One of the oldest institutions devoted to contemporary art in Japan, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, opened its 2020 exhibition season with works of renowned Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura.
TEXT: Julia Tarasyuk
IMAGES: Courtesy of Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
Morimura’s return to the museum for its last year of operation in the historical Hara family house follows his close relationship with the institution over the years. Morimura’s previous exhibitions at the Hara Museum included his celebrated Rembrandt’s Room (1994), and Morimura Self-Portraits: An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (2001). Another work, Rondo, is a unique permanent installation that Morimura made using one of the building’s toilets in 1994. Rondo, Morimura’s self-portrait as a child, is one of the museum’s signature installations.
The current exhibition, “Ego Obscura,” is a continuation of the artist’s successful show with the same name presented at the Japan Society in New York in 2018–19. It is also a commentary on an important year in the history of contemporary Japan; the year of the Olympic games which will be held in Tokyo this year. Included in the exhibition are two of Morimura’s famous works replicating Manet’s Olympia (1998 and 2018) and a new photograph on which the artist inserted himself in another Manet masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Nonetheless, central to the Tokyo show is a new video work titled Ego Obscura (2020). A lucky few are able to experience the video together with Morimura’s live performance at the museum. In the video, as well as the photographs in the exhibition, the artist appears as Emperor Hirohito, General Douglas MacArthur, Marilyn Monroe and Yukio Mishima—iconic figures deeply meaningful for the collective history and memory of the Japanese people who were forced to learn the Western way of life after the country’s pre-war philosophy was defeated.
Born in Osaka in 1951, Morimura was one of Japan’s countrymen sharing complex feelings for their motherland and wondering about the notion of ‘self’ for him, for his country and for the others. For more than three decades, Morimura has deeply researched and penetrated the history of Western art through his elaborate self-portraiture, pushing the genre into the new realms of gender-confronting theatricality. His oeuvre offers a significant contribution to the post-war art history of Japan, not least because of it being rooted in the search of identity, both artistic and personal, in the wake of the national void that people found themselves in after World War II.
Morimura once said: “I keep taking photographic self-portraits because of my fascination with being seen.” Here his interest centres on observing the dramatic differences between Western and Eastern cultures and social norms. Morimura’s artistic practice is painstakingly precise and aims for perfection in every way. Transforming himself into protagonists of the legendary paintings from the Western history of art like those of Goya, Rembrandt, Manet, Van Gogh and others, the artist photographs himself in the exact same environments making props and decorations by hand. Morimura’s choice of artworks is simple—he has to simply love or connect with a subject matter. Noticeably he is attracted to a certain pain these works evoke, as well as strong cultural statements on many complex discussions they offer; gender roles, race, authorship and appropriation.
Morimura’s reinvention of iconic female characters, real or art historical, makes a strong comment subverting the idea of a male gaze. The genre explored in Morimura’s practice is one largely dominated by female artists including the likes of Cindy Sherman and Eleaonor Antin. Endorsed by Marcel Duchamp’s alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, Morimura, along with fellow artists Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso and Nigerian-American photographer Ike Ude are among a group of male artists playing with identity and focusing on this one challenging subject: themselves. Their images and performances question the authority of identity and overturn the traditional ideas of self-portraiture.
As a child Morimura loved drawing. He would usually take a photo of a recognizable artwork and spend time copying it. Morimura cherishes these memories and considers childhood an important period for becoming an artist. He got to connect with art through the process of physical copying and made copying the essence of his artistic practice in the quest of finding the ‘self.’ Morimura’s photographs and video works offer a representation of the multiple ‘self’ hidden inside every person. Through his body of work he uncovers those many ‘selves’ in his own persona and hopes to facilitate the process of self-discovery for every one of his viewers.
“No matter how deeply I searched within myself, I could never find anything resembling a center, much less any kind of truth. From the time I was a child, the only thing I knew for sure was that there was a vast emptiness there. If anything, things like truth, values and ideas, existed outside my body, and like clothes, I was free to change them whenever I liked. This concept made a lot more sense to me than anything else.”
– Yasumasa Morimura, excerpt from artist statement, Ego Obscura
Yasumasa Morimura: Ego Obscura, Tokyo 2020
January 25 (Saturday) – June 7 (Sunday), 2020
* The museum will be closed for maintenance on April 13 (Monday) and April 14 (Tuesday).
* The Cafe d’Art will be temporarily closed from April 13 (Monday) to April 24 (Friday).
About the artist
Born in 1951 in Osaka where he currently resides, Morimura made his debut in 1985 with self-portraits based on his personal interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh and has continued to produce self-portraits on the theme of the of the andart like those of Goya, Rembrandt, the Yokohama Triennale in 2014, and in 2018, opened the Morimura @ Museum in Kitakagaya, Osaka. His solo exhibitions in Japan and abroad include The Self-Portraits of YASUMASA MORIMURA: My Art, My Story, My Art History, National Museum of Art, Osaka, 2016; Yasumasa Morimura. The history of the self-portrait, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, 2017 and Yasumasa Morimura: Ego Obscura, Japan Society, New York, 2018. He is the author of many books, the most recent being Jigazo no Yukue (the whereabouts of the self-portrait), Kobunsha Co., Ltd., 2019. He was awarded the Order of Purple Ribbon in 2011.
Julia Tarasyuk is an art consultant and art writer with over a decade of experience collaborating with museums, galleries and independent art projects in Russia, UK, France and Japan. In 2015 she started an online magazine Museeum.com and runs the platform as its editor-in-chief. Julia is currently based in Tokyo, where she organizes tailor-made art tours for various institutions, arts councils and private collectors and actively supports the exchange between the Japanese and international art scene. Julia is an author of “Art Tokyo” book published in Russia in 2018.