by Claudia Siefen-Leitich
Filmmaker and poet Yuri Muraoka, born in 1981, describes her films, videos, photographs and texts as “self-portraits”, but above all she shows the modern image of a woman within contemporary Japanese society. Writings and drawings as well as her collaboration with the “Video Research Laboratory” consolidated the cinematic work of the internationally established artist. Perversion, illness, and corporeality form the framework for her self-documenting art. In 2019 I was able to pair two of her films with a screening of Koji Wakamtsu, and here I would like to take a closer look at this her very individual and personal form of artistic self-expression.
The various manifestations of the artist’s self-expression, which had already become unmanageable in modernism, continue to increase in so-called postmodernism, sometimes also through the elaboration of diverse ruptures on various levels. With post-structuralism, modern conceptions of subjectivity, originality and artistic authorship are radically rejected. This is not the first time that the genre of the self-portrait has been subjected to profound cuts. The manifold possibilities of media (above all the use of photography and the video format from the 1970s onwards) were also essential for this. Because of these changes, the question arises whether the concept of the portrait also needs to be redefined. In the broad concept of art history, since the beginning of the genre of self-representation, the artist, the mirror, the viewers and their gazes have formed the cornerstones of this genre. In the course of time, however, their position has changed enormously.
The artists no longer place themselves alone in the centre. Viewers are sometimes given quite active positions as participants. In the course of the 20th century, photography and video have made the mirror dispensable for self-representation, but not unnecessary. The mirror metaphor shifts and opens up interesting possibilities, for both the artist’s own mirrored gaze and the image itself. The view here is destabilized in immensely varied ways.
We increasingly encounter self-portraits that deal with existential questions, usually with the use of the artist’s own physical body. These are self-portraits in which artists deliberately show themselves in order to attract attention. Or self-portraits that even show a multiplication of the artists, up to self-portraits in the form of visual autobiographies. We encounter costume portraits that play with disguises and masquerade, and self-representations in the form of symbolic representations, guided before the eyes and ears by more or less abstract objects.
To this day, countless artistic self-portrayals address existential problems, asking basic questions about life and death, inner psychological states, but also the effects of external social constraints and cultural norms and values on the individual. These interests culminate in the emergence of action and performance art, as well as body art, often manifested in connection with video art for reasons of production costs. Working with their own bodies as a medium and in their confrontation with the respective themes described, many artists deliberately cross supposed boundaries, confront pain, fear, illness, disgust, violence, control, aggression and even overaggressive behavior and self-harm.
The viewer, spectator or visitor is seemingly diametrically opposed to representative, narcissistic-exhibitionist self-portrayals. The intention in these communicative self-portraits is apparently primarily to attract attention, of course. In art historical terms, this type of depiction refers to an all-embracing artist, but the image of the suffering artist can also be staged with a direct, involving gaze towards the viewer. It can be a description of a self that consists of multiple states and facets in order to express that there isn’t the one true self, because identity is not uniform, but always “many”. This shakes up the usual characteristics of a self-portrait, or better, the uniqueness of the private. It makes the portrait visible as a possible mass product.
In her filmic and written work, Muraoka also presents the self in the form of a visual autobiography and thus describes the process of “becoming a subject”. Through her narration of her own life’s journey by means of a wide variety of memory documents, however, an all-encompassing representation can never be offered. The resulting gaps and condensations are subject to artistic reflection and skill. Film, music, costumes, interviews, poems and photographs often play a central role. But by showing specific life paths, something can be said about social conditions in the context of the respective social class and time, going beyond the personal. The traces that emerge in the course of a period of time can also be recorded in this way. Muraoka does not allow speculation here through the personal involvement of her family, but she allows the viewer to add their own details.
One possibility of this self-presentation is dressing up, one transforms into another person. On such a personal basis, interestingly enough, the question arises here of the boundary between the portrayed role as such and the intersections with the person portraying him/herself. It is about the question of identity and the beginning of the portrayed self. But also about the irritation caused by the simultaneous presence and absence of the artist. Muraoka presents herself sporadically with a sword in her hand, dressed in white and black, bright red and also blue, a very uniform conceptuality imposes itself. Her confrontation with her illness-related (schizophrenia) social and also private position makes her visible in numerous and mostly contradictory roles, thus expressing a felt identity. Some of her self-portrayals also manage completely without the depiction of her face. Muraoka often communicates more through the depiction of a cat or a window, but also by means of a stage set in which her daughters and herself move, than a mere head image could achieve. To the trained eye, these insertions almost function as her own trademark in her films.
In her films and poems, Muraoka reports on self-compulsion and self-control as she sees them coming to pass in her artistic work in the midst of a social centre. But as an artist, she not only sees herself under the compulsion to do her work, but is also at the mercy of the moral pressure to do it with pleasure. In the past, the expectation of individual behavior, shaped by norms of discipline and guilt, was: to conform. Today, individuals are faced with the demand to ideally also distinguish themselves through initiative and mental strength.
Since images are becoming more and more important due to increasing aestheticisation, the self is also predominantly processed as an image. For the construction of one’s own identity, artifacts of pop culture are increasingly exploited aesthetically. The adopted symbols are primarily used representatively to communicate feelings and less argumentatively. The central medium of self-dramatization is and remains the body. Individualistic forms of expression are highly praised, but: they may only take place within a certain, aesthetically determined spectrum of variations on existing standards. Artistic-pragmatic action, the processing of questions on the basis of the body, can be described as an attempt to make realities tangible. These realities themselves have arisen and become tangible on the basis of the reflexive structures of our brains. And this reality cannot be depicted with the rational part of our language. Nevertheless, with her work and language, Muraoka approaches these our oh so own realities.