Yasumasa Morimura: Ego Obscura & In the Room of Art Historyby Graham W. Bell
JAPAN SOCIETY | OCTOBER 12 – JANUARY 19, 2018
LUHRING AUGUSTINE | SEPTEMBER 14 – DECEMBER 22, 2018
Yasumasa Morimura’s practice is about blurring boundaries. His intricate tableaus hover in the interstitial space between painting and photography and are admired for their inquiry into the construction of gender and identity. Two exhibitions, In the Room of Art History at Luhring Augustine Bushwick and Ego Obscura at the Japan Society, make clear the artist’s penchant for blending and transcending media to achieve technically masterful and conceptually rigorous results. Widely-known for his reenactments of art historical sources, it is refreshing to see political works and two recent video works that extend beyond art historical mimicry.
In the Room of Art History includes three large self-portraits and a wall of black and white images from Morimura’s pivotal One Hundred M’s self-portraits (1993 – 2000). The pairing of the earlier series with his later, more elaborate stagings of art historical figures, sets up a visual dialogue that spans the artist’s career. Ego Obscura, the artist's first solo institutional exhibition in New York City, continues this overarching survey and, while oddly claustrophobic due to small galleries and low ceilings, is a comprehensive portrayal of Morimura’s practice and creative output over the last several decades.
In the 1980s, Morimura began to insert himself into extant art historic tableaus with early homages to self-portraits by Vincent Van Gogh. By replacing the original subject with his own body, the artist questioned the place of the artist in their own works as well as the history of portraiture and its transition from painting to photography. Subjects also included Caravaggio, Vermeer, Magritte, Vigée Le Brun, Frida Kahlo, among others. By focusing mainly on Western artists, Morimura created a juxtaposition between the predominately white male canon (with some obvious exceptions) and his Japanese identity. Furthermore, by creating faux-paintings out of meticulously crafted sets, extravagant makeup modeled on painterly brushwork, and exacting reproductions of painted spaces which are then photographed, Morimura blurs the boundaries between the two disciplines while questioning their indebtedness to each other.
The artist takes his practice one step further with the film Egó Sympósion, on display at the Japan Society. Morimura offers the viewer both a behind-the-scenes look at his process (though carefully curated, to be sure) and a striking tableau vivant that sees long-dead artists like Caravaggio brought back to life. By introducing the element of narrative time, Morimura’s choice of speaking Japanese (subtitled for English-speaking audiences) challenges biographical verisimilitude and fuses his voice with the artists. The film builds a narrative structure that pulls from the artist’s accomplished but instantly recognizable replicas of famous paintings, while exploring the artist’s life using his own voice as the internal dialogue (the Caravaggio character speaks at length about the similarities between a bloodied knife and a brush dripping with paint). By bringing a spoken narrative to each scene, Morimura adds a time-based element that encourages viewers to contemplate the artist and his work instead of merely recognizing the source material and moving on to the next tableau.
Critical to Morimura’s recent practice is the restaging of iconic historical images which highlight in different ways issues critical to Japanese national identity. In A Requiem: Unexpected Visitors, (2010) Morimura reconstructs and places himself in a photograph as both General MacArthur and the Emperor Hirohito upon their first meeting at the end of WWII. The original photo, showing the Emperor in a three-piece suit dwarfed by a surprisingly casual MacArthur in his fatigues, appeared in Japanese newspapers at the behest of the occupying American forces. It had been banned from publication by the Japanese government because it showed the general towering over the emperor, who was still considered a living god. By leveraging the humanity of the emperor and doing away with the shroud of mystery surrounding his office, this image helped incite events that eventually lead Hirohito to denounce his imperial divinity. In A Requiem: Mishima, 1970 (2006), Morimura continues his political investigation and reenacts a scene from the final day of the author and nationalist Yukio Mishima. In 1970, seeking to restore the political power of the Emperor to pre-WWII levels, Mishima and members of his militia (the Tatenokai) seized a military base in an attempted coup d’etat. After failing to win support for his ideals, Mishima committed ritual suicide by disemboweling himself on site. The image Morimura has recreated is one taken directly before Mishima’s death, and serves as a haunting companion for Unexpected Visitors.
Although the exhibition at the Japan Society is more robust, the show at Luhring Augustine deftly balances the two sides of Morimura’s oeuvre. Pieces like Self-Portraits Through Art History (Magritte / Triple Personality) (2016), meld painting with photography and Photoshop to create a dizzying scene that features three self-portraits, each one encapsulated within the other’s frame as the artist ostensibly paints himself painting. More telling is the wall of One Hundred M’s Self Portraits (1993-2000) where Morimura recreates and emulates poses and images associated with starlets of the screen like Bridgette Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn. This allusion to cultural icons as well as to David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly are intertwined with aspects of traditional kabuki theatre and representations of gender in popular media. By using himself as the subject and building an identity around this base form, Morimura provides a biting commentary on how outward appearance can serve to construct identity and how fluid and multifaceted that conversation can be. Approaching his work from the viewpoint of a post-WWII Japan, the artist comments on his own internalization of Western art and popular culture and its effect on the greater Japanese population.
ContributorGraham W. Bell
GRAHAM W. BELL is an arts writer based in Brooklyn, NY by way of Portland, OR. He is a professor of art history and contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.