One of Japan’s pre-eminent contemporary artists, Yasumasa Morimura is known for his gender-bending self- portraits reinterpreting canonical works of Western art history. His works combine aspects of painting, sculpture, set design, performance and photography, and often use humor to subvert revered icons.

Titled “A Requiem: Art on Top of the Battlefield,” Morimura’s current exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (till May 9) surveys the 20th century by re-enacting famous photographs of the men who defined that era’s history, from dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong to artists including Joseph Beuys, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Several videos further expand the scope of the project, as in “Seasons of Passion/A Requiem: MISHIMA” (2006), in which Morimura re-enacts the speech that novelist Yukio Mishima gave on November 25, 1970, to Japan Self-Defense Forces servicemen shortly before committing ritual suicide after an aborted coup d’etat attempt. Morimura’s version of the speech replaces patriotic vitriol with a harangue of the contemporary art community.

Including new works, the exhibition is the culmination of a four-year project that has been exhibited separately at venues worldwide, but is now presented in its entirety for the first time. The Japan Times met with Morimura to discuss his career and the inspiration for his works.

You are known for self-portraits reinterpreting canonical works of Western art history. In your current show, however, you address the idea of history itself. What led to the shift from art history to history?

In 1991, I had my first solo show in New York, featuring the series “Daughter of Art History,” but I also included another one-off work — actually on view here — re-enacting Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a street execution during the Tet Offensive. At that time the United States was engaged in the First Gulf War and I was responding to a deep sense of crisis.

I always thought to pursue that work further, but, in fact, reflecting on contemporary events was already part of “Daughter of Art History.” For example, I felt that (Pieter) Brueghel’s “The Parable of the Blind” (1568), with its line of blind people leading each other into a ditch, is a good metaphor for Japan’s Bubble Economy. So in my version, there is a rich developer, followed by a girl with all kinds of shopping bags, a soldier and even an artist.

The shift now is not so much from art history to history, as it is from working with painting to working with photography as a source material. If you’re dealing with historical subjects from the 19th century and earlier, then the embodiment of the age is in painting. The “Mona Lisa” is not just an artwork, it can help you understand the Italian Renaissance, or a Rembrandt can help you understand the Holland of that time.

When I began considering the 20th century, there were plenty of fabulous paintings to work with, but the medium that I felt most effectively manifests the age is photography.

Is it possible to interpret a political stance from your works?

That is not my intent. Political art can be a vehicle for expressing your own identity, thoughts and political position, but it is ultimately about using art to convey a message.

But if you want to convey a message, it doesn’t have to be through art. Maybe you could be a politician, or an activist, or even a terrorist. I try to engage viewers in a dialogue. I think good works create an impetus for reflection.

Another way of looking at it is to compare the Japanese words bureru and yureru. Bureru (literally, to blur) means that your opinions are always undefined, easily corrupted by what other people say. But there is a slight difference with the word yureru (to shake or waver). I know it sounds very Zen, but wavering between two points can actually be a way of defining your opinions.

For my current project, I’m dealing with controversial revolutionary figures like Lenin. Maybe people will ask me which side I’m on, and I don’t really have a good answer except to say that I’m on both sides. I think if you were to line up Leftist and Rightist ideologues back to back, there would be many overlapping points. The radical desire to change the world may manifest itself differently, but the spirit is profoundly similar.

It’s not as simple as picking sides. For example, I made many works dealing with Western art history, so someone could say, “oh, you must like Western art history.” Of course I do, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a love-hate aspect to it. Maybe there are times when you have to pick sides, but even as you’re going through that process, you’re wavering between the two extremes, and that feels more real to me. I believe art is what is able to express that reality.

In other words, a politician cannot afford to waver. Nor can a CEO, who always has to be ready with a decision. That’s fine if those are the demands of the job, but if art is reduced to those terms then it loses its essence. Making art is about being able to address what other professions predicated on daily “A” or “B” choices cannot. Rather than choosing between “A” or “B,” art is about recognizing that something can be not only “A” but also “B.”

How about your new video, “Gift of Sea: Raising a flag on the battlefield” (2010). Is it partly a retrospective of your own career?

There’s a retrospective element to it, maybe a spiritual retrospective. It features footage of the house where I grew up, or it revisits certain things that I’d done, like my performance as Marilyn Monroe at Tokyo University of the Arts in 1995. I’ve exhibited photographs of the performance before, but never the video documentation.

And it occupies the last room of the exhibition layout. Visitors progress through all the other works to reach it. But maybe more than a retrospective, it represents the things that I really want to say. Not that my other works don’t achieve that, but I think “Gift of Sea” in particular reflects the fact that I am now in a position where I can say the things I want to say and tell the stories I want to tell.

So is it a “legacy” work?

Well, no. When you think about Paul Gauguin’s last major work, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1897-98), I’d say from the last part of the title that he’s looking into the future. I like the fact that it’s posing a question. But how would I answer that question? The idea that past, present and future follow each other linearly — actually, what I feel happens is you progress and then loop back to your past.

I’ve finally come to understand that these things loop back together. It doesn’t mean I’m going to repeat myself — there’s a new world waiting to begin. The more I make works, the more I question where it’s going, and the more I realize I’m heading back to where I started. It’s an interesting experience.

For more information, visit www.syabi.com

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