The self-portraits by the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, Requiem for the XX Century: Twilight of the Turbulent Gods, examines an array of historical figures and political events that have been significant in shaping the 20th century. Employing his usual methodology, Morimura uses costumes, make-up and props to create unconventional and bold renderings of iconic images from history.
While Morimura’s work has traditionally investigated femininity through iconic depictions of women from art history and popular culture, this body of work examines widely disseminated images of prominent masculine figures from the last century. Each protagonist or event is cast in a moment of apogee, when history is being made and visually captured. Substituting himself for ideologues, dictators or brilliant minds such as Einstein, Lenin, Che, Mao or Trotsky, Morimura reflects on his personal encounter of these images during his lifetime as well notions of masculinity embedded in politics and war. By re-contextualizing portraits and events into present day, Morimura offers a fresh look at these prominent men who, moved by wisdom, hate, ideology or idealism have carved a space in our collective psyche.
A Requiem: Red Dream
In the first work of the series, a video, A Requiem: Mishima, 2007, Morimura reenacts Yukio Mishima’s nationalistic speech from 1970 which was given to a group of young soldiers with the intention to inspire a coup d’etat. The writer follows his speech by performing a traditional Sepuku suicide. Morimura’s speech is inspired by the original but is addressed instead to young Japanese artists. He implores them to “rise up” and “listen” as they are in danger of becoming “eternal slaves of foreign culture” and “spiritually bankrupt”. Born in post WWII Japan, Morimura struggled with the dominant influence of the West in Japanese culture, a theme explored throughout his oeuvre. In A Requiem: Laugh at the Dictator, Morimura depicts Charlie Chaplin’s comical portrayal of Hitler in the film from the 1940s ‘The Great Dictator’. By employing a caricaturization, Morimura denies any glorification of Hitler, revealing a subjective presentation of history. His ability to satirize and simultaneously create an homage enables his work to defy categorization.
A Requiem: Red Dream
The word ‘requiem’ is explained by Morimura as “the relationship between us and our past”. His subversive reinterpretation of both history and art history considers iconic events and figures through a blurred historical, cultural and geographical lens, offering a kind of reconciliation in the rift between the East and the West. Recounting a recent past full of leftist idealism and fascism, Requiem for the XX Century: Twilight of the Turbulent Gods compels the viewer to reexamine the inheritance of a collective history in the context of today’s uncertain political climate.
Self-Portrait: After Marilyn Monroe
Widely known as the artist who transforms himself into the Mona Lisa and movie actresses, Yasumasa Morimura has won international acclaim for his unique and avant-garde expression of ‘beauty’. Since 1985, his focus has been his ‘self-portrait series’, consisting of unique reconstructions of art masterpieces in which the subject’s face is substituted with that of Morimura himself. Through careful study and analysis of the themes, artists, and historical background of these works, Morimura searches out their raison d’etre and transforms them according to his own interpretations. His ability to deconstruct, subvert and simultaneously create an homage is what enables his work to continually defy categorization.
‘Handshaped Earring’ from the series ‘An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo’
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.”