For three decades, Yasumasa Morimura has remade icons of art history in his own image – from Vincent van Gogh to Frida Kahlo
“In the end, what is history? And what is historical truth? These are questions that do not have ready answers,” Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura asks in “egó sympósion”, the preface he pens in the catalogue for Ego Obscura, a 30-year retrospective of photographic work in which he transforms iconic works of art and pop culture into self-portraits.
Whether presenting himself as Marilyn Monroe in the famous Playboy centerfold, appearing as Frida Kahlo standing bare-breasted in her brace, or portraying Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego Rrose Sélavy, Morimura surgically deconstructs the concept of “the self” to explore the perils of binary thinking that accompany our assumptions of race, gender, sexuality, and identity, and the ways in which we ensconce them in the pantheon of cultural memory and art history.
“Various truths are concealed in many paintings,” Morimura continues. “On the other hand, a painting can be seen as a fake, something caked with falsehoods and misunderstandings. A painter’s testimony is at once a confession of a hidden truth and an attempt to overwrite their life with a false statement.”
In order to delve beneath the surface, Morimura goes in – quite literally, establishing a practice that requires him to become himself and his subject at the same exact time. The idea of creating a work of art that was simultaneously an art critique came about in 1985, when Morimura decided to cast himself in the most famous self-mutilation in art, a portrait of Vincent van Gogh after he severed his ear.
“At the time, I was in my mid-30s and contemplating how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I was at a standstill,” Morimura recounts in an interview with The Japan Society in New York, where the exhibition is being held. “My suffering at the moment was overlapped with Gogh’s anguish, and that’s why I chose Gogh’s most tragic expression, cutting his ear.”
This moment of crisis crystallised the trajectory Morimura had been on as a young artist growing up in Osaka, Japan, in the shadow of World War II. Born in Osaka in 1951, Morimura grew up in a traditional Japanese home. His family ran a tea shop, where he experienced the feeling of being part of a local community.
This experience of daily life stood in contrast to his art education, which had pointedly ignored the native practices that had flourished for centuries. He explains, “That was when all Japanese traditions were considered as a trigger of the war. Japanese society took in many western values from the US – art education was no exception. So I received little to no education on Japanese art history.”
Recognising the effect this exclusively western perspective had on his aesthetics and sensitivity, Morimura had reached the crossroads. The only way out was through – and so he entered the work of art himself.
“This is not a painted self-portrait, but a photographed self-portrait. This distinction is very important to me,” Morimura says. “By using my own, unique, original, and peculiar body, which is not something you can edit freely, as a motif for my work, I am finding my own ‘raw’ self-important.”
That raw self is Morimura’s true medium. As a master of his craft, he transforms himself to enter into a dialogue about identity, representation, and visibility in the canons of western art.
“The experience of this process is very strange,” Morimura reveals. “For example, one of the works shown in this exhibition is a self-portrait of Dürer. Before reinterpreting a self-portrait, I look at the original work, and at the moment I am ‘facing’ him. To put it simply, I feel Dürer in myself and myself in Dürer.”
Morimura’s philosophy is rooted in mutuality and the inherent connection that exists in the vast chasms, plunging valleys, and resplendent peaks that inform the human condition no matter when and where we live. By finding the space where two become one, Morimura transcends the ego’s demand for hierarchy in favour of the profound and ineffable connection of souls.
Whether merging with Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio or Jan Van Eyck, Morimura is drawn exclusively to subjects he can celebrate. “There are many reasons for me why I like them, but one of the important reasons is the people I like have some antiqueness. They have affections for the past,” he says.
“When I think of Andy Warhol, I feel nostalgia from him. While Warhol invokes feelings of nostalgia and the past, he also steps into a new world at the same time similar to Manet and Velazquez. Almost all of the artists that inspire my works share the same mentality.”
Ego Obscura is on view at The Japan Society, New York, now through January 13, 2019