Yasumasa Morimura Gender Reassignment

The Andy Warhol Museum is proud to present ‘Theater of the Self’ a survey exhibition of work by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. By quite literally assuming a place in these works, Morimura reimagines historical narratives and, in the process, conflates issues of originality and reproduction, gender, and race to create what he calls a “beautiful commotion.”

The exhibition will focus on three important bodies of work: ‘Requiem’ in which Morimura recreates iconic photographs relating to 20th Century political and cultural life; the ‘Actresses’ series in which he assumes the personae of Hollywood luminaries such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor; and his celebrated ‘Art History’ photographs in which he painstakingly restages canonical European paintings.

Morimura’s fascination with the self-portrait, celebrity, and the nature of identity align him closely with the work of Andy Warhol. In fact, the artist has described himself as Warhol’s “conceptual son” and, like Warhol, his practice presents a view of the self as something constructed through our relationship to the images that we create and celebrate.

October 6, 2013 - January 12, 2014, The Andy Warhol Museum
Click here for visit information.

Fig. 1: Morimura Yasumasa, ‘To My Little Sister, for Cindy Sherman’ from Portrait of the Artist as Art History series, 1998, 120 x 66.7 cm. © Morimura Yasumasa 1998; Courtesy ShugoArts Gallery, Tokyo.

In recent decades, contemporary artists have used photographic portraits not for their “truth value” as representations of individuality or subjectivity, but as a means to address questions of fictionality and performativity (see: “The Elusive Portrait: Conceptual and Theoretical Notes”, the introductory text in this issue, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon). Along these lines, contemporary Japanese photographers have produced particularly interesting work using strategies of mimicry, masquerade, camouflage, disguise, multiplicity, juxtaposition and repetition. In this text I discuss the work of four contemporary Japanese artists, each of whom transforms “the portrait”, each signifying different kinds of transformation and commentary. Morimura Yasumasa (b. 1951, Osaka) dramatically changes the status of the photographic icon, shifting it from “evidence” to evasiveness; Sawada Tomoko (b. 1977, Kobe) diligently inquires into the social mechanisms and photographic procedures of portrait making, hence deconstructing the established modes of the medium; Kitano Ken (b. 1968, Tokyo) works through the ideas of layering and memory, putting up multi-layered portraits of people who may enjoy similar features in terms of dress and stylization, professional or even national attributes, thus arriving at the erasure of individual identity and the reliance on external signifiers; and finally, Takagi Cozue (b. 1985, Nagano) signifies 21st c. photography by the leap she takes in declining the use of photography as an indexical medium. Using digital manipulations to create new portraits which are hidden from the viewer’s eye, portraits that lie beyond photography, she manipulates her medium to create images that never existed before. Takagi could be seen as working in the territory of what was known as “spirit photography” in the 19th c., in the sense that she is making images of faces that are not visible in the material world, created by manipulating photographic image processing

The artist most renowned for directly confronting issues of mimicry and masquerade in the Japanese context is Morimura Yasumasa, one of Japan’s most prominent photographers. Morimura has been working since the late 1970s, and is frequently referred to as “the Japanese Cindy Sherman” (Fig. 1).[1] However, his practice carries the methods of Sherman's photography in a different direction. Morimura’s work questions prejudices, norms, and the positioning of personal identity in today's complex societies, specifically in the context of trans-cultural relationships, global politics, with a specific focus on the position of Japan in relation to Western cultures.

Morimura gained great fame as a female impersonator, accompanied by immense success in the Western world. He made his debut with such memorable images as Mona Lisa in three phases (after Leonardo) and his black-and-white portraits of Marilyn Monroe; these belong to the long series Sickness unto Beauty: Actress in which he restaged famous scenes and portraits taken from iconic Hollywood images. However, in the past five years Morimura embarked on a new task: masculine masquerades, specifically dedicated to restaging political portraits and historical photographs that have entered cultural memory.

In addition to his early encounter with Van Gogh’s portrait (“Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear”), Morimura has portrayed other male figures - such as Andy Warhol or Elvis Presley - in the past. He also worked with figures that eminently represent the blurring of gender identity in a post-gendered performance, for example his image Doublonage – in which he portrays Rrose Selavy, the feminine alter-ego of Marcel Duchamp, or the image of Oscar François de Jarjayes in the famous Takarazuka play Rose of Versailles.

The subject has no relation to him[/her]self that is not forced to defer itself by passing through the other in the form [...] of the eternal return.[2] (This quote needs to be identified and explicitly connected to your text.)

However, while originally Morimura’s work mainly targeted questions of gender roles and gender passing, implicitly considering cross-cultural performance and the possible relationships between Japanese and Western cultures, his current work is specifically marked by a jump into the stormy water of national and global politics.

Fig. 2: Morimura Yasumasa, ‘A Requiem: Red Dream/MAO’, from Requiem for the XX Centiry: Twilight of the Turbulent Gods, 2007. C print mounted on alpolic, 59X47 ¼ in./ 150x120 cm. © Morimura Yasumasa, 2007; Courtesy ShugoArts Gallery, Tokyo.Fig. 3: Official image of Chairman Mao Zedong, © China Photography Association, 1960s.
Fig. 4: Morimura Yasumasa, ‘A Requiem: Infinite Dream / CHE’, from Requiem for the XX Centiry: Twilight of the Turbulent Gods, 2007. Gelatin silver print mounted on apolic, 47 1/4x37 ¾ in./ 120x96 cm. © Morimura Yasumasa 2007; Courtesy ShugoArts Gallery, Tokyo.Fig. 5: Alberto ‘Korda’ Diaz Gutiérrez, ‘El Guerrillero Heroico’ (Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara), Mar. 5th, 1960.

Since politics is an arena dominated by male figures, it turns out that the majority of Morimura’s current images are of men, but the initial purpose of his series was to go beyond gender discourse to work with power relations, historical events, political struggle and war. Morimura’s recent work, most notably his ‘Requiem to the XX c.’ and ‘Requiem to Whatever’ series of 2007 and 2010 respectively, mark this shift.

The political power of portraits is well known: some leaders have used their portraits to cultivate an ethos of power worship; other images have become emblems of aspiration and hope, after the death of their subjects (Fig. 4-5). State power uses the images of political leaders as the visual embodiment of its rule, and portraits of royalty and political leaders are distributed among the public for display and manipulation as a political tool. Politics is about drama and game, visibility and impression, no less than any other performing art, and Morimura, indeed, sees it through this lens. The first project that directly addressed the political arena was his reconstruction of Mishima Yukio’s speech (Fig.6-7). In this work, Morimura restaged Mishima’s ceremonial suicide, which originally took place on the speaker’s balcony at Japan’s Ministry of Defence building in Ichigaya. Morimura repeated Mishima’s text, this time on the Osaka City Museum balcony, talking to an empty city park and occasional passers-by. Mishima, well-known for his juxtapositions of beauty and death, was a good embarking point for Morimura on this journey into the intersection of politics and drama, art and performativity. By restaging this speech to an absent audience, Morimura was able to externalize the theatrical quality of the event, and make it stand out as a performance of power and beauty, completely empty of the meaning or significance normally attached to political actions. David Green and Joanne Lowry have already pointed out the constant engagement of Western photography theorists with issues of indexicality as the ‘truth’ of photography. However, in their view, indexicality lies in the act of performance in front of the camera, the actual activity of preparing the frame, then placing the camera in front of the scene/ portrait to be photographed. Staging the image is the performative moment of photography, and hence, indexicality should be compared to performativity as a crucial element in the process of its becoming, as formation of the image.[3] In a corresponding manner, Morimura states that his photos are ‘documented performance’, shifting the attention from the end result, the photograph, to the procedure that made it “become” – the preparation of costumes, locations, accessories and the action in front of the camera.

Fig. 6: Morimura Yasumasa, ‘Seasons of Passion/ A Requiem: Mishima 2006’. Still from HDTV, 7 minutes 47 seconds. © Morimura Yasumasa 2006; Courtesy ShugoArts Gallery, Tokyo.Fig. 7 Mishima Yukio on the Ichigaya Self-Defense Forces Headquarters balcony, Nov. 25th, 1970.

The following group of images are taken from Morimura’s video A Requiem: Laugh at the Dictator (2007) (Fig. 8-9). My argument is that Morimura’s shift from the worlds of art history and cinema into the political arena is not such a great leap. His new images, which refer to the staging of power at the top level of politics, invoke Shakespeare’s well-known words, “All the world’s a stage”.

In this video, Morimura’s reference point is not the numerous propaganda films made by Hitler’s propaganda machine, but rather, Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator. Thus Morimura was able to both extract the theatrical quality of the political game, and simultaneously keep the bitter laugh and haunting spirit of Chaplin’s film, indicating how this work is actually “realer than real”, a simulacrum that positions political reality within Judith Butler’s notion of “a copy of a copy”. The fact that Morimura’s similitude refers to a copy (Chaplin’s work) does not reduce the ‘authenticity’ of his images, but rather, it is a performance that redirects the viewer’s attention to the power and presence of political drama, the staging of conflicts and ideology. Through the act of copying Chaplin who, in turn, mimics Hitler, a chain of signifiers is constructed, indicating the collapse of the hunt for truth or reality. Deleuze and Guattari write:

Thus Varnant can say that marriage is to the woman what war is to the man. The result is a homology between the virgin that refuses marriage and the warrior who disguises himself as a woman... [4]

In relation to this quote, Morimura is a warrior: a warrior fighting against discrimination based on cultural difference, against prejudice, racism and the political game. His actions are governed by the same logic as a disguised commando fighter behind the enemy lines. Morimura’s mission was primarily directed at catching the attention and arousing the curiosity of Western audiences and, subsequently, transplanting his subversive message against the abuse of political power.

Fig. 8: Morimura Yasumasa, ‘Laugh at the Dictator/ A Requiem’, 2007. Still from HDTV (color/monochrome), stereo, 10min. 27sec. © Morimura Yasumasa; Courtesy ShugoArts Gallery, Tokyo.Fig. 9: Charlie Chaplin, still from The Great Dictator, 1940.

Since Morimura utilizes gender crossings simultaneous with cultural “passing”, while questioning the relationship between Western politics and contemporary Japanese culture, Morimura's practice can be seen as an act of double-deconstruction. This double positioning invokes the concept of mimicry as assimilation. The historical background to this includes the U.S. forcing Japan to open its borders to Western accessibility in 1854, the modernization and Westernization of Japan during the Meiji Restoration that followed, the early 20th c. militarization of Japan and the Allied Forces occupation of 1945. All these put the relationship between Japan and Western cultures into a rather complex colonial framework. If we examine Morimura’s indulgence with images of Western international politics in terms of colonial and global power relations, then Morimura's images relate to the concept of mimicry emerging from a desire to dissolve into the scene depicted. They can be seen as playing along the thin boundaries among parody, pastiche, performativity and mimicry.[5] What Homi K. Bhabha describes as "almost the same, but not quite", embodies itself in Morimura's work as a desire to assimilate and to subvert the political game and its icons.

Another style of a portrait photographer is Sawada Tomoko (b. 1977, Kobe) who creates series made from multiple images of herself. A photographer without a camera, Sawada’s work is founded on the idea of manipulating existing photographic procedures and cultural mechanisms which are dependent on photography – such as the photo-booth, the commercial photographer's studio, annual school pictures, etc. If Morimura’s practice is aimed at undermining the portrait icon as a possible “knowable” object, then Sawada’s practice is intended to destabilize the viewer’s presumed familiarity with photographic procedures and experiences. Sawada is successful in doing so by using her own image and working with it through the different modes of photographic production in contemporary society. This method enables her work to question the nature of portrait photography as a medium and its agency in contemporary life.

Fig. 10: Sawada Tomoko, ‘School Days (H)’, 2004. Digital C print, 19x24 cm. © Sawada Tomoko, 2004; Courtesy, MEM Inc., Tokyo.

Sawada avoids the singular, unique portrait, replacing it with a multiplicity of shots, deconstructing the sense of knowledge and recognition. If Morimura is the master of deconstruction of the iconic image, then Sawada is the queen of subverting photographic procedures, mechanisms and languages, by manipulating her own image.

Sawada's School Days series, for example, challenges the idea of modernization in contemporary Japan, which assumed that the repetition of Western models of education could secure Japan's future in competition with the West. In her earlier series ID400 (1998) and OMIAI♥ (2001) Sawada scrutinized the self-portrait to the point of self-negation. These were not series of portraits as self-documentation or self-expression. Quite the contrary: hers are “serial manufactures”, examining the cruel aspect of documentation through self-archiving and self-sorting. In School Days, Sawada serializes her own image - all the girls sitting or standing behind, as well as the teachers and assistants, are Sawada herself. Michiko Kasahara wrote about this series that Sawada's work describes the forces of the Japanese education system which "make children conform to standard ways of behaving, rather than respecting their individuality"[6]. In my view, Kasahara assumes here the modernist expectation for separate individual presence. Given that Sawada specifically depicts girls' schools and the feminine aspect therefore receives an extra dimension, I think that the works suggest self-shattering[7] in a schizophrenic manner, arriving at the point where one does not know any more who, how or what is the individual enigma. The School Days series shakes up fantasies of identity, memory, subjectivity and individuality. The photographic process turns here into a method for producing seemingly infinite numbers of shattered identities. Sawada’s schizoanalytic[8] format goes beyond the discourse of gender into the more substantial dilemmas of identity found in late capitalist societies.

By using the existing paradigm of the school picture, Sawada mocks and parodies the educational system as a manufacturing method for little corporate-like employees rather than thinking individuals or happy persons. The fact that Sawada can ‘fake’ any stereotypical image, and is able stage any expectation of what women should look like, indicates that these images are the product of a highly sophisticated artist, who does not disclose her motives, but chooses to present multiplicity as truth, reproduction as identity, shattering as self, masquerade as womanliness.

The first series that brought Sawada recognition was her 1998 ID400 project, in which she prepared one hundred different quadrupled photo-booth images of herself. She literally undermined the idea of the passport photo or “photo ID”, showing the extreme diversity, difference and multiplicity she could construct by manipulating her facial expression, hair, added accessories etc. Using a combination of machine-made photos, and self-manipulated-images, Sawada was able to move a whole discourse on identity and self a step forward. Her self-fashioning was becoming her central tool, as she proceeded to select different formats and visual conventions and investigate their relationship to power and authority.

Fig. 11: Sawada Tomoko, ‘ID 400 (#201-#300)’. Black and white photos on wooden board (detail). 124.5 x 99.5 cm. (full image contains 100 portraits). © Sawada Tomoko, 1998; Courtesy, MEM Inc., Tokyo.
Fig. 12: Sawada Tomoko, ‘OMIAI♥’ (detail). Digital C print, 50x40 cm. each image (medium version). © Sawada Tomoko, 2001; Courtesy, MEM Inc., Tokyo.

In OMIAI♥ (2001) (Fig. 12), Sawada’s images were taken by a commercial studio that specializes in the preparation of “arranged marriage” (omiai) photo-books for young women, a common procedure in Japan in which the prospective husband’s family examines the images of potential brides for their son. Here, a different level of engagement with the images comes into play: Sawada’s projects manipulate the mechanisms of female image production in Japan at all levels, from the education system that promotes the idea of professional housewives[9] to the commercial studios that direct, make up, pose and photograph young women to perform the images of ideal wives, as they are conceived of by the more conservative institutions of Japanese society .[10]

Fig. 13: Sawada Tomoko, ‘Bride (F)’. Digital C print, 50X50 cm. © Sawada Tomoko, 2008; Courtesy, MEM Inc., Tokyo.
Fig. 14: Sawada Tomoko, ‘Bride (A)’ Digital C Print, 50x50 cm. © Sawada Tomoko, 2008; Courtesy MEM Inc., Tokyo.

In Bride (2008)(Fig. 13-14) Sawada appears in all sixteen doubles, displaying herself as a bride dressed in traditional Japanese and Western style wedding dresses. In these images, she subtly reshapes her own likeness within the confines of traditional Japanese and Western bridal norms, appearing uncannily similar-yet-different in each image. The bridal images reveal how women are expected to comply two sets of rules, donning the traditional kimono as well as the Western style wedding gown and veil. Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni has previously observed how the production of bridal images is part of a broader cultural attempt to produce and perform Japanese identity. [11] In her ethnography of commercial Japanese wedding parlors, Goldstein-Gidoni identified a marketable interest in the practice of reconstructing images of the “traditional” Shinto Japanese wedding ceremony. Quoting Linnekin, she argues that “tradition is consciously used by people in the construction of their cultural identity” [12].

Sawada approaches her projects as a critique of the systems, customs and norms by which femininity is regulated in Japanese society, while parodying the photographic mechanisms (photo-booths, bridal studios, school pictures etc.) utilized to objectify women. For Sawada, the lineage created between the school girls of School Days, the match-making process reflected in OMIAI♥, and the wedding images of Bride offers a collective portrait of the rigid rules governing female appearance within Japanese society. She recruits the photographic mechanisms that are used to create this discourse of submission, then subverts them to expose the manipulative use of photographic language to gain power over women’s lives.

Kitano Ken (b. 1968, Tokyo), set out to make composite portraits of the Japanese, using a method of multiplied layering to create his singular images. If Sawada’s project is constituted by self-multiplication and the display of these images side by side, then Kitano’s work is its complementary. Kitano “hides” all individual options under the mask of a unified portrait, where hidden layers stay secretive, like the layers of an archeological site, or of the unconscious. This comparison between archeology and psychoanalysis is of course one of Freud’s main metaphors which was well represented in his allegory of the “mystic writing pad”.[13] The image of this device as a mechanism that preserves traces of past occurrences in the form of text or image is the key to understanding Kitano’s work. In his text Freud and the Scene of Writing, Derrida speaks of Freud’s use of the system of writing as a metaphor for the unconscious, while for Derrida, the system of writing contains within it the “arche-writing”, the traces of writing that pre-figure language, meaning and signification.[14] Using Derrida’s notion of the trace to examine Kitano’s Our Face series, we see, surprisingly, that the traces of photographic images accumulated in the images are more similar to Derrida and Freud’s metaphor of archeology and invisible traces, than to the common notion of the photographic trace: the index, or what Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida,[15] calls “that-has-been”. While Barthes’ “that-has-been” links the absolute necessity of presence to the registration of reflected light as a photograph, Derrida’s trace is much more elusive, subconscious, subterranean, archeological, hidden and unobvious. These qualities of the Derridian trace, including its necessary link to layering, invisibility and the unconscious, can be found in Kitano’s work. Kitano’s main inquiry into the dilemma of portrait photography is focused on the question: how can a photographer grasp the identity of the individuals he photographs? He resorted to the seemingly contradictory idea that the physical contours of members of a group which, when depicted in individual photographs, can be seen as something endorsing identity, are put in danger of disappearing when they are melded into one trace of light. In this time of people living in an unstable social environment, how can a person exist as a solid being with actual sense of subjectivity, or unique existence? This seems to have been a crucial question for Kitano.

Kitano’s work is a reminder of the 19th c. eugenic work of Sir Francis Galton, and his attempt to find common facial features among people of same group, as categorized by ethnicity, criminality, etc.[16] Galton’s methods were linked to 19th c. ideas of race, evolution and the early idea of anthropology, all seeking to link people into unifying systems of order. In a transgressive act that stems from Galton’s approach, Nancy Burson created several similarly layered portrait images during the 1980s, playing on commonly manifested political ideas and ideologies. Burson’s images were the first to manipulate computer technology to produce these composite portraits; her work can be seen as inflected by the same tones as Galton’s, although it projects a humorous note.[17]

While at first glance Kitano’s images seem like blurred portrait images, captions become crucial in determining the number of layers and the amount of time condensed into each image. Moreover, the visible image of a non-existent “person” is a purely invented representation, the result of averaging singular layers into one collective portrait. The image on view is the accumulation of all the layers combined, each one of them constituting only a small fraction of the total sum of the perceptible visual information. Thus transparency is a secondary, parallel term in relation to the trace, used in its Derridian sense of disappearance and imperceptibility.

Fig. 15: Kitano Ken, ‘Metaportrait of 40 Businessmen in Tokyo’, 1999-2002, from Our Face portrait series. Gelatin silver print, 35.5x27.9cm. © Kitano Ken, 1999-2002; Courtesy, MEM Inc., Tokyo.Fig.16: Kitano Ken, ‘Metaportrait of 3141 people who live in Japan’, 2004, from Our Face portrait series. Gelatin silver print, 35.5x27.9cm. © Kitano Ken, 2004; Courtesy MEM Inc., Tokyo.

During the last few years, Kitano has taken an inverted strategy: photographing multiple portraits of different people who share a particular practice or dress, lifestyle or location; he then projected those singular portraits one over the other to create multilayered images of invented, non-existent portraits, of imaginary selves. Kitano recounts his process, saying that he has “traveled around Japan visiting communities, festivals, schools, places of work, families, sports games and religious places, listening to people’s stories and taking their portraits at the various sites.”[18]

Fig. 17: Kitano Ken, ‘Metaportraits of 35 Esoteric Buddhist Monks of the Shingon Sect Studying at Kôya Mountain, Wakayama’, 2003, from Our Face portrait series. Gelatin silver print, 35.5x27.9cm. © Kitano Ken, 2003; Courtesy MEM Inc., Tokyo.Fig. 18: Kitano Ken, ‘Metaportrait of 30 Geikos and Maikos Dancing the Special Kyo Dance in the Spring Miyagawa Town, Kyoto’, 2003, from Our Face portrait series. Gelatin silver print, 35.5x27.9cm. © Kitano Ken, 2003; Courtesy MEM Inc., Tokyo.
Fig. 19: Kitano Ken, ‘Metaportrait of 24 guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing’, 2009, from Our Face portrait series. Gelatin silver print, 35.5x27.9 cm. © Kitano Ken, 2003; Courtesy, MEM Inc., Tokyo.Fig. 20: Kitano Ken,’ Metaportrait of 39 People Floating Lanterns down the River Motoyasu in Memory of Atomic Bomb Victims on August 6, 2004’, Hiroshima, from: Our Face portrait series. Gelatin silver print, 35.5x27.9 cm. © Kitano Ken, 2004; Courtesy, MEM Inc.,Tokyo.

The groups include young girls in Harajuku, office workers in Tokyo, people on isolated islands in the South, fishermen of Boso Peninsula, Geisha girls in Kyoto, Shingon monks at Kôya-san and others. Kitano explains, “The more faces get printed, the more the contours of an individual become blurred and the expression and age become more ambiguous in the final portrait, which I call ‘Our Face’”.[19] The contours of an individual become blurred in one of these portraits, but it expresses “time and light”. He continues: “The project intends to link people of various positions horizontally, without regard for rank or importance, as if each one was a part of a continuous chain. It is like a big circle of images of people with no center.”[20] Kitano’s work thus resides in the gap between Galton’s eugenic discourse and Burson’s sarcastic compositions, not sharing the scientific seriousness of Galton, on the one hand, or the deadly humor of Burson, on the other. Kitano’s work seeks the possibility to show how desolate, transparent, and nearly non-existent human beings have become. Instead of the urge to classify and archive that is demonstrated in Galton’s work, or the lethal approach of Burson’s photography, Kitano’s images indicate more than anything else the disappearance of individuality, and the loss of a sense of singular existence or hope for a better future. Kitano’s work is the evidence of the crowd we have become, and the lost value of the personal portrait in a world flooded by endless visual information. His pictures imply that we are riding towards the “transparentization” of each and every one of us, as we become a component of the non-individual portrait of the contemporary age.

Takagi Cozue (b. 1985, Nagano), is a good representative of the new generation of 21st c. photographers, since she takes the manipulations of the generation prior to herself a step in a different direction. Morimura Yasumasa uses the method of model and mimicry to deconstruct global and local icons; Sawada Tomoko creates a process that critically undermines the various roles and meanings of photographic practice in contemporary society; Kitano Ken creates imaginary group portraits, refusing the singularity of the Barthesian trace and replacing it with the layering and archeology of time in the Derridian sense. Takagi’s practice differs from the procedures of these other artists; hers are portraits that skillfully create a photographic image which the camera cannot produce, exploiting the presence of the computer as a primary tool in the artist’s studio.[21]

Fig. 21: Takagi Cozue, from Insider series, 2006. © Takagi Cozue, 2006; Courtesy Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo.

Takagi’s work is a manifestation of the ‘cut and paste’ culture we live in today. She recognized early on that although we presume the symmetry of the human face, the reality is that our faces carry varying degrees of asymmetry. With this notion in mind, Takagi takes pictures of strangers who agree to take part in her project. After making a portrait of the anonymous participant, Takagi splits the image into half along the central line of the face, and then doubles each half to create two new full faces, now completely symmetrical (as each is a double of one side). When put together, the two faces are hauntingly similar yet different at the same time. Some may presume the sameness of identical twins, while others will find the poignant images quite disturbing since, as a consequence of their digital reconstruction, they can be seen as representing some of our worst dreams of genetic modification and the control of human lives by technology.

Fig. 22: Takagi Cozue, from Insider series, 2006. © Takagi Cozue, 2006; Courtesy Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo.
Fig. 23: Takagi Cozue, from Insider series, 2006. © Takagi Cozue, 2006; Courtesy Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo.
Fig. 24: Takagi Cozue, from Insider series, 2006. © Takagi Cozue, 2006; Courtesy Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo.

Takagi draws attention, in a quiet, barely noticeable manner, to a concealed aspect of our appearance, made visible by the interference of a machine. In an interview with Takagi, she spoke about the doublings that exists in human life: we may think or identify with one element, yet express another. Psychoanalysis has already pointed to the split between our conscious and unconscious desires and lives, and Takagi feels that by exposing the double image that exists within each and every person, she is able to bring to the surface, and make visible, the doubling that accompanies one’s thoughts, desires and emotions.[22] If anything, Takagi’s images become the ultimate imperceptible moment of the portrait, in a practice that conceals and camouflages what used to be called the ‘true reflection’ of a person.

In this text I have shown how four Japanese artists, working from the 1980s to the present, have skillfully and effectively inverted the meanings of portrait photography. Together, they represent the different stages of change that took place in Japanese portrait photography during this period. Morimura represents the first generation of post-modern critique; repetition, appropriation and performance were the central aspects of his self-portraiture. His personal engagement as sole performer also could be seen as representing a desire to participate and become. If Morimura’s images concentrate on the cross-gendered and cross-cultural, Sawada’s work takes a step into the interior of photography and the core of Japanese society. Refraining from using a camera herself, Sawada is successful in criticizing the way photographic procedures have shaped social life for women in Japan. Sawada’s participation in the images is conceived as a paradigm or a convention, and not a specific, accurate image of herself or an imaginary other. Unlike the highly individualized and specific images offered by Morimura, Sawada’s images enter into a territory of anonymity, and disappear into the grand mechanisms of socialization. Hence, Sawada’s masquerade, in contrast to Morimura’s practice, is not a link to a specific image in time and cultural arena, but a scrutiny into the generic images of “womanhood” in Japanese society. If Sawada still makes use of her own body and face to create her “generic” images, then Kitano’s project is a step further into distance and anonymity. His works are not puzzles of images combined together to create a “map” of Japanese society, but rather, “archeological images” that collapse the meaning of individuality through layering, creating new, composite portraits . The performative act which is central to Morimura and Sawada’s projects disappears here, replaced by the search for imaginary unifying elements among groups of humans. Finally, Takagi’s images are performance in its own right. They are not images of documented performance – as in the case of Morimura and Sawada; nor are they cumulative group representations like Kitano’s. In Takagi’s work, the camera (together with the computer as its extension, or “brain”), becomes performance itself: the performative act is dislocated from the front of the camera to the texture of the image, from the action and actor that are being documented in the frame to an action, performance and manipulation that share responsibility for creating the final portrait image. In Takagi and Kitano’s work (straight) photography is just the raw material, and the ability to manipulate and perform the constituting act of the portrait image becomes the central theme of their work. Takagi’s images, therefore, transform the performative act from a documented moment (Morimura), or acknowledged social procedure (Sawada), or the “averaging” of individual facial features (Kitano), into a moment of photographic performance that turn out to be the decisive act of portrait making. These different approaches to the utilization of performativity, related through the chain of connections presented in this text, represent important directions in contemporary Japanese photography. The artists presented also utilize contemporary qualities of the photographic process to criticize its historical function and, through it, to rethink the elusive nature of human portraiture and the evasive qualities of individual identity today.

Ayelet Zohar is an artist, curator and visual culture researcher. She was curator and editor of PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Contemporary Art/ Culture (2008). Zohar currently teaches in the departments of Art History and Asian Studies, University of Haifa, Israel. 


  1. See for example the exhibition catalogue of Masquerade: Role Playing in Self-Portraiture—Photographs from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, Los Angeles County Museum, October 12, 2006 – January 7, 2007 http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=501168;type=802

  2. Derrida, Jacques (1985, c1982). ‘Roundtable on Autobiography’ Peggy Kamuf (Trans.), The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, Christie McDonald (ed.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 39–89, 88.

  3. Green, David & Joanne Lowry (2003). ‘From presence to the performative: rethinking photographic indexicality’, in: David Green (ed.) Where is the Photograph? Brighton University: Photoforum/Photoworks, 47–60.

  4. Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari (1980), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi (trans., University of Minnesota Press, 236.

  5. "Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter." Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 17.

  6. Kasahara, Michiko (2005). 'Life Actually; the works of contemporary Japanese women – love and solitude, and laughter for survival in Japan', in: life actually, exhibition catalogue, MOT annual, 157.

  7. Self-shattering is a term first used by Leo Bersani in his book The Freudian Body. See: Dean, Tim Hal Foster, Kaja Silverman, ‘A Conversation with Leo Bersani’, in October 82 (Autumn, 1997), MIT Press, 3-16.

  8. Schizoanalysis is a term created by Felix Guattari, later used by himself and Gilles Deleuze in Anti Oedipus see: Holland, Eugene W. (1999). Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis, Oxon: Routledge.

  9. See for example Sawada’s ID400 series (1998), School days series (2004), Decoration (2007), virtually any series of her work tackles a social convention of women’s roles, looks, behavior, dress, profession etc.

  10. Kasahara, Michiko (2009). ‘gender issues in contemporary Japanese art’, ch. 3 in: Ayelet Zohar (ed.) PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 40-49.

  11. Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra (1997). Packaged Japaneseness: Weddings, Business and Brides,Honolulu, HW: University of Hawai'i Press; Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra (2001). 'Hybridity and distinction in Japanese contemporary commercial weddings', Social Science Japan Journal 4(1):21–38.

  12. Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra (2000). ‘The Production of Tradition and Culture in the Japanese Wedding Enterprise’, ethnos 65(1):41.

  13. Freud, Sigmund (1953, c1925). ‘A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad’), The standard Edition of the Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, James Strachey (ed. & trs.) Hogarth Publishing, London: 227-232.

  14. Further reference to systems of writing and traces can be found in DerridaJacques (1972) ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing, Yale French Studies 48, French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis,74-117; also appearing in: Writing and Difference, London: Routledge, 1990, (originally published as L'écriture et la différence, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1978).

  15. Barthes, Roland (1981, c1980). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Richard Howard (trans.), New York: Hill and Wang.

  16. For further information see: The Galton Collection at University College London http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/galton [accessed: July 2011]

  17. See Alan Sekula’s extensive discussion of Galton’s work and dismissing of Burson’s gesture in: Sekula, Allan (1986). ‘The Body and the Archive’, October 39, (Winter 1986), 3-64.

  18. Kitano Ken, website information http://www.ourface.com/english/works/ourface.html [accessed, June 28th, 2011]

  19. Kitano in a text published on the event of his exhibition ‘Our Face’ project at Noorderlicht Photo Gallery,

  20. Kitano Ken , MEM Gallery website, http://mem-inc.jp/artists_e/kitano_e/

  21. Although what Takagi is doing could be done without a computer – just flipping a negative over and printing half of it in reverse. The computer makes it more seamless, but is not essential to the concept.

  22. Takagi Cozue in an interview on Canon website at the event of her winning the Moriyama Daido award in 2006 http://web.canon.jp/scsa/newcosmos/interview/2006/cozue_takagi/index.html [accessed: June 28th, 2011]

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