for example, Portrait (Twins), 1988, a parodic reconstruction of Manet’s Olympia, 1863, shows Morimura as both the white courtesan and the black maid. Inserting his neutral body as an alien presence in the space of Western painting, Morimura reenacted Manet’s bold challenge to the hypocritical decorum of the ruling class. At the same time, his pastiche of Bruegel’s 1568 Parable of the Blind—titled Blinded by the Light, 1991—critically exposes the spiritual emptiness of contemporary Japan’s hyperconsumerist society and nationalist ideologies, proving the effectiveness of his ironic simulation as a vehicle of satire.

In the 2006 video Seasons of Passion/A Requiem: MISHIMA, Morimura plays the novelist Yukio Mishima, whose aborted attempt at a military coup d’état on November 25, 1970, ended in his suicide by seppuku. Morimura delivers the speech that he imagines Mishima might have made at the Ichigaya headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, warning the Japanese people of their materialism and lack of political engagement and denouncing contemporary artists’ pursuit of fashion to succeed in the global art market. Morimura’s own implicit message recapitulates points of Mishima’s arguments against consumer society and the opportunistic use of Japanese art, presented in his essay “In Defense of Culture.” The installation of this video in the room next to the one containing Blinded by the Light emphasizes the links between 1970, 1991, and the present.

The inclusion of the Mishima video as a kind of postscript to Morimura’s art-appreciation lessons illuminates the political nature of the artist’s practice. His simulationist use of history functions as a tool to refl ect Japan’s dilemma in the face of modernity and awaken political consciousness. In his creative use of the past, the “fake” becomes a powerful tool for telling the truth.

Midori Matsui