Yasumasa Morimura

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“I keep taking photographic self-portraits because of my fascination with being seen.” Daughter of Art History. Photographs by Yasumasa Morimura, Aperture, 2003, pp226

The words ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ are debatable within an art context; for generations art historians and critics have argued the meaning within the visual art vernacular, whilst art practitioners have tirelessly communicated their opinion through their work. 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, comodification, and the sometimes obsessive relationship found between the East and West.

In the series Daughter of Art History Yasumasa Morimura inserts himself into the work of the great Masters of art leaving the viewer with an unsettling yet dramatically beautiful effect. By transforming and inserting himself into the artworks of Goya, Rembrant, Kahlo and others, his work could be interpreted as an homage to the artists that he most greatly respects, however, on deeper analysis, it can also be viewed as a cultural statement on many (still) taboo categories of debate – masculinity, femininity, essentialism and the appropriation of historical works.

Morimura’s artistic process is pain stakingly detailed; not all of the works are digital manipulations. He spends a lot of time re-creating an environment (sometimes to perfect scale) and focuses a great deal in sourcing costumes, makeup and props. Digital manipulation is then used to fine-tune the image and further experiment with the photograph. Morimura tends to include kitsch or popular culture icons in some of the works; this reference to popular culture from both the East and West signifies the transition of technological advances in art practices as well as exploring the value, or de-valuing, of art history.

Morimura’s work represents many different aspects of contemporary visual art being produced today. Whether it be a sense of cultural disconnection, experimentation with process, his tireless pursuit for (in)perfection, the list goes on. All of these signifiers interconnect with the pursuit of identifying the self, which Morimura does so in a strikingly beautiful, disturbing and almost comical manner.

Morimura’s career has spanned over twenty years and has included many international solo showings. He is represented by various established art institutions and has been published in numerous art publications.


Barco Negro on a table

A story of M’s selfportraits

Vermeer Study




Morimura Yasumasa − The Actress and the Photographer
By Ayelet Zohar

Morimura Yasumasa is the most famous artist among the group shown in PostGender. In the 1980s, Morimura made his name in a series of self-portraits based on personal interpretations of images from Western art history. Later, this was followed by another series of cultural icons of cinema and Hollywood stars. The series was born out of a set of images produced for PanJa magazine inaugural issue in August 1994. The first image published by Morimura in this magazine was Red Marilyn (1994)*1.

This was a sort of an homage to the first issue of the American Playboy in Dec. 1953, where Hugh Hefner had Marilyn Monroe photographed in the very same pose. This strongly self-conscious attempt to challenge a well-known image resulted in a series of 12 images that were published every month as the centre double- spread image of the magazine. This series has shown the strength of Morimura in pastiche, parody and a well-organized mechanism for self-reflectivity and scrutinizing gender models in Japan. The provocative series was received with mixed attitudes by PanJa readers, but nevertheless paved the road for Morimura into the Yokohama Museum that year, when the full series was shown with some 50 images included. The main issue in the early series, and before Morimura created his ‘Japanese’ images (i.e.Takarazuka), was around the question of mimicry. The model first suggested by Morimura was a model of dislocating and dispositioning sexuality and gender, as well as cultural and national norms. Morimura is a Japanese male, dressed as a Western woman. These series created the inevitable link between the concepts and norms of gender and cultural prejudices. Throughout this series, there is a strong indication of the inseparably of these aspects.

The second layer that occupies Morimura’s work is the questioning of norms of beauty and modes of presentation of beauty −a sort of revisioning and questioning of the discourse, which I have presented earlier in this article, regarding the make up of femininity and forms of beauty designed to please the desire within the male Gaze. Morimura’s works function as a series of questions about the possibility of creating and reconstructing feminine beauty.

The third layer − and possibly the strongest one − is the challenge Morimura is posing to the concepts of Originality, Origin, Uniqueness and Subjectivity, successfully undermining the imaginary precession of the term ‘Original’ even today in our culture.

The next dimension which proceeds out of Morimura’s works relates to the question of gender passing. A first viewing of Morimura’s work normally creates an uncomfortable sense of embarrassment and laughter. Some of the works seem very grotesque, while others are embarrassing in their precision. The various methods Morimura selects to create femininity, and to expose the mechanisms, accessories and processes that enable the creation of a perfect femininity, become a very serious question on the essence of femininity as a cultural text. The free movement Morimura takes between Leonardo and Sharaku’s, or between Marilyn Monroe and Oscar of Rose of Versailles, puts an even stronger emphasis on the concept of femininity as masquerade.

Multiplication becomes here a principle of exposure − exposure of the myth of the making of femininity. One after one all the cultural icons, past and present, Japanese and Western, become part of the large-scale manipulation. Each and every icon of this series all knew or know the basic codes of the game and the unwritten rules of masquerade. Morimura becomes a subversive agent who penetrates this territory of ‘perfect feminine beauty’, deconstructs it through the exposure of the means of making it, and questions the norms of beauty in different cultures.

Recently, Morimura added another layer to his already multi-faceted work around the reconstruction of gender and cultural images. This series is dedicated to the female-only Takarazuka theatre. The most fascinating images in this series are those of himself, presented as a masqueraded man, who is actually a woman masqueraded as a man or as a woman who is a man masqueraded as a woman who is actually a disguised woman. Such chains of masquerades become a powerful system of abolishing the stability of the signifiers, especially those attached to ‘beauty’, ‘gender’ and cultural icons.

The reverse and intensive processes presented in Morimura’s iconography are the first step in understanding performance as the most powerful element in gender construction. Morimura’s work is based on the idea of creating embarrassment and uneasiness in the eye of the beholder. The many means of presentation of the body and of gender are going through various changes and discrepancies − from the exposed male body − as in the image of Olympia (Futago 1988) through the use of exposed accessories which are attached to the body − such as the pair of plastic breasts so obviously worn on the male body in Red Marilyn (1996), and even the creation of a perfect female body − as in the representations of Madonna in the Psychoborg series (1994-1996), where Morimura manages to present the absence of the female body in his image [Psychoborg 14 (1994)], or the perfection of the sexual body as in Sylvia Kristel.

Morimura achieves a complete destabilization of gender syntax − in Black Marylin (1996) where the ultimate beauty idol, Marilyn, is having a plastic penis attached to her (male) body as an extra- phallic accessory, this obviously becomes a question on the concept of One. (Here is a One (penis) but, obviously, there is another one (hidden just under the plastic one). So there we go − do we count the plastic visible one? Or maybe the real and hidden one? So, is it two, or just a One?…*2 This kind of presentation creates a real moment of insecurity. Any kind of reference to a known signifier or truth is turned over. Another aspect of Morimura’s work is touching on pornography, as in the images of Sylvia Kristel, which is one of the critical moments of Morimura’s work − where Morimura wishes to go beyond the discourse of gender representation and turn the body (not just the image that appears in dress and masquerade) into theatre − when the pierced female body can be produced in a post-human world, where the surgeon’s knife and digital media give complete control of will over the body. In Black Marilyn, where Morimura appears as a double image − female and male together, this act becomes a strong gender criticism, which stages double and ambivalent options, not just attempts at univocal gender location and idyllic one-sided sexuality.

I believe many viewers experience deep resentment towards this man who manages to undermine their concepts of gender, beauty and cultural context. This is a virtuous ability on Morimura’s part to play so powerfully with the consciousness and feelings of his viewers. In each and every project, Morimura is staging a new aspect of his grand project. In each work, and in the totality of his projects, Morimura is neither a man, nor a woman, but simultaneously an Onnagata and an Otokoyaku. He does not let his viewer rest for a second, or to go away cheerful and happy. There is much discomfort, embarrassment, awkward laughter and uncomfortable movement when viewing these images. There is a subversive atmosphere that wishes to link the cultural devices, the relationship with the West and the discussion around gender into a continuum encircling the viewer, avoiding any possible escape to the safety of the known and familiar. Our concepts and axioms on gender, sexuality and culture are re-evaluated, calling for a specific reconsideration that must change and redefine itself at every picture or situation separately.

Morimura is, in my view, the opposition to the Onnagata concept: if the Onnagata, through the concept of Onnarashisa, is the cultural means to stabilize a meta-text of ideal femininity in the Japanese context, then Morimura is the absolute escape from that. The Onnagata is turned into an intriguing figure despite the fact that the Onnarashisa is the greatest enemy of women, as a social and class group with clear interests in Japanese society. For Morimura, the use of Western icons, the parody and pastiche − to the extreme ends of mimicry and imitation − and the sleek nature of his chameleon identity turns into a moment of criticism on the imaginary text of sturdier femininity, as this was stabilized by Ayame, for example. The use Morimura makes of Western heroines and the exquisite versatility of his images becomes a critical act on the economy of feminine fantasy as it is presented in the Japanese cultural context.

*1 Chino Kaori, ‘A Man pretending to be a Woman: On Yasumasa Morimura’s Actresses’, in Morimura Yasumasa: The Sickness Unto Beauty, Self-portrait as actress (exhibition catalogue), Yokohama Museum of Art, 1996, p. 157. Reiko Tomii, the translator of this article, points out that the name PanJa is actually an anagram of Japan.

*2 This sort of attitude is present also in some lesbian work, such as the photographs of Del Lagrace Volcano − or Della Grace, where it is about specifically lesbian readings of the Phallus. Thanks to Penny Florence for her enlightening comments at this point.