With the onslaught of selfies throwing the world into a state of frenzy, it would be interesting to refresh the memory to revisit the act of photographing when it was a genre formally referred to as self-portrait art. The exhibition My self-portraits as a labyrinth theater at the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art provides an overview of Yasumasa Morimura’s 35-year career. Japan’s leading contemporary photographer has created self-portraits of himself as the protagonist, chosen from masterpieces, famous historical figures and film actresses. Personal and world history intersect in Morimura’s work as he portrays himself as the personification of a multitude of individual identities. The concerns of gender and race as monolithic subjects without change are questioned to open the possibility of their subversions.
In an interview with STIR, Morimura describes his experience of photographing self-portraits in the guise of others: “Whenever I stand in front of a classic portrait painting (even if it’s a print in a painting book) to me you always have the feeling that the painting is a mirror. This feeling is particularly evident when the painting is a self-portrait of the artist. For example, when I look at the self-portraits of Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn and Frida Kahlo, I begin to feel that the figure depicted is a self-portrait of myself, the person looking at the picture. I come to feel that I, the person standing in front of “Painting as Mirror,” am the same character reflected in “Painting as Mirror” (ie, the character portrayed in the picture). At the same time, I also experience the feeling of gradually becoming the person in the “image as a mirror”, as if I were staring at my own reflection. I physically feel “I am Dürer (in the picture/mirror)” and “I am Dürer (in the picture/mirror)” at the same moment. It’s as if we are not separate entities, but mirror images of each other. This intimate relationship is extremely stimulating.”
As the exhibition looks back on the photographer’s long career, it is a mammoth task to present the works in a way that emphasizes the skill, variety and depth of the work. “I started with the plan to exhibit about 800 instant photos, but the idea gradually expanded. I first considered how I could exhibit these photos, all 800 of which are my own self-portraits. In order to show the diversity and complexity that I carry within me as an individual, I wanted to create a labyrinth of corridors in the exhibition space in which these photographs are displayed,” explains Morimura.
To articulate these thoughts in a physical space, the exhibition is divided into four segments: Ms photo corridor (about 800 instant photos taken over 30 years, displayed in a labyrinthine room); Theater of Voices (a sound installation based on Morimura’s own short story); Place of dreams and memories (a room presenting new video works in which about 30 human characters appear) and Hidden costume closet (an installation of around 30 costumes and shoes actually worn in Morimura’s photographs). Through the corridors, theatres, squares, hiding places, Morimura explains, “the inner world of the ‘I’ of an individual is thus made similar to an imaginary ‘city’ and the audience is invited to wander through its spaces. Such an exhibition plan came to my mind.”
Digitization has inevitably made self-portrait photography much easier. In the absence of a viewfinder or LCD monitor, the exercise of checking facial expressions and body position in real time was impractical. Despite these inconveniences, Morimura created a sizeable collection of instant photographs. He says: “In general, photographic expression is viewed as a world of multiple art forms, but instant photography encompasses a world where unrepeatable moments are frozen and captured on a single sheet of photographic paper. The result remains as an irreplaceable reminder of this world. Such a fascinating and precious world of expression has emerged from these instant photos and I wanted to show a huge collection of such ‘precious moments’ this time.”
The range of expressions presented in the immersive exhibition, from the 800 instant photographs to video works featuring around 30 people and the voices of several different characters, defines Morimura’s self-portrait. As Morimura deconstructs his individualistic personality to affirm that a single body can embody multiple selves, he hopes audiences will experience a similar variety and complexity. “If I can convey such unique human qualities to visitors, then I have largely achieved the purpose of this exhibition,” he concludes.
The exhibition Morimura Yasumasa: My Self-Portraits as a Theater of Labyrinths runs until June 5, 2022 at the KYOCERA Museum of Art in Kyoto City.