April 6th, 2008


Down in the park at midnight

At Pro QM yesterday afternoon I flipped through Yossi Milo's collection (published by Hatje Cantz) of Kohei Yoshiyuki's 1970s photos of sexual encounters in Tokyo parks.

Yoshiyuki shot the pictures on fast film using an infrared flash device that didn't disturb his prey. He says it began one night in the early 70s when he was out photographing lit skyscrapers from a Shinjuku park. He happened to see a couple having sex, then noticed they were being watched by a group of masturbating voyeurs.

Yoshiyuki began to visit Shinjuku, Yoyogi and Aoyama Parks regularly, armed with his camera and flash; one part big game hunter on safari, one part voyeur himself, he compiled a series of 60 images which were published in Japan in 1980 as Document Kouen; "park document".

They remained out of print (with rare copies of Document Kouen fetching up to $1000 each) until last year, when Yossi Milo, an Asia-centric photography gallery in New York's Chelsea, staged an exhibition gathering them together, and Milo edited the book I saw at Pro QM yesterday.

I was -- and wasn't -- surprised to see the same images crop up in the 5th Berlin Biennial at Kunst-Werke later that same afternoon. Here, they have their own room on the second floor, a place where biennial visitors assume the slightly furtive, nervous air of voyeurs -- the third meta-layer of voyeurs, in fact, after the 70s Tokyo sex spooks and Yoshiyuki himself.

And now I suppose, in this Click Opera entry, we're the fourth layer, observing the observers of the observer of the observers of the sex acts.

The images are very satisfying to look at, and not just for sexual reasons (actually, they're not that sexual; there's no nudity, for instance, just a lot of fumbling with 70s clothes). They have a consistent imagery that makes them perfect for collection -- sex may be messy, but sets are always tidy -- and a sort of choreography (a "choreography of fumbling") emerges in the various groupings of the gropings.

There's a lovely softness and creaminess caused by the infrared flash as it catches white shirts, blouses and panties. But there are also dark, dark shadows -- not just literal ones in the shrubbery of the park, but psychic ones in the animal-like stoops of the voyeurs, the primal clutch of the coupling figures on the ground. Everything is being hidden here, and nothing.

It didn't surprise me to see these long-hidden images from a long-lost decade twice the same day, because that's how the art world works; there's a return of the repressed, a butterfly effect. One person (in this case Yossi Milo, with a little help from Noboyushi Araki) starts something rolling, and it snowballs. It becomes an exhibition, a book, a biennial focus, a blog meme.

Work from thirty years ago, hidden from sight for so long, is fair game for rediscovery. What would be much more difficult to imagine seeing -- and in a weird way, much more taboo -- would be something from the late 90s, something a bit over-exposed. Matthew Barney, for instance.

I would have been shocked to see some Matthew Barney in the 5th Berlin Biennial, because he's not hot any more but not back either -- he's still over-exposed, and needs to be forgotten a bit before he can be remembered again. Like the 1990s itself.

So we get Kohei Yoshiyuki, unlikely yet completely explicable Japanese star of the 2008 Berlin Biennial. Back because he was away, and over-exposed because he was under-exposed. A bit like his lovers and voyeurs, gay and straight, down in the park at midnight, sometime in the 70s.