When I first heard of the nature of this piece, I was a little taken aback. As a museum specimen, it would surely be interesting. You can visit several museums around the world and see specimens of giant squid, similarly preserved in formaldehyde. Admittedly, a tiger shark (as used by Hirst) is a striking and impressive animal, but surely a giant squid is every bit as cool? What makes Hirst's piece so different? The title, perhaps? Is it the mere fact that a famous artist calls it art?
On reading the Wikipedia article, I discovered that the original shark started to deteriorate in the tank, and made the preservative fluid cloudy (the same happens to those giant squid). So the original shark has been thrown out, and a new specimen (more carefully embalmed) has taken its place. Even Damien Hirst agrees there is a debate to be had about whether the piece is still the same piece, or has changed in some fundamental yet intangible way.
My favourite art story concerns Le Bateau, a work by Henri Matisse. Created in 1953, the work was displayed in New York in 1961 for 47 days upside down before anyone spotted the mistake. During that time, I am sure the critics were in rapture over it.
So this lengthy preamble is only to say that I really know nothing about art, but I suspect that even people who do know quite a lot about art can sometimes get a bit carried away.
|Morimura with a pearl earring|
We are talking here about some of the most famous women in the world, including the Mona Lisa, Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Manet's forlorn barmaid at the Folies-Bergere.
Morimura goes to enormous lengths to make his work as close to the original as possible: replicating costumes, lighting, props and setting as accurately as he can. In other words, he isn't simply using digital image manipulation.
In addition to the famous artworks of old, Morimura has turned his attention to photo portraits of some of our most well-known female icons: Brigitte Bardot, Liza Minelli, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo.
|After Audrey Hepburn|
So here we have a Japanese man recreating himself as some of the most famous (and beautiful) women in the world. He does it so well that the portraits are immediately recognisable for who they are trying to mimic. It's extremely clever, but is it art?
Wikipedia says Morimura was born in Osaka in 1951, making him 52 years old as I write this. He is described as an appropriation artist, which I suppose means he bases his work on other people's ideas.
Morimura's own website is in Japanese, but thanks to online translation software (which is astonishing), one can pick up a lot of detail. It says that Morimura created his first portraits of himself as van Gogh in 1985, and since then has consistently produced works of this type. He has given many solo exhibitions around the world, and has been honoured both in Japan and internationally for his work.
The website MEM says: Morimura’s fascination with ‘seeing’ is not based on his need of being seen but is heavily rested in the interpretation of ‘seeing’ the illusion of gender, culture, appropriation, commodification, and the sometimes obsessive relationship found between the East and West.
Morimura: Another way of looking at it is to compare the Japanese words bureru and yureru. Bureru (literally, to blur) means that your opinions are always undefined, easily corrupted by what other people say. But there is a slight difference with the word yureru (to shake or waver). I know it sounds very Zen, but wavering between two points can actually be a way of defining your opinions.
|After Marilyn Monroe|
From the point of view of a crossdresser, Morimura's work is deeply compelling. It must take enormous courage to deliberately set oneself up in the role of (say) Marilyn Monroe.
I immediately recognise (and admire) the attention to detail. From one perfectionist to another, he's done a terrific job.
If his images were all female, I would suspect this is autogynephilia. However, enough of his images are men (and not conventionally attractive men) that I think that probably doesn't apply. Is Morimura a crossdresser in the traditional sense? It's impossible to say. Some of his images depict him with realistic breasts, such as the one where he is depicted as a naked woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp.
From a traditional crossdressing perspective, we all like to take photos of ourselves; we like those photos to be as attractive as possible, and we like people to look at our photos and pay us compliments on how we look.
Morimura: I keep taking photographic self portraits because of my fascination with being seen.
In reading about Morimura on the web, it was interesting to read different people's different interpretations of his work. Thankfully none of it (that I have found) is too ridiculous or over-interpreted. Does his work offend me, or cause me to experience "deep resentment"? Not in the least. Many critics point out that Morimura is saying something about gender, about conventional notions of beauty, about relationships between East and West-- but nobody seems to be clear on exactly what.
And neither am I. My own view of art is that it makes you think; makes you wonder and question. Morimura certainly does that for me. I can't exactly figure out why he is doing what he is doing, but he does it so well, and the result is curiously beautiful. Is it art? Definitely.