First Yasumasa Morimura inserted his face onto masterpieces by van Gogh, Manet and Rembrandt in his "Self-Portrait as Art History" series. Then he expanded his body-snatching to such Hollywood sirens as Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman. In his latest exploration, he reinterprets works by Frida Kahlo, who has become enough of a cultural icon that she is being portrayed by Salma Hayek in forthcoming Hollywood movie.
Morimura's "Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo" is currently on view at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, July 20-Sept. 30, 2001. His series of "Frida/Self-Portraits" will be shown at Luhring Augustine in New York (Sept. 8-Oct. 6, 2001) and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris (Sept. 8-Oct. 2, 2001) as well.
Morimura recently talked with Kay Itoi at Hara in Tokyo.
Kay Itoi: Why Frida Kahlo?
Yasumasa Morimura: I have wanted to do this since when I was producing the "Self-Portrait as Art History" series. I happened upon a book of her work. Her self-portraits embody all the aspects of life -- anybody's life -- such as love, agony, physical pain, sickness and joy, in a very fierce way. Some (paintings) show her in pain, in others she looks glamorous. They are full of contrasting images, of light and shadow.
KI: You once created a self-portrait based on a self-portrait of Cindy Sherman, with whom you are often compared. You called her your little sister. Do you see Frida Kahlo in a similar way?
YM: I find (Frida Kahlo) lovely and sweet despite the anguished expressions on her face in some of the paintings. I feel I cannot leave her alone. This might be similar to my feelings for Cindy Sherman. Only, Cindy and I are not necessarily comfortable making self-portraits. People think we enjoy the exposure, but we don't.
In Frida Kahlo's case, she was in desperate need to show her face in her work. She was afraid to be forgotten and had to express herself in her pictures as she couldn't easily move around.
KI: You don't enjoy exposure? But you even do live performances.
YM: And I hate it.
KI: You don't look like you hate it.
YM: I hate it, therefore I do it.
KI: How does a 50-year-old man living in Osaka (which is not known for high art) transform himself into Frida Kahlo?
YM: You might think there is a long distance between a 50-year-old man living in Osaka and a person impersonating Frida Kahlo. But I don't associate myself with what people might usually think of a 50-year-old man living in Osaka. Every day I look at Frida Kahlo's pictures, trying to see how to work with them. I try to figure out what to wear, then look for the outfits and jewelry. I dress myself up, create the background and take pictures. The whole process is my transformation and it's more real to me than the fact that I'm an Osaka-based 50-year-old man.
KI: Will you continue making self-portraits as an old man?
YM: That would be so much fun. That's what I'm most looking forward to. In sports or theater, a ball player or a ballet dancer, for example, peaks and gets old, then they start teaching, managing a team or directing a show. Most people have the so-called second life, but I'd rather not. As I get older, my sense of beauty will continue to change.
KI: The audience find your work beautiful and fun, but at the same time, the sexual ambiguity sometimes creates confusion and unease. Do you consider, in somewhere in your mind, yourself a woman? Or do you wish you were a woman? Or are you gay? Or are you just trying to confuse your audience?
YM: In the exhibition catalogue, I wrote: "Beauty is zawameki, or "commotion." "Commotion" occurs when two different things meet. It's like the beach. When the water -- the waves -- hits the shore, you see a commotion of waves on the beach and I find that beautiful. Or it's like cold water. When the cold water meets the fire, it generates a little noise and steam. That's commotion -- and beauty.
[My idea of] beauty is something that stirs up a commotion. It provokes a variety of thoughts, as you mentioned. It naturally makes people uneasy or nervous because they don't get an explanation using words they are familiar with.
For example, I never use the term joso, or cross-dressing. If I call [what I do] cross-dressing, what I do becomes what people consider as so-called cross-dressing in this society. In Japanese we have a phrase to describe something weird and hard to pin down, as "the thing one can't determine if it belongs to the ocean or to the mountain." That's me.
KI: You've said that you can analyze the world economy based on how your work sells. So how is it?
YM: After Tokyo, I will show my work in Paris and New York, and that will be my research. I'll know then what's going on in the three economic zones: Euro, U.S. dollar and Yen. I already know that I cannot expect anything from Japan. The Japanese [art market] has been bad for quite some time with no sign of improvement.
KAY ITOI is a critic and reporter based in Japan. A shorter version of this interview ran in Newsweek International.