Yasumasa Morimura at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

"Art is basically entertainment," says Yasumasa Morimura, "Even Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were entertainers. In that way, I am an entertainer and want to make art that is fun."

There is plenty of fun in the 60 photographs, sculptures, videos and "print club" machines that make up Morimura’s "Self-Portrait as Art History," now on at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in the city’s Koto Ward.

Osaka-based Morimura, 47, burst onto the international art scene about 10 years ago with his "Art History" series, computer-aided reconstructions of great Western paintings that featured the artist’s big-nosed face replacing the faces of the works’ original subjects. The high-tech Japanese kitsch was embraced by a Western world passing through a period of growing interest in sushi, economic miracles, and things Japanese in general, and Morimura became somewhat of a superstar both at home and abroad. His more recent work has featured the artist made-up as Hollywood starlets, and has won the Osaka-based artist solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Yokohama Museum of Art, and ensured his inclusion in major group shows at scores of important galleries and museums around the world. The MoT exhibition is the most complete collection of the artist’s original "Art History" series ever presented.

While the masterpieces of Western art history have rewarded scrutiny with dynamic impastos or intricate brushwork, Morimura’s pictures offer none of this depth to viewers who walk up to and inspect the works more closely. Instead, using a palette tool and acrylic lacquer, Morimura has streaked a parody of brush-strokes across the surfaces of his tableaus. The treatment also reduces glare from the flat surfaces of the works.

At the well-attended opening, many of the guests who approach the works recoil quickly, as if from a ghost, for the hand of the artist is almost nowhere to be seen.

"I don’t do my painting on a canvas," explains Morimura, foppish in a pair of silver-sequined sneakers, orange scarf, and body-hugging long white sweater "I do my painting on my face." A crowd mills around a video that features Morimura demonstrating the application of his elaborate make-up.

Most of Morimura’s larger works, such as "Playing With Gods," are almost four meters tall, and make good use of MoT’s high ceilings, holding the walls well. Here is a show that works rather nicely when the one walks briskly through the center of the museum’s exhibition rooms.

It is easy to dismiss Morimura’s work as little more than a punch line delivered to the point of overkill. How can the viewer seriously consider a work such as "Portrait (Futago)" (1988-1990) as much more than a visual gag seeking a cheap laugh? Fortunately, the artist is intelligent enough to realize this, and as novelty begins to wear thin halfway through the show, the artist wows us with a couple of clever video loops that parody Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol’s work. Morimura is a great showman.

Marcel Duchamp shocked critics 35 years ago with his "L.H.O.O.Q.", a print of the Mona Lisa on which the insouciant Frenchman had penciled a wispy moustache and goatee. In a similar way, Morimura’s Mona Lisa series brings the viewer to a re-assessment of the sanctity of Western art and the concepts of artistic creation and originality. An estimation of the value of Morimura’s art may hinge on whether there has been a qualitative development from Duchamp and his contemporaries’ work - an issue Morimura seems content to skirt by declaring that his art serves only to "entertain." On this level, "Self-Portrait as Art History" succeeds.

Ultimately, whether Morimura will stand the test of time is something only time will tell. For the moment, it is little more than good fun.

notes: Until Jun 7, 1998, then on to Kyoto and Marugame.
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