Yasumasa Morimura effortlessly toggles between multiple roles and genders, and this performative aspect alone is enough to sustain a cursory interest even in works that otherwise fall flat — such as his new, slightly undercooked series based on self-portraits by early 20th-century Japanese painters. The work that really jolted the exhibition into the contemporary moment, though, was installed innocuously at the back end of the mazelike arrangement of galleries. Made in 1988, Doublonnage (Marcel) is a recreation of Man Ray’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp posing as his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. Shot in color against a turquoise backdrop, it shows the Rrose Sélavy figure, face whitened, lips rouged, staring impassively at the lens. But certain details are, oddly, doubled. Instead of one hat, there are two, with the same “tribal modern” decorations around the band, perched one on top of the other. And instead of a single pair of hands, celadon complexioned, raised to chin and cheek in a gesture of coy femininity, there is a second pair, masculine and tanned, reaching from behind the black fur coat to grip the other by the wrists. So different are the skin tones — highly gendered, even in today’s Japan — that it’s hard to tell whether all four hands belong to Morimura, or whether a woman is reaching up from the bottom of the frame. A compressed mise-en-abyme, this work cuts to the freakishness of Morimura’s conceit, in which the self-portrait is an uncanny mirror, monstrous and alienating in its doubleness, and the viewer is constantly reminded that something else exists backstage.

For Morimura, the reflection is the space where otherness emerges. The mirror becomes the inframince — Duchamp’s term for a vanishingly small differential that can serve as a channel to an unseen dimension — whereby the difference between self and other is reduced to the mere surface of a glass. This is, when you think about it, also the underlying dynamic of the post-workout selfie, or the outdoor yoga selfie, or the dick pic, or even the obligatory foodporn snapshot. (Here one recalls Morimura’s take on Yasuzo Nojima’s haunting photogravure still-life, from 1930, of the anthropomorphic citrus fruit known as busshukan, or Buddha’s hand.) All those smartphone snaps express a morbid overidentification with the image of the self, precisely because it is already alienated from one’s own reality. If such images circulate at the level of aspirational projection, instead of critical interrogation, that may be a marker of narcissism more than anything else. But whether narcissistic or not, the implicit question asked by self-portrait and selfie alike is: Is this not me?


The full article appears in Even no. 6, published in spring 2017.