In Portrait (Futago) (1988), his restaging of Olympia, Morimura plays the role of both the young, supine prostitute and the black maid who attends to her. Here, he addresses Western stereotypes of Eastern art and culture by using his Asian male body to play the role of Manet’s female subjects, while also replacing the decor with objects related to Japanese culture and commerce. He lies on a kimono instead of European-made fabrics, and swaps Manet’s cat with a maneki-neko, a traditional Japanese cat figure that usually sits atop shop counters, promising luck and financial success. As Bryson suggested, these inclusions could be read as an allusion to the Western “geisha” stereotype: “the figuration of Japan-as-woman,” or a country easily preyed upon and infantilized, like the young prostitute in Manet’s canvas. In other words, Morimura replaces the predatory “male gaze” with the Western gaze.
But like all of Morimura’s photographs, these works aren’t purely critical; they reference both a resistance to and reverence of Western culture. He’s described his oeuvre as a “psychological portrait of myself, having been strongly influenced by Western culture, despite having been born and raised as a Japanese man.” And when Japan’s traditions do seem subsumed or oppressively masked by Western culture in his work, he doesn’t make clear who—if anyone—is at fault.
Indeed, the artist prides himself in resisting essentialism and insists that he doesn’t take sides. After finishing a 2010 series of self-portraits based on photos of famed revolutionaries from Guevara to Lenin, he remembers being asked how he felt about their politics. “I don’t really have a good answer except to say that I’m on both sides,” he responded. “It’s not as simple as picking sides.”