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Yasumasa Morimura > Mock Masterpiece: Text > Siobhan O’Brien (first published in POL Oxygen magazine)…Art and deception go hand in hand. For centuries, the artist’s brush has distorted the truth, with artists’s Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp leading the pack. Warhol’s Marylin Monroe was more akin to an acid-casualty, while Duchamp’s Mona Lisa featured masculine facial hair. Then, along came impersonator Cindy Sherman, who hit the international art scene toward the end of the twentieth century. She appeared in her own work and posed as a variety of real and imagined characters. Now, Yasumasa Morimura, one of Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, has raised the bar.

Like Sherman, Morimura inserts himself into his art. But, he adds a new twist. Not only does he use a complex blend of sculpture, painting, digital manipulation and photography – he is an Eastern man who has selected (mostly) Western women as his subjects.

In Morimura’s world, divas from art and film (such as Manet’s Olympia, Rembrandt’s wife and mistress, Frida Kahlo, Brigitte Bardot and Vivian Leigh) appear with his own aging, yet strangely captivating, oriental face. Morimura’s cross-dressing antics, toy with gender, sexuality, theatrics and art history. It is high camp that challenges orthodox views of eastern and western art. But even more extraordinarily, his presence in these ironic self-portraits does not look out of place. Rather, he looks smugly right at home.

The Osaka based Morimura, who defines himself as a cross between an actor and an artist, claims it is an exploration of internal and external femininity which fuels his quest. As he explains: “I find the femininity of culture through my own inner femininity and vice-versa – the feminine aspects of culture awakens my inner femininity. For example, we have a major theatre group call Takarazuka Theatre in Japan, where all the performers are women. It is a cultural phenomenon that shakes my inner world and brings me closer to understanding the female aspects of culture.”

But, the impression that Morimura is Japan’s answer to French gay icons Pierre et Paul is false. His mock-masterpieces have more substance than simply gender bending. As he points out in Daughter of Art History, (a tome published by the Hong-Kong based Aperture), his quest is also about exploring the ambiguous aspects of life. “These grey areas are not just within the sexual sphere. They are to be found in the gaps between all sorts of different fixed domains – adult and child, present and past, Western and non-Western,” he says.

Though Morimura enjoyed drawing as a child, his real art education didn’t start until his mid-teens when he joined a high school art club. Today, as a well seasoned graduate from Kyoto City University of Art, he expresses consternation at a lopsided curriculum; with a heavy Western bent and little attention given to Japanese art history. “It is the same for most Japanese teenagers. Japanese art history was like an afterthought at the end of term. So, despite being Japanese, it is little wonder that I’ve focused on Western art history as a theme in my work,” he explains. As a result of this education, his inspiration comes from unique sources that he has unearthed on a personal quest. “I derive most of my interest from Buddhist sculpture from India and south east Asian countries. I am also interested in Japanese modern painting after the Meiji era before world war two,” he explains. Other inspiration comes from “travelling metaphysically into an imaginative world. I believe that an imaginative world is intimately related to artistic representation. I love to trip into an imaginative world that is why I am an artist. In fact, I am not very good at anything in real life.” But, this ‘not being good at anything in real life’ hasn’t stopped Morimura from becoming an art world mega-star.

Morimura hit the world stage in the early eighties with a series called Art History. It featured computer-aided reconstructions of famous Western paintings of portraits by Rembrandt, Rosetti, Velazquez, Van Gogh, Goya et al with Morimura’s trademark – his face. He even produced a series of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which depicts the Italian beauty with a foetus visible in her impregnated belly.

According to Morimura, “I impersonated myself in a series of Mona Lisa, I performed both as a pregnant Mona Lisa and the unborn baby. This work was created with a desire to return to the foetus and to feel the work itself was like my child.”

More recently, Morimura has sought inspiration from Hollywood. His Actress series consists of famous starlets in Japanese settings. M’s Self-portrait (otherwise known as Marilyn Monroe at Tokyo University, Komaba campus) shows a statuesque Morimura donning the icons’ legendary billowing white halter-neck, complete with gargantuan strap-on breasts; as a hall chock full of ambivalent students look on. Other images feature Vivien Leigh from Gone With The Wind under Kyoto cherry blossoms and Brigitte Bardot as a leather-clad biker on the streets of Osaka. As Morimura points out, “This clash of Western and Eastern elements helps to shed light on my own mental reality.” Morimura admits his choice (and exploration) of subjects help him develop (and explore) aspects of his own inner psyche. Of Frida Kahlo he claims, “I first encountered a Frida Kahlo book in 1990. I did not know anything about her before. Her paintings stimulated me and I knew intuitively that I wanted to study her work for my subject. I am very different from her, I am quieter and more introverted. I chose her work to develop something of Frida within myself.”

So how does Morimura produce his work? Painstaking pre-production plays a central role. His portrait of Van Gogh, for example, began with the artist modelling the hat, pipe and clothes out of clay. Next he painted them, a three dimensional backdrop, and dabbed his face with stage makeup. “Then I put on the clay clothes and hat, put the pipe in my mouth and got my assistant to click the shutter,” he explains. Similarly, for an image based on Manet’s Olympia, (where a disconcertingly flat-chested “heroine” lies languidly on a ruffled divan) Morimura applied makeup to his entire naked body. This portrait also features Olympia’s servant; a role also played by Morimura. To achieve this, the image had to be shot as two separate photographs that were later combined. And again for Brothers (Slaughter II), inspired by Goya’s The Executions of the Third of May, 1808, Morimura acts as multiple characters. Here, he plays the entire firing squad and each of the executed characters. “I made up and costumed myself as each different person and photographed each separate pose,” he says. His portrait of Daughter of Art History (inspired by Infanta Margarita by Diego Velazquez) is much more involved. It took the artist two months to complete a three-dimensional stage set which combined the backdrop and body of the princess, leaving an opening at the neck, through which he stuck his head. Next, the set was photographed with a single shot. “It was a picture that was un-retouched,” he announces proudly.

With all this posing, one would assume Morimura was an extrovert hell-bent on being in the public eye. In fact, the reverse is true. As he explains: “I had a negative reaction to being seen for a long time. That is why I hated to be photographed when I was a child. But a human being cannot avoid being seen as long as we live. I finally chose on a conscious level to be seen and not to hide. This became my self-portrait work.” Now, images bearing his face can be found around the globe in the collections of the Yokohama Museum of Art; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth; The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The International Center of Photography, New York; and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While his solo exhibitions have appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jouy-en-Josas, France; the Hara Art Museum, Hara, Japan, and the Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan, among others.

But, like most artists, there remains a paradox. Though Morimura’s art can be evidenced in far-flung parts of the world, he is a person who prefers not to travel. In fact, he is a 52-year-old only child, who still lives at home with his parents. And he has lived in Osaka for his entire life. As he points out: “I envy a person who loves to travel. I hardly ever travel physically, however I always travel into an imaginative world. I suppose I prefer to settle myself into a situation as far from provocation as possible.” And as well as not travelling, he does not rely on mentors for inspiration. “No, I look for a world coming from inside of myself, not influence from outside. But, I am happy to listen to suggestions and appreciate advice from intimate people around myself.” So do his parents offer any creative advice? “No, they didn’t have much to do with the art world until I came along. My parents always wonder why they had a child like me.”

Well, I am glad – like most of us are – that they did.