Tuesday 29 October 2013

Yasumasa Morimura

Art can be a funny thing. I must say I enjoy strolling through art galleries. What slightly troubles me is that sometimes art can go a bit overboard. For example, Damien Hirst pickled a shark, put it in a glass tank and called it art. The critics agreed with him, and his work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is worth between 8 and 12 million dollars.

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
Enter Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. What first drew Morimura to my attention is his style of replicating famous artworks with his own face substituted for the original. Sometimes the original face is male (and Morimura has done Mao Zedong, Albert Einstein and Che Guevara), but often the face in the original work is female. A reasonably wide cross-section of Morimura's work can be seen here.

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
In the article Morimura Yasumasa − The Actress and the PhotographerAyelet Zohar writes: I believe many viewers experience deep resentment towards this man who manages to undermine their concepts of gender, beauty and cultural context. He does not let his viewer rest for a second, or to go away cheerful and happy.

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.
For most artists, I suppose, the work is the thing: people look at the pictures, the sculptures, the pickled animals, without really knowing much about the artist. On the other hand, Morimura puts himself centre stage. What goes through Morimura's mind when he looks at a picture of himself as Marilyn Monroe? Nobody seems to have asked. But I wonder if it is something like what goes through my mind when I look at a picture of myself as Vivienne? Is the reason he does what he does anything like the reason I do what I do?

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.

Tuesday 8 October 2013


You free your mind in your androgyny. -Garbage, Androgyny.
Androgyny seems to be everywhere these days. My hairdresser was talking about it only the other day. Admittedly, it's not new (look at David Bowie in the 1970's), but it seems to be becoming commoner and more popular.

Wikipedia says androgyny refers to the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. Well, I think that's technically true, although perhaps the current interpretation of it is someplace in between male and female. One could technically approach androgyny from the male side (by making oneself more feminine) or the female side (by making oneself more masculine).
Andrej Pejic, Covergirl

Nowhere is the current trend of androgyny more apparent than in the fashion world. BBC journalist Maya Sayer has been surveying the Spring 2014 collections of the fashion world and writes: Last week, as the Spring ’14 menswear shows kicked off in London, one trend sounded with all the subtlety of an air horn: androgyny is the new black.

She points out that several fashion houses are putting men wearing skirts, lace, halter tops, and other feminine clothing on their catwalks, "testing the boundaries" between men's and women's clothing.

I know that fashionistas have been talking about men wearing skirts as normal attire for decades, but it hasn't happened yet. I know that some cultures have skirt-like garments which men wear on a daily basis, but you and I know that isn't the same thing. I know there are some men in our culture who wear skirts regardless-- and good luck to them.

How can we mention the fashion world without discussing Andrej Pejic? As I have mentioned before, Pejic, a naturalised Australian citizen of Bosnian descent, is a man who is so beautiful that he is in demand to model both male and female clothing lines. He was voted the 98th Sexiest Woman in the World by FHM magazine in 2011, and was featured as a covergirl on Elle magazine. Wikipedia claims Elle is the world's best-selling fashion magazine.
Lucia Ianelli

Sayer continues: Confidence. If there’s one thing these new androgynous looks demand of men, it’s that. Which raises the question: have the über-masculine looks dominating menswear up to now been signalling a crisis of male confidence?

I agree that for a man to wear a skirt in public (or another seemingly feminine garment) requires an extra helping of self-confidence. Even someone with the credentials of David Beckham, adored for his masculinity by millions of women (and gay men) worldwide, came in for some flak when he wore a sarong. As I have mentioned elsewhere, we are not at all comfortable when our football heroes show any cracks whatever in their masculinity.

Sayer continues: But I’m willing to bet that, given some time, the public will come around to some version of this new unisex aesthetic.

Well, they might be helped by video games, as well as fashion. One of my longstanding favourite video game franchises is the Tekken series, which I have been playing since you could measure the size of the pixels with a ruler. Tekken and its sequels are beat-'em-up games, in which players control highly skilled martial artists and cause them to kick the stuffing out of one another. With each successive sequel, the characters have become more detailed.
Leo from Tekken 6

Tekken games are basically like comics. They are marketed at adolescent boys (of all ages) and therefore contain what that demographic wants to look at: big, muscly men, and beautiful, scantily-clad women in revealing costumes (OK, so there are a few animals, robots, and demons in there too). From its first outing, Tekken featured characters like Nina, who fights wearing ridiculously impractical, skimpy outfits, stockings, and combat stilettos.

Enter the character Leo, introduced in Tekken 6. At first glance, with the jeans, the boots, the gloves and the stance (and the name!), we kind of assume that Leo is a boy, albeit a somewhat slight one. In the game, Leo is given no gender-specific pronouns, and none of the costumes reveal any part of Leo's body, so no clues there. We can't tell from Leo's fighting style; one of the aspects of Tekken is that diminutive teenage girls (such as Xiaoyu) can defeat hulking, Terminator-like robots (such as Jack), using only kung-fu. Yeah, good luck with that.

In fact, Leo is a girl, whose real name is Eleonore, though this fact only became official when her creator, Katushiro Harada, announced it publicly. Until then, fans of the game around the world were tossing coins to decide her official gender.

Most of the female characters in Tekken are exaggeratedly feminine; not just in their costumes, but in the little intro and outro animations played for each character. They wiggle their hips, shake their boobies, beckon in a sexual manner, or (in the case of the younger characters) adopt Lolita-like, little-girl mannerisms. Actually it's quite refreshing to find a female character who can wear something more practical to fight in than a bikini, and who doesn't flaunt their booty in front of the player.

Androgyne celebrity B. Scott

Tekken is of course Japanese, and I suspect that many of the teenage girl characters are there to pay fan-service to the Japanese fondness for schoolgirls and Lolitas; nothing to do with setting positive role models for women, or even giving female players something to empathise with. I wonder whether Leo is there, not to transcend gender stereotypes, but to pander to some Japanese attraction to androgyny.

And what is it with our current fascination with androgyny? You can even find instructions on how to achieve it. Why do we (as a society) find androgyny so attractive? (And why do we find crossdressing so disturbing?). Just type the word into Google (or Google images) and be drenched in pictures of people blending the gender categories (with greater or lesser degrees of success).

In My Husband Betty, Helen Boyd writes (p.186) of how she and husband Betty attended a Hallowe'en party, with Betty dressed as Desire, an androgyne character from Neil Gaiman's Sandman: My husband is beautiful as a man or a woman, but unbelievably beautiful when he's something in-between.

So there is definitely something in it, something intangible. I must say, when I look at the pictures of female bodybuilders, although some of them look really quite masculine, as well as feminine, I don't find it attractive at all. On the other hand, when I look at pictures such as that of Lucia Ianelli, above, I think: wow! How can I explain that? Is it because the bodybuilders look like lots of masculine plus lots of feminine, and the androgynes look like not much masculine plus not much feminine?

As for myself, is androgyny something I aim for? Not in the least. When I am male, I want to be completely male. When I am trying to be female, I want completely female. Somewhere in between doesn't really do it for me. But for those who can carry it off, I wish them nothing but the best.

What about the mainstream? Are men really going to go into stores and buy skirts?

Charlie Casely-Hayford (clothes designer): We want to challenge our customer, but we don’t want to freak him out. So every season, I’m asking myself – can we do a skirt? Will he understand? We’re almost there... But, you know, not quite yet.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Female Bodybuilding

I was going to include this topic in my post on Androgyny, but the more I read about it, the more I thought it was worthy of a post by itself.

I am supportive of women's equality with men in every arena. Female police officers, firefighters and soldiers wouldn't provoke the least reaction in me. Likewise, I am supportive of women's equality in the intellectual fields: science, academia and politics. But, I must admit, I find female bodybuilding to be a puzzle.
Something inside so strong?

Let's take men's bodybuilding first, and in a Darwinian sense. If we take mammals as a whole, males demonstrate (and in some cases prove) their reproductive suitability to females by physical prowess: by jousting with other males. Nature tends to have equipped males with more powerful musculature; a stronger frame; bigger teeth, tusks or horns; and with a tendency to aggression which includes a willingness to fight. From a female's point of view, it makes sense to mate with the alpha: his genes will tend to make the offspring stronger and more robust; more able to fight off predators, more able to withstand harsh conditions, and in their turn, more likely to pass on their genes to their own offspring.

Humans are exempted from none of this. Until the last couple of centuries or so, human reproductive success still favoured physical robustness, and our leaders tended to be great big lads who were handy with a sword. Speaking as a physical weakling, I like to think that we are getting to the point where we can recognise other measures of reproductive success, such as intelligence ("Brainy is the new sexy").

So I can understand why men want to compete at trials of physical strength. Rugby, for example, is a ritualised form of warfare, where the sides are deliberately matched, and the blades and cudgels left out, but the aggression, the grappling, and the testosterone persist. Other football variants permit different quantities of physicality, though the basic premise remains. In part, men are driven to compete by their genes; people who cheer from the sidelines are competing vicariously, and their emotional involvement can be dramatic and intense.

 Bodybuilder Debi Laszewski in 2011

We call it "brute strength" because we tend to associate great human physical strength with coarseness, animal behaviour, and a lack of finesse or intelligence (as in the phrase "brute force and ignorance"). None of this is necessarily true, of course.

Bodybuilding is not entirely about strength, but about display; the tanned, waxed, oiled skin; the deliberate poses and choreography; and the delineation of every last fascicle and fibre of the musculature (and what is it with those veins?). There is a clear difference between the physique of the bodybuilder and that of the weight lifter. But for me, bodybuilding is all about masculinity, and the display of physical strength is a very masculine trait. And they are not judged on their strength or athletic prowess, but merely their appearance.

Enter the women. According to the Wikipedia article, female competitive bodybuilding only really got going in the last 30 years, and is on the rise. Female bodybuilding competitions are now routinely staged alongside male bodybuilding competitions, although the prize money is approximately 1/10 as much.
Women: muscling in?

Female bodybuilders may claim that they are attempting to achieve a balance of athleticism, fitness, flexibility and strength, rather than simply to bulk up with beef. Bodybuilder Debi Laszewski comments: I believe I have an incredible amount of mature muscle on my frame and, that said, a balanced physique. I also try to maintain my feminine lines.

Has she managed this?

Afghanistan and Malaysia have banned female bodybuilding outright. And some female bodybuilders use anabolic or androgenic steroids as a way of increasing their muscle mass. Steroids bulk you up all right, but also threaten fertility and can produce masculinising side-effects, including deepening of the voice and male-pattern baldness.

That rigid diet and punishing exercise regime, designed to cut out body fat and replace it all with lean muscle, inevitably causes breasts to shrink and all but disappear. Female bodybuilders either need to accept that, or get breast implants.

In 1992, concerned that female bodybuilders were too muscular, the International Federation of Body Builders attempted to feminise the sport by introducing rules which penalised excessively muscular contestants. Later, in 2005, the IFBB introduced the controversial "20% rule", which was "that female athletes in Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure decrease the amount of muscularity by a factor of 20%". The memo stated that the request "applies to those female athletes whose physiques require the decrease". It seemed that even bodybuilders thought the women were getting too big.
A picture of vulnerability?

So what do I think about all this? First, back to the men. I can understand the idea of a man wanting to be big and strong, and to look big and strong. On the other hand, for me, it isn't aesthetically pleasing in the least: I think those inflated physiques look unattractive and off-putting. Though I learned today, with a certain weariness, that there is a sexual fetish associated with touching or rubbing the bodies of highly-muscled people, and that some impecunious bodybuilders submit to this as a means of supplementing their income.

For a woman, then, it's hard to think of anything conventionally feminine about bodybuilding at all. I totally understand the pursuit of health, tone, flexibility and fitness, but to me, this path leads to the physique of a rower, rather than a bodybuilder. Women who bodybuild have the distorted physiques of the men, but in addition, they have the lipstick, the heels, and the long hair (and sometimes the obvious breast implants). This juxtaposition of masculine and feminine features sometimes makes these women very strange to look at indeed. It's worth taking a look at this article, in which celebrity photographer Martin Schoeller takes portraits of female bodybuilders (I have borrowed two for this post). Schoeller writes: I am trying to show the vulnerability that I see and feel in the subjects when I am with them, to get to the complex emotions behind a mask of extreme physical expression.

What are those complex emotions? What form does that vulnerability take? What are those women searching for? How do they feel about themselves? I don't have those answers; you will need to find your own.

Strong Arms of the Ma
My final point is this. If women want to compete in bodybuilding, and they want to bulk up their bodies in this way, they should be allowed to do so unfettered. In the statement above from the IFBB, what they were really saying was "some of you are too big and too muscular; you need to cut back by 20%. Who does this apply to? Well, it's obvious, isn't it? You know who you are". I couldn't find the full statement to read, so there may have been explanations, but perhaps their own sport's governing body was telling bodybuilding women not to get too muscular. Not, perhaps, for health and safety reasons, or other understandable, if wearisome, competition regulations. No, just perhaps because even the sport's own governing body thinks female bodybuilding is unladylike.

For a different but related subject, I refer you to my article about Women with Beards.

Addendum: 30th December 2014

Over the last couple of months or so, this post has become one of the most popular on this blog. On the other hand, nobody has left a comment for ages. If this subject interests you, or upsets you, or arouses you, please leave a comment for discussion.

I came across an episode of The Simpsons entitled Strong Arms of the Ma, in which Marge gets mugged. As a result of feeling vulnerable, she takes up bodybuilding to feel stronger and safer. Though she builds a lot of muscle, unfortunately the steroids cause her to become aggressive and mean. The critics' response to the episode was largely negative. When done well, The Simpsons is a powerful and insightful parody, but it doesn't look like they hit the sweet spot with this episode.