Fill up on Morimura’s unusual ‘side dishes’

by Matthew Larking

Some artists are accorded such historical importance that virtually everything they do or have done comes under close scrutiny. Other artists are effectively known for a single thing, such as the nominal Italian Surrealist, Giorgio de Chirico, who is primarily known for his so-called “metaphysical paintings,” created between 1909-1919.

When an artist achieves such a signature style, something that is his or hers alone, it crystallizes as that artist’s definitive work and tends to overshadow any other interests he or she might have had.

Such other interests, however, can present a rather different portrait of the artist — and this is the premise of “Depicted People: Women and Men — The Power of ‘Others’: Microcosm of Morimura Yasumasa” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.

As a photographer, Morimura’s “other interests” are mostly synchronous with that for which he has become internationally acclaimed. They are not formative works that went before the development of his signature images, nor do they follow the creative atrophy of a career in decline. Instead, they indicate an artistic temperament far more varied than that of his reputation as a photographer who re-creates other artists’ famous iconic images by dressing up and posing as the subjects.

Morimura began establishing his present art-world status with a series from 1985 where he posed as Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt, using Western art history’s traditions of portraiture as a repertory into which he could literally insert himself. From the mid-’90s he shifted to aping pop stars and actresses, and then from 2006 he presented himself in the guise of politically engaged male personalities who he felt defined the 20th century.

Western traditions have been the prominent source of Morimura’s borrowing, though more recently he has presented himself as the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima and the actress Iwashita Shima. The particular interest of the present show is the deeper role Japanese culture has had for the artist.

Who would have thought, for example, that Morimura is a relatively accomplished calligrapher? “On-Shin-Chi-Ko” (1995) is essentially a conventional hanging scroll, though the artist has revised the old adage “On-ko-chi-shin” (“To know new things, learn by studying the old”) to arrive at something akin to “Ask of the new to learn old knowledge.” However, because the work appears as a two-dimensional conceptual piece, it has been registered in the museum’s collection, incongruously, as a “Western Painting.”

His interest in the tea ceremony is perhaps less surprising. Morimura was born into a green-tea merchant’s family and he has a certain reverence for the cultural literati of the Edo Period (1603-1868), such as the tea-connoisseur Baisao (an “old tea seller” who led the steeped tea movement in contrast to the Japanese tradition of powdered tea), the eccentric painter Ito Jakuchu, and scholar Kimura Kenkado.

His take on the tea ceremony, however, shows customary idiosyncratic revelry in the face of tradition. “HANA Tea Bowl” (1993) is a ceramic work inside of which is a relief cast from Morimura’s nose. Because of the vertical orientation of the nose, the customary turning of the tea bowl in the hand during a tea ceremony is rendered somewhat inappropriate. And, as tea is consumed, the tip of the nose peeks out. He considers the bowl a self-portrait and describes the nose to be “like an island in the sea.”

Dozens of other works show Morimura’s wide-ranging interests. These include a minor penchant for sepia photographs, one of which, “Still Life (Sepia)” (1985), was originally created to be a New Year’s Greeting card.

Morimura’s interest in the French-born artist Marcel Duchamp is widely apparent in “Doublenage A,” his interpretation of Duchamp’s “Fresh Widow,” from his series of works that pay homage to the conceptual provocateur. Duchamp’s title suggests a newly single, erotically charged woman and is a pun on “french window.” It consists of a window frame with the glass blackened with leather and is a play on the visual intersection of pyramidal perspective, a 15th-century Italian concept in which a painting was seen as window to be looked through.

In Duchamp’s work, there is nothing to be seen through those windows, reflecting his concern that art should be put in the service of the mind and not that of the eyes. Morimura, however, re-presents that non-representation by reproducing it and photographing it in large-scale format.

Duchamp himself also dressed in drag as his alter-ego Rrose Selavy, a pun on “Eros, c’est la vie” (“Eros, that is life”), an influence on Morimura that led him to become, effectively, Duchamp’s modern-day surrogate.

There is, of course, plenty of Morimura’s signature portraiture also to be seen at the show. The marginalia, or as Morimura puts it, “the side dishes,” however, assume a significance here they have not heretofore been granted.

“Depicted People: Women and Men — The Power of ‘Others’: Microcosm of Morimura Yasumasa” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs till March 13; admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit: www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp