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.


  1. His recreations of classic art are brilliant! I was particularly impressed by the Frida Kahlo.

  2. Hi Vivienne, there are some beautiful works here.

    I particularly liked the piece entitled (in what may be a mangled product of the google translator) "San'ninsan'yo" (1). It brings to life an etching from Goya's Los Caprichos series(1), no 31 - "She prays for her". Morimura enhances the erotic aspect of the original, in which the young woman is being prepared for something, her long hair being brushed, and her stockinged leg extending from her white dress. The old crone, apparently her mother, prays for her well-being. Why? As a postscript to the title Goya: "And she did well to do so....that God may give her luck, keep her from harm, moneylenders and cops, make her skilful and careful, wide awake and ready as her sainted mother." The sainted mother is a procuress, readying to pimp her daughter out for the first time, a necessity for keeping the family from starving, and in the hope that the daughter will capture a wealthy benefactor. Morimura captures the regretful expression of the old crone in Goya's original, but has changed the emotion of the principal subject. The girl, who looks out with a much more knowing expression than the innocent but slightly expectant subject of Goya's work, who we could imagine (without the background story) might be being dressed up to go out to a party. In the original her hairdresser takes perhaps a perverse pleasure in the preparations, while in Morimura's presentation, the expression is more serious, perhaps again more knowing.

    Goya's Los Caprichos series highlights the the naivety, the wretchedness and depravity of the society in which he lived. Given Morimura's attention to detail, none of the above changes are by accident. Is Morimura saying something about how our culture sees the feminine, as more knowing, more sexually aware? Or is he simply denying innocence as a personal expression?

    Thanks for your blog Vivienne, I've really enjoyed your musings on and around cross-dressing, I hope to drop in again!



    1. Hi Barbara,

      Many thanks for your kind compliments and highly stimulating comment. Feel free to add comments to anything else you read here!

      I wasn't previously acquainted with the Goya work that you mention, but I have been looking at both Goya's piece and Morimura's homage side by side. I agree with you that Morimura's attention to detail means that nothing in his composition is accidental. On the other hand, he hasn't been quite as careful with the costumes as he has in his other imitations.

      Without the title, I wouldn't have any idea of the story told by the original piece, which adds a slightly disturbing flavour to it. Taking the three figures in order, I think Goya's crone portrays an expression of grim determination (looking somewhat downwards), where what I see in Morimura's crone seems more like envy (looking slightly upwards, almost at the face).

      The gaze of the hairdresser is likewise different. Goya has her facing away, but looking (slyly? detachedly?) back towards the girl. Morimura has her facing toward and looking slightly above the girl (her eyes open much wider). Morimura's expression is more neutral and pleasant; I get the impression that the Goya's hairdresser is reluctant, but Morimura's is willing. To me her body language seems more Japanese, somehow.

      Finally, the girl. Morimura's girl is much more confident. That clear eye contact and hint of a smile says that she knows exactly where she is going, though I agree that Goya's girl is innocent and has no idea what is about to happen.

      Viewed together, these works are both telling a very different story. Your interpretation of Morimura's intention is as good as any other. I don't see him denying innocence; just perhaps saying that in this situation it would no longer be present. However, like good poetry, good art is about what the viewer brings to the work, not just what the artist put there.

      I love this sort of discussion. Keep it up!


    2. Hi Vivienne

      I guess I was thinking also of another image when I posed my clumsy question about innocence.
      In appropriating Audrey Hepburn's photo (and who could be more sweet eyed and innocent than Audrey Hepburn?!) as Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's, he used a less well publicised image, than the smiling, carefree image usually associated with Hepburn in this movie, one that is much more serious. In the movie and the usual promotional images, Hepburn projects a zany naïveté, an innocence, but given the plot, and Holly Golightly's nefarious activities, she could hardly be an innocent or naive. So in re-creating both of these characters, Morimura denies their innocence. Why? Is it the 'truth' of the back-story, an expression of his own lack of innocence, or is too difficult a thing to appropriate?

      More questions than answers, but that's half the fun!


  3. “I keep taking photographic self-portraits because of my fascination with being seen,” says Morimura. Does he mean “seen” as celebrities are seen and their lives presumed to be more valid than our more ordinary ones? This seeing also creates the illusion that the celebrity has moved beyond mortality.
    Or is the viewer’s act of seeing what fascinates Morimura – all the assumptions and received ideas we bring to seeing only to find them here upset or wavering because the female celebrity is not female and not native to American or European canons of beauty. Are the wavering and the choices that the viewer then makes – to break out of conventions or to harden them – what fascinates Morimura? He is opening a door to new freedoms in seeing. Will we walk through or step back in fear?
    There is a connection with Zen and a parallel with Warhol may make this clear. In his studio, named “The Factory”, Andy Warhol produced repetitious screen printed portraits of celebrities, their mask-like faces reduced to a simplified pastiche of humanity, garishly eye-catching, flat icons for worship in a materialistic world.
    The seeing brought to the portrait of the celebrity or a famous image like the Mona Lisa carries the unspoken hopes of the anonymous masses. Maybe the magic of the icon will rub off on us in some mysterious way and make our lives feel as real as this portrait has become. One only has to watch tourists crowding the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, cell phone cameras aloft to capture their own image giving V signs while in the magical presence. But this is ego-feeding stuff, the antithesis of Zen. Warhol was emptying his celebrity images. His stated wish for his own life was “to look in a mirror and see no image coming back.”
    Are we seeing Morimura or “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”? Both, and/or neither? Have they both disappeared?
    Now I’ll disappear.

  4. Hello to both of you. I am very excited about having a fully-fledged discussion about art here on my humble blog.

    To take your comment first, Barbara. Breakfast at Tiffany's was not the film I expected, having seen the promotional photos of Audrey Hepburn in advance. Hepburn was jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful, and her image (as you say) is all wide-eyed cute girly innocence. But the movie! Holly Golightly was utterly memorable: unstable, unpredictable, scheming, manipulative. The power of the movie (and the reason we are still talking about it) is the difference between the appearance of Holly and the reality. This can still move us.

    In other words, if Morimura is trying to play with our notions of innocence or beauty with his image, he is (IMO) a long way behind Hepburn herself, or at least the makers of the film.

    Onto you, Carole. To me, this comment about being seen is an admission of narcissism. I like to be seen. It's nice to be seen as interesting, but it's wonderful to be seen as beautiful. I think Morimura succeeds in this. Is he as beautiful as Marilyn or Audrey? Of course not. But is he more beautiful than quite a lot of men? Definitely.

    It's this narcissistic element to his work which most closely ties his work to autogynephilia; that and the fact that he dresses as a woman and takes pictures of himself!

    Warhol was indeed emptying his celebrity images, and it says much that we can still recognise the subjects of his images even when he has taken away all their subtlety and their detail, reducing them to (basically) icons.

    I remember reading the most recent and detailed biography of Neil Armstrong. In it, the author comments that Armstrong (still alive at the time) was an exceptionally private man, who refused to discuss his feelings of being on the Moon, or of being the first man to step on it. As a result, the author asserts, there is an empty space in our image of Armstrong into which we project ourselves. We assume that Armstrong feels the wonder and importance of being the first person on the Moon. We assume he would feel the same as us. (In fact, the book strongly suggests, he didn't).

    So perhaps Warhol is saying: you don't really know this person (e.g. Marilyn). Even when I take away everything except a garish outline, you still know it's Marilyn and you still associate her with femininity and sex appeal (even though the truth may not be that).

    Morimura may be saying: here is an image, with both detail and subtlety. It is recognisably Marilyn, but without her face, is it really her? Do we associate Morimura's image with femininity and sex appeal? (No). So, he might be saying, what is it that makes Marilyn, Marilyn? Is it just the face? No, otherwise we wouldn't recognise who Morimura is trying to be. But without the face, what else is gone from the image of Marilyn?

    Just my pennyworth.


    1. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This isn’t a pipe),” wrote the Belgian painter René Magritte under the banal, almost photographic, oil-painted depiction of a smoker’s pipe. He called the work La Trahison des Images (The Treason of Images). His disclaimer that it isn’t a pipe is correct, because it’s an oil painting and there’s no way the pipe can be pulled off the canvas and actually smoked. As perplexed viewers, we want to insist that what we see really is a pipe because we bring to the art work a construct or learned assumption: realistic paintings and photography present reality. Courtrooms around the world reinforce this assumption by relying on photographic evidence. But such constructs and assumptions skew our openness to seeing.
      Morimura presents us with the photographic evidence of an Einstein who isn’t Einstein, a Che Guevara who is an imposter, an ersatz Chairman Mao and a fake Mishima giving his pre-suicide speech. We are familiar with his choice of well-known images, but surprised by the substitution of his face for that of the original.
      I’ve deliberately picked examples of male imagery. I don’t think there’s any narcissism involved in these. I can fully understand an autogynephilic desire to slip into the filmy dress of the young woman being coiffed in the appropriation from Goya’s Los Caprichos etchings. The mirror would then become a tool to marvel at one’s transformation and power of attraction. If this was Morimura’s aim, there’d be no male photos and nothing as convoluted as female Marlene Dietrich in the male drag of tail coat and top hat. Nor would Morimura have pasted his face on to the fruits in a Cézanne still-life.
      Your analogy with Neil Armstrong seems much closer to the mark. Just as people bring constructs and assumptions from their own lives and graft these on to Armstrong’s silence about how he felt when walking on the moon, so we do a similar graft on well known imagery from art and photography.
      By putting his own face in the frame, Morimura denies us the possibility of inserting ours and all our other baggage as well. He becomes an annoying interloper who cuts off our former ways of identifying with famous imagery. We can get angry that we’ve been denied, as your quotation from Ayelet Zohar predicted, or smile at the irony.
      What are we left with? Nothing. Tabula rasa. We can now go back to the original image and look at it with fresh eyes, free of assumptions. We look harder, as you and Barbara both did so perceptively with the Los Caprichos etching. The image then becomes free to speak for itself rather than mirror the constructs we bring to it. As Morimura himself asserts, his art really is about seeing, not beauty, and it works.
      Thank you for this discussion. It has forced me to drop a few constructs and think harder! Morimura works for me too.

    2. The Magritte pipe image is one of my favourites; I am not really sure why it pleases me so much. It isn't much to look at, and the message is at first confusing and then seems glib. However, I really like both the image and the statement.

      Don't even get me started on courtrooms and their reliance on eyewitness testimony, when memory is so evanescent and so open to involuntary manipulation. In addition, it seems lawyers and scientists seem to have a fundamentally different appreciation of what constitutes "evidence".

      The Marlene Dietrich image is among the most perplexing. Dietrich's success in the image is her appropriation of male garb and posture. Yet here is Morimura, a man, dressed as a woman, dressed as a man. It's all very Shakespearean.

      But I can't help wondering if Magritte's pipe and Hirst's shark have more in common than they first seem to: both are depictions of a familiar object in an unfamiliar setting, with a title which invites the observer to consider more than just the image.

      But I don't like Hirst's shark all that much. I haven't seen it for real, of course (although the same is true of the Magritte). On the other hand, I have seen similar objects (animals and human body parts preserved in fluid); and I have indeed found myself thinking "I could end up like this some day". The prospect of death, and indeed ending up as an exhibit, isn't that far away, at least to me.

      But I guess that's art for you. One man's fish is another man's poisson, as Magritte almost certainly didn't point out.


  5. It's interesting that he does this work partly in order to "see the illusion of gender." Most people think that gender it something real, rather than something that is socially constructed. I like how his work challenges that. It's interesting how smoothly he fits into all of these feminine personas.