For Yasumasa Morimura’s first full-length video, Ego Symposion, the Japanese conceptual photographer has magically assembled an all-star cast of artists from across art history who are known – as is Morimura – for their self-portraits. Seated Last Supper-style at a long table with Morimura, we see Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, Diego Velázquez, Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Rembrandt van Rijn, Marcel Duchamp, and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Each of these artists is skillfully impersonated by Morimura in full costume and makeup and digitally plucked from his gallery of self-portraits from the last three decades, in which he seamlessly inserts his face and body into well-known Western masterpieces.
Ego Symposion, made in 2016, moves Morimura’s staged photography into the cinematic realm. He enacts vignettes in the guise of each artist while narrating their interior lives and motivations in voice-over. In imagining each of the artists’ impulses to make self-portraiture, Morimura reveals the critical and playful ways he has always approached the theme of self in his own photographs.
The video has its U.S. premiere in the exhibition Yasumasa Morimura: Ego Obscura, which opens at the Japan Society on October 12. The first institutional solo show in New York of work by the 67-year-old, Osaka-based artist, it includes some 50 photographs spanning the last three decades as well as costumes and ceramic props. Additionally, Nippon Cha-cha-cha (2018), a video developed from a live performance at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France earlier this year, is being screened throughout the exhibition and reenacted live by Morimura at the Japan Society on October 13. In it, Morimura explores sexuality and identity by transforming himself into Marilyn Monroe, the paragon of feminine allure, and Mishima Yukio, the gay Japanese author who founded a right-wing militia – both iconic postwar figures who committed suicide.
“Morimura tries to combine everything from his older practice into one statement, maybe as the last stage of his career,” says Yukie Kamiya, director of the Japan Society who organized the show, of these recent video works. Scripting narrative backstories to the artworks and historical figures he appropriates has always been an aspect of Morimura’s process, according to Kamiya, though that hasn’t been foregrounded in the works themselves – until now. Kamiya is installing all the still photographs as a kind of portrait gallery that viewers encounter before entering the screening room. “Then you can hear how he interprets the portraits,” she says. “He’s rewriting art history from his point of view.”
Morimura’s 2016 self-portrait as Leonardo, based on a drawing from one of Leonardo’s sketchbooks, portrays the artist in old age with a flowing white beard and looking not dissimilar to Renaissance depictions of God. But the self-portrait is just a sly joke, as we discover in Ego Symposion. Assuming the role of Leonardo in the video, Morimura plays the bearded old master as a stylish cross-dresser in a long gown with high heels, feather boa, and rhinestone-studded white gloves. When a homeless man with similar luxurious hair wanders into Leonardo’s home, the artist gets the idea to play a trick. “I am going to make your face the most famous face in the world,” he announces to his body double. Morimura’s conceit is that the visage recognized as the wisest man in human history is a deception, calling into question the veracity of all the accepted images of the white male genius from Plato to Darwin to Freud.
Ego Symposion suggests that Morimura’s penchant for dressing up and adopting other identities is something artists have always done. In his vignette on Rembrandt, whose self-portraits Morimura has recreated since 1994, Morimura’s Rembrandt is a self-described commoner who likes to paint himself in the guise of the aristocrat he longed to be. In the video, Rembrandt also understands that his self-portraits are desirable products for the nouveau riche because they are obviously made by the hand of the master. Of course this story is being delivered by a fake Rembrandt in makeup, a tongue-in-cheek questioning of the legitimacy of such representations.
Assuming the identity of Frida Kahlo, Morimura’s voice-over tells us how she loves to wear disguises and switch genders in her self-portraits. The video dramatizes Morimura’s premise that all identity is a kind of performance as well as a construction. It also shows his poetic engagement with these artists and the supreme act of projection and empathy required by him to become their doppelgangers – as well as glimpses of how he transforms himself with hair and makeup.
Often compared to Cindy Sherman, to whom he’s paid homage by posing as one of her staged film stills, Morimura has been widely recognized in the contemporary art world since making his debut on the international stage in 1988 at the Venice Biennale Aperto. But he had a slow start. Unlike other acclaimed Japanese artists who moved abroad, including Yoko Ono, On Kawara, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, Morimura never left Osaka. He studied graphic design, turned to teaching, and used his imagination to write children’s books, though they weren’t successful.
It wasn’t until 1985, when he was in his mid-30s, that Morimura experimented with assuming the identity of van Gogh and made his first self-portrait conflating East and West. Kamiya points out that the art history taught in Japan at the time was primarily European and that van Gogh was presented as the king of the masters. “Morimura started an awareness and interest in how the Japanese can confront Western art,” she says. “He shuffled all the conventional ideas of what is a portrait.”
The show includes Morimura’s watershed 1988 self-portrait recreating Manet’s Olympia, which plays with gender, race, and nationality. In a blond wig but clearly an Asian male, Morimura takes the position of the naked reclining prostitute staring defiantly at the viewer. It’s a nuanced response to the complex forces that shaped his own life growing up in postwar Japan, where the culture was strongly under the influence of the West, especially the United States. Yet in 1988, Japan was a powerful country economically and asserting itself again in a global context.
Morimura returned to Olympia in a 2018 self-portrait, and the two Olympias bookend the exhibition. He has shifted the styling of his latest Olympia, with hair and headdress evocative of Madame Butterfly, the character in the famous Puccini opera promoting the exoticism of the East. In Madame Butterfly, “the woman is just waiting for the western boyfriend who left,” says Kamiya. “It represents Japan, waiting every time for America.” She also interprets Morimura’s latest, more submissive Olympia as a response to Japan’s loss of supremacy in the Asian economy now that China and Korea have emerged as forces.
Inhabiting each of his photographs, Morimura inverts the gaze, challenging the viewer to look harder and weigh the distance between the original and his re-creation. This can inspire wonder, amusement, and reconsideration of all kinds of art-historical and cultural assumptions. But fundamentally every work is a self-examination. “He has been asking this simple question: Who am I?” says Kamiya. “He is aware of how people create their own identity, depending on the position of time and society. Even if he’s talking about Western art or postwar Japanese politics, it’s all about him.”
—Hilarie M. Sheets is a Brooklyn-based art writer who contributes regularly to the New York Times and The Art Newspaper among other publications.