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Yasumasa Morimura at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

A survey of 20th century art will identify few individuals with as remarkable a story as that of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

The Mexican painter's life is one of those stranger-than-fiction phenomena: Already crippled by polio, a teenaged Kahlo was impaled on a steel handrail in a horrific trolley accident that shattered her spine. During a long rehabilitation she taught herself to paint, and went on to produce critically-acclaimed self-portraits depicting the agonizing pain that was her lifelong companion. She was courted by Breton and the Surrealists, whose company she spurned. Bold, beautiful and bisexual, Kahlo married, divorced, and remarried muralist Diego Rivera, and had love affairs with the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Isamu Noguchi, and Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated while staying with Kahlo in Mexico City. It is reported that at her cremation the incinerator doors exploded open, sending Kahlo's blazing body flying into the air, her lips twisted in a mocking grin, her long hair describing a fiery orange halo.

A long-time cult hero, Kahlo is the subject of a Hollywood biopic due for release this winter (Kahlo collector Madonna had coveted the lead, but in the end Salma Hayek beat out Jennifer Lopez to win the role). And so the world is finally "discovering" the extraordinary artist. Here in Japan, the first out of the gate in the Kahlomania race is artist Yasumasa Morimura, whose exhibition "An Inner Dialogue With Frida Kahlo" is now in at the Hara Museum of Art in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward.

For about 15 years now, Yasumasa Morimura's shtick has been taking well-known Western paintings and superimposing his own face over the face of the original subject. The resulting photographic works have brought Morimura his own sort of cult following -- he is one of a handful of wildly popular contemporary artists in Japan, and enjoys a dedicated and youngish fan base that actually collects his works. The Hara show is Morimura's first in Tokyo since the successful "Self Portrait as Art History" exhibition at MoT in 1998, and marks the first time he has issued a body of work derived from the creations of a single artist. The show features 15 self-portraits as Kahlo, two large flower-rimmed tondos, 11 mirror works, six small pieces, and a video installation.

Morimura, who has only seen one of Kahlo's original paintings and has never visited Mexico, seems well aware that this show may seem to some both superficial and opportunistic. In one of the "imaginary dialogues" included in the exhibition catalogue, Morimura explains to an incredulous Kahlo, "I never look at the real thing. I thought it over, but decided to keep to my usual practice. That is, to take in only a very limited amount of information and to use only that information to create works dedicated to you, Doņa Frida. It is not my intention to reproduce Doņa Frida's life and work per se. This is not a look-alike contest. It's all a concoction of my imagination. In that fantastic sphere, the various elements of Doņa Frida and myself mix into a muddle, a chemical reaction occurs, creating this imaginary Frida of mine."

In many of the technically perfect pictures, all of which are based on Kahlo canvases, Morimura has replaced not only the face but also other compositional elements, substituting for example the fresh flowers in Kahlo's hair with hana kanzashi (Japanese flower hairpins). However, the power of the works continues to be informed primarily by Kahlo's vision and not Morimura's treatment, and that is a problem.

The jarring juxtaposition of an Asian face onto the subject of a Western masterpiece like the Mona Lisa was what made Morimura's earlier work interesting. But because Kahlo was so startlingly unique in her own right, the pictures in this show come off more as caricatures.

Better is the video installation: Two distinct and purposely-unsynchronized sources generate images of Morimura and of Morimura playing Kahlo -- one character seated on either side of a single wooden bench -- engaged in a disconnected and surreal dialogue. It is evident here that Morimura admires and respects Kahlo, and the piece is quite touching.

While "An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo" has its moments, what the exhibition ultimately illustrates is the folly of building a tribute on what is essentially a gimmick.


Notes: Yasumasa Morimura's "An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo" runs to September 30 2001 at the Hara Museum, 4-7-25 Kita Shinagawa, Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo (3445-0651).
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