It was a rare opportunity to witness the artist Yasumasa Morimura transforming himself into a work of art. At the opening of his show at Shugoarts on Nov. 11, 2006, titled "Season of Passion/A Requiem: Chapter I," Morimura showed up in a plain black sweatsuit, and talked in his typically gentle tone for 10 minutes about his new series to an attentive, overflow audience.
After his introductory remarks, he quickly put on a headband and white gloves and stripped down to a red loincloth. Then, he slipped into a military jacket and pants -- and a completely different persona. With angry eyes and lips closed tight, Morimura climbed up a little platform and started yelling. "Quiet! Listen to me!"
He thus recreated a scene from his new work -- in which he recreated a famous 1970 image of author Yukio Mishima addressing Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force officers, in a (failed) attempt to launch a coup. While based on Mishima’s speech, which argued that Japan had become spiritually empty and corrupt, in his speech Morimura attacked the art world today for "dancing to the tune of the mass media. . . drunk on global strategies and commercialism and selling itself out."
After the coup speech, Mishima committed public suicide. Morimura, for his part, shifted smoothly out of character and shyly thanked the audience before running into the gallery’s backroom.
Those familiar with Morimura’s photographs -- self-portraits in which the artist poses as masterpieces by van Gogh, Rembrandt, Manet and Frida Kahlo, as well as such Hollywood stars as Marilyn Monroe, Vivian Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor -- immediately saw that he was up to something different this time around. In "The Season of Passion," Morimura stands in for some of the best-known figures of recent history, as pictured in newspapers and magazines: Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby in 1963; a Viet Cong being executed in 1968; a teenage terrorist stabbing a Japanese socialist leader in 1960; and Mishima’s failed coup in 1970.
The following interview was conducted while the artist was preparing for his exhibition at Shugoarts in Tokyo, which remains on view through Dec. 16, 2006.
Kay Itoi: Why Mishima?
Yasumasu Morimura: I have always been interested in him. One thing that connected the two of us is the Self-Defense Forces. After I graduated from college, I got a job and was supposed to participate in training seminars organized with the SDF [a common practice at a traditional Japanese company]. I couldn’t stand the idea, so I quit the company after only three days. I wasn’t proud of it -- in fact, it nagged me for a long time.
Many years later [in 1995], I finally went to the SDF when I was making a work based on a scene from the movie Casablanca, for the "Actress" series. I showed up there as Ingrid Bergman, and the officers were so kind, so happy to help me. I could go there and leave there with dignity, as a woman. Yukio Mishima went to the SDF headquarters as a man, to launch a coup. When I was leaving, I thought, "Mishima couldn’t get out; he died there."
KI: He couldn’t leave because he was a man?
YM: As a side story to the main theme of the series, I made eight smaller pieces based on Mishima’s portraits in the 1960s. In them, Mishima was almost naked, and he was -- unusually for a Japanese man -- extremely hairy. It proved troublesome for me because I am not.
Mishima was a pale, thin kid. It must have been awkward; he must have wanted a well-muscled body to measure up to his hairiness. So he started body-building and boxing. He wanted to be a soldier. It’s my theory, and it’s kind of a joke, but if he hadn’t been so hairy, he could have nurtured his feminine side.
KI: You portrayed women in most of your previous pieces, but all the characters in the new series are men.
YM: Before we build a house in Japan, we have a Shinto ceremony called jichinsai to sanctify the ground and pay respect to what was there before. Without it, the land is cursed, and awful things may happen. I wanted to do something like this ceremony with my new series.
There are two kinds of beings in the world: ones like Amaterasu [the Sun Goddess in Japanese mythology, known for warmth and compassion] and others like Susanoo [God of Storm and Sea, known for violence]. Awful historic events in the 20th century were men’s doing -- I think, provoked by the Susanoo in them. For a long time, I produced works that embraced the values represented by Amaterasu, particularly with the "Actress" series. And I see that the [traditionally male-dominated] Japanese society has changed to accept and appreciate such values. While we accomplished that, we probably forgot about men, although masculine values led and created the 20th century.
KI: Japan is leaning to the right politically and becoming more macho, while feminine and compassionate values are increasingly appreciated. Aren’t men torn between the two values?
YM: I think young boys are torn, and that’s why we see more and more vicious crimes committed by them. Being a man isn’t easy. But everybody has two sides in him- or herself: Amaterasu and Susanoo.
KI: You once said that your idea of beauty is something that stirs up a commotion, which occurs when two different things meet.
YM: History is public memory, and my recollections are personal. When historic images provoke recollection, sometimes it causes a commotion in me. When I catch such a moment, it stimulates my enthusiasm for expression, my enthusiasm to produce something that is my idea of "beauty."
KI: Your speech at the opening of your show [which is reproduced in a video now in the exhibition] sounds like the direct opposite of what is advocated by Takashi Murakami, another internationally active Japanese artist: a global strategy for artists to be commercially successful.
YM: I don’t think he is just about commercialism. There is something nationalistic about him. I may be wrong, but to me, his idea seems descended from the tradition of the Meiji Era painters of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music [the country’s most prominent arts school, where Murakami studied traditional Japanese art and received a Ph.D.]. They felt responsible for Japanese culture and its promotion in the West. As an artist from Kansai [western Japan], I take the opposite position. We in Kansai have no interest in the nation’s culture. All we care about is how we can improve our art.
KI: This show is billed as "Chapter I." Are you planning "Chapter II" and more?
YM: I will probably make two more chapters. I’m thinking of going back a bit, to the end of World War II and the Occupation. I’m curious about Emperor Showa and General MacArthur.
KI: You mean that famous photo of the formally dressed Emperor Showa and the relaxed-looking General MacArthur standing side by side?
YM: I am curious about that image. The picture suggests so much, could mean so many things -- about U.S.-Japan relations, about Western art and Japanese culture, about men and women. I could include all the themes I have dealt with before. I’m thinking, I’m going to have to buy a corncob pipe.
A longer version of this interview appeared in the Japan Times.
KAY ITOI is author of In Search of Lost Masterpieces (Jiji Press, 2001).