Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Brief Encounters

by Liam J

28 Jul 2011

Kohei Yoshiyuki: The Park, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2 July - 13 August.

Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki's The Park was first exhibited at Tokyo's Komai Gallery in 1979. In 2007, New York's Yossi Milo Gallery exhibited the series for the first time in over twenty-five years. This year, the series has come to Australia, as part of a collaborative effort between Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art, Melbourne's Centre for Contemporary Photography, and Wellington's Adam Art Gallery.

Between 1971 and 1979, Yoshiyuki infiltrated a covert underground subculture: people who engaged in sexual encounters in Tokyo's city parks, as well as the voyeurs who watched them. The product of this undertaking was The Park, a series of atmospheric black and white photographs (all untitled), which capture the frantic, breathless nature of these encounters. Although it is clear that they were taken in dark, rushed conditions, the photographs often display a sophisticated use of composition: clothed bodies are shown entwined on large grey expanses of grass, with the surrounding trees and bushes creating an ironically picturesque border. Distant lights in the background betray their urban setting.

The pictures are hardly romantic: in one, a couple are shown embracing on a park bench; moving downwards, the viewer sees that the man's hand is thrust roughly up his companion's skirt. Neither are the works in any way erotic; no actual sex acts are shown in the photographs, being obscured by clothes, angle, or onlookers. Some photographs exist entirely as implications: one work shows a man leaning against a tree, as if waiting for someone. In the foreground, two other men are in discussion. The meaning of this mysterious picture is left up to the viewer.

While looking at The Park, the viewer becomes voyeur: some of the photographs show as many as four onlookers, all in the foreground, facing towards the subjects: we are made to feel part of this group. Anonymity is maintained, as almost none of the photographs feature visible faces. In a few photographs, onlookers are shown actually reaching forward and touching the participants, breaking an already shaky boundary. As viewers, the issue of where we exist in this voyeur/participant process is unclear and unsettling.

My only complaint about the IMA's handling of the exhibition has to do with this issue of the voyeur. When The Park was originally exhibited in Tokyo, the prints were blown up to life-size proportions, and shown in the dark: viewers were each given a torch to look. Yoshiyuki stated that he "wanted people to look at the bodies…an inch at a time" [1] .

While the limited space of the IMA would not allow for this, the conditions of showing are still less than ideal: the pictures are shown in a room with a large window, so that natural light streams in and bounces off of the glass, reflecting the viewer and slightly detracting from the immediacy of the pictures. This is however a minor criticism: seeing these remarkable photographs at all is a privilege.

[1] Nobuyoshi, Araki. "Down in the Park: Yoshiyuki Kohei's Nocturnes." Interview with Yoshiyuki Kohei. Aperture 188, Fall 2007. 74-83.