Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Yasumasa Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II: Art and the Archive


Yasumasa Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II
What can the artistic cultural production tell us about the past?  What is its “truth” value and discursive authority?  Why do certain representations go into a museum while others go into an archive?  What is the relationship between the museum and the archive?  Here I will focus on the works of Yasumasa Morimura in a consideration of how the work of this artist engages with these questions.  Morimura is an artist who appropriates and recasts historically significant images in new ways.  In this way he recasts images that have “truth” value in new contexts or in ways that seem to “make light” of the original image or historical moment.  Is he questioning the veracity of the historical document or illustrating the subjectivity of the viewer?

In Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II, for example, he takes up the familiar image of the South Vietnamese General Loan killing suspected Viet Cong Officer Nguyen Lem (Bay Lop) and recasts it in his own city of Osaka, Japan.  Morimura creates a lightbox resembling a television out of a traditional altar and steps into the image casting himself as each of the four historical characters in the scene.  This can be read as a criticism of the staging of historical images.  Alternatively, we can read it as a commentary on how viewers see the original historical image through a personal and subjective lens.  If there is a visceral response to the historical image, the viewer experiences this through his or her own body.  Morimura makes this distance from the original evident in his version of the image.  Morimura’s lighthouse image is also cast in a present day instead of a historically accurate context.  Here one reflects on whether it is possible at all to see a historical image without seeing it through our experience of the present day.  Morimura makes this interpretive interference from the present evident in his work.
Eddie Adams' photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing suspected Viet-Cong Officer Lem

Artistic representations like Morimura’s seem to parody important historical images in a problematic way.  Is it okay to appropriate these images and project them through these new filters?  Morimura’s image is easier to take in than the original gruesome photograph.  Is this softening effect fair to the original historical event?  On the other hand, Morimura’s image may be taken to be a more ethical representation of the past because it makes evident that it is a subjective rendition.  The photograph as a historical image makes claims to truth while being highly subjective.  Why was this particular scene captured in the original photograph? Who took the photograph and why was it preserved in an archive while other scenes were allowed to slip into oblivion?  How have the captions shaped how it has been viewed over time?  These are all factors that make the historical document subjective; possibly as subjective as an image like Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II.
Yasumasa's rendition of the well known image of Ernesto Che Guevara

Morimura’s work and the work of other artists (like Chieh-Jen Chen and Gerard Richter) suggest that the artistic cultural production may be a more ethical way of representing the past because of its very distancing and softening effects.  These artists’ works make evident the subjectivity of representation instead of making claims to historical truth.  They inspire reflection about the past through a personal and contemporary lens because there may really be no other way of seeing the past.

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