Yossi Milo Gallery September 6–October 20, 2007
In his “Theatre of Cruelty” manifesto, Antonin Artaud spoke of his desire for theater to be brutal, passionate, and to express a “convulsive conception of life”—an “extreme condensation of scenic elements.” His aim was to project members of the audience right into the center of the action, to disallow passive observation, ideally, even, to enable the spectator to engage instinctively with the performer.
The black-and-white photographs currently on view at Yossi Milo Gallery by Japanese cult photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki delve directly into such brutal theatrical conditions, but from behind the lens of the camera. His photographs, with their kinky, emotive presence, present us with both performer and audience joined at the threshold of desire.
A young, adventurous couple, out on a date, decides to visit a semi-discrete location in a dark wooded area of a park. They lie down in the dirt and begin to cuddle, kiss, fondle—explore each other’s clothed bodies. As the couple begins to hump, an anonymous society of peeping toms lurks forth from the bushes and from behind trees like entranced zombies. Once the romantic encounter is in session and on display, once the lovers are locked in their embrace, groping each other’s bodies (presumably unconscious of the eye-infested void of blackness beyond their own intimate palpations), the audience begins to inch ever closer, arriving dangerously, menacingly, on top of the action. In one amazing picture, an “active” voyeur is shown reaching in to cop a feel, to join in on the petting. In an intense moment of identification with the mostly obstructed female form, one is forced to wonder, “isn’t that guy breaking the look, but don’t touch’ rule?”
As all of this is happening in the pitch dark of a warm summer night, the photographer, as one of the voyeurs, is poised, with a roll of infrared film, to capture and expose this unorthodox orgy as it is taking place. Let’s not forget that it is Yoshiyuki’s job as an artist not just to impose on this uncanny midnight molestation—and gawk—but to record, to create, to exhibit the entire theatrical scene that this cast of naughty characters all gloriously acts out on stage together. And he shows us with the aid of his milky, overexposed film, not only the exhibitionistic streak of two lovers feeling each other up, digging into clothes, unlatching bras and slacks, prying apart legs, but, just as interestingly, the bent backs of the peepers, arched over, awkwardly leaning, rubber-necking for just the right angle. In each shot, Yoshiyuki freezes another compelling moment when performer and audience are intertwined, composed, creating a “cruel” and exhilarating effect.
Of course, with all of these sex-crazed characters occupying the picture, we the gallery-goers, are able to focus for a moment on our own absence from it—to recognize our own selves as the real audience for these photographs, and perhaps the most engaged, self-conscious voyeurs of all.
And these pictures are certainly erotic. Despite their journalistic, Weegee-esque, expository conception, they are nothing if not arousing, and might even be embarrassingly pornographic. I was reminded, as I gazed at them at the gallery and in the accompanying book put out by Hatje Cantz, of a sort of vulgar stereotype: the desperate man, hoping to catch a glimpse, the one who, it seems, would do just about anything to scratch the itch of his unfulfilled lust—the criminal, for example, caught up in his uncontrollable compulsion for sexual fulfillment, for relief. It goes without saying that this stalker type doesn’t have such a good reputation in this country. Yet these pictures, all made in the 1970s, seem to candidly reveal the seedy sexual taboo as a kind of everyday Japanese sporting event, void of stigma or of loner-noir, American-style humiliation.
Regardless of our tolerance for, and/or identification with, what are, essentially, a group of bona fide perverts, most contemporary art lovers are familiar with the perverse sensibility, and indeed comfortable with its excesses. We share this. We presumably have some degree of empathy for those who like to watch and be watched. Furthermore, we are apt to endorse the obsessive life of the fetishist—the commitment, skill, creativity, organization, focus, and, ultimately, the action—appreciating the fetish as its own particular artform, in all its complexity. The fetishist who is willing to craft, to fabricate, an experience, in order to achieve a highly specialized result is not unlike an artist working towards the achievement of his or her own aesthetic “project”.
So it is that these pictures by Yoshiyuki place the viewer (the voyeur one step removed) into an even tighter erotic suspension than the average pornographic image, where the actors vie, if not violate, shamelessly for our attention and money. It is here, among the overexposed foliage, with its obscuring, burnt-out, leafy, buffering foreground, that the pictures find their poetic atmosphere and tender conviction.
These photographs have feeling. And to see them is to sense our own sustaining desire as we stand away from the action—to size up an entire nocturnal setting, with its expansive, matte-black breeze, as well as the specific details visible up the smothered girl’s skirt.
We pass beyond the voyeur’s gaze, into the lap of the lovers, straight or gay, feeling their regard for one another, albeit a shockingly exhibitionistic one. We are cast into their one-on-one sexhibitionism. Yet, the delicate equation proposed by these pictures forces us to pull out and back, to feel the overall space and its graspable, reflexive geometries. It is at this point that we see ourselves looking, and thus view the hot spectacle coldly.
In this body of work, Yoshiyuki relies on a certain amount of indeterminacy. Like a Weegee car collision aftermath, we sense that the photographer has found himself in the right place at the right time.
But one can imagine the same grassy spot, moments later, with no actors in sight, or, for that matter, moments before. And in that way, these are pictures of places, not just action photos of the “stars” that perform there.
With their moody worlds, with their fuzzy night-cam pulse, these pictures come across as a mortifying dream that allows us, like Breton & Co., to wonder if art (with its fetishistic undertones) might be the catalyst we have been waiting for, might be the vehicle that will take us to a better (more exotic at least) life. While pornography flushes desire, perhaps art ignites it. This being said, as I looked at these pictures, I must admit that I began to wonder how I might get my hands on a map of Japan, find these secret locations, and go there in person with or without a camera.
Of course, finding Yoshiyuki’s locations would not be so easy, for as fresh as they seem today, these pictures were shot in 1970s Tokyo, in areas that have probably long since been cleaned up and patrolled. Originally the photographs were exhibited as life-sized blow-ups in a darkened gallery, which viewers were invited to enter with flashlights. This happening caused such a scandal that the artist retracted the pictures, changed his name and went into hiding. Aside from their publication in a limited edition, Japanese-language cult publication, all were lost, forgotten and presumed permanently unavailable until now.
Thirty years later, coming across Kohei Yoshiyuki’s pictures truly feels like a chance encounter—perhaps because none of the people in them knew they were being photographed. While the almost uncanny images have withstood the test of time, none of their inadvertent thespians have had any sense that their performances would ever see the light of day. And for this, I applaud them all.
Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.