Friday, September 7, 2007

The Park by Kohei Yoshiyuki

The new exhibition season has opened and one show that I highly recommend is Kohei Yoshiyuki’s exhibition The Park at Yossi Milo which is on view until October 20. This work was the subject of Kohei’s book Document Kouen (Document Park) published by Seven Sha, Tokyo in 1980. Lucky for us, there is a new book of this work just published by Hatje Cantz called The Park.

In the early seventies, Kohei prowled around parks in Tokyo looking for lovers groping in the bushes. The Shinjuku, Yoyogi and Aoyama parks were notorious meeting grounds for nightly public rendezvous and disturbingly, they were also very popular with “peepers;” men who go specifically to watch the action.

By using an infrared film and an infrared filter over his flashgun, Kohei was able to somewhat freely photograph without anyone knowing what he was doing. His descriptions have the effect of exposing whole tableaus of figures and detail that could only have been sensed in the darkness of the unlit park.

His book is divided into three sections. The first dwells on heterosexual encounters, the second on homosexual trolling and hook ups and the last section is comprised of abstract images shot from video monitors in “love hotels.”

The first section on men and women is the least explicit in that it seems most encounters (at least in the photos) is limited to kissing and heavy petting. The disturbing and somewhat sad aspect comes from the “peepers.” Many of Kohei’s photos show a couple going about their business while a crowd of six or seven men hang about, half hiding behind the trees and bushes; some caught fumbling with their pants zippers. “Observing” might be considered bothersome enough but at times, the “peepers” move in to take advantage of a grope amongst the tangled legs and arms of the couple. In his introduction, Vince Aletti humorously finds them comparable at times to wrestling referees. A perfect comparison as they are often weirdly down on all fours, head cocked like they are looking for an illegal hold.

The second section that describes men on men is mostly pairings of men engaged in what seems to be a less foliated part of the park. The trysts are more out in the open and explicit. One of the best images describes a perfect choreography of men waiting by trees while passersby look for partners. The body language of most of the men seems so matter of fact that they wind up looking like they are waiting for a bus rather than seeking out sexual release.

The last section of grainy video stills from love hotels is oddly the most explicit but most unrevealing. The extreme grain, or more specifically, the graininess of the TV pattern, obscures to the point of only basic legibility. With the history of social taboos towards sex, these seem to comment on the nature of censorship in Japan. In fact, actual nudity even in any of these images is almost never seen if only in fleeting glimpses of thigh.

Yoshiyuki, with all of the limitations of working with the tools he used and in the environment he photographed, made a great set of images that do not just ring the same note repeatedly. His ability to see and compose before to flash was tripped seems miraculous enough. The frames are well constructed and vary throughout the book so that our interest, beyond the subject matter, is held from cover to cover.

The book follows the format ratio of the 35mm frame and the printing looks great. The design by Stapelberg & Fritz in Stuttgart is compelling, clean and respects the work. Many of the non-photo pages are printed black so be careful as the natural oils from you hands leave marks. The photos are reproduced either bleed or surrounded with white borders. The edition is approximately 4500 copies.

There are many differences between the original edition and this one and they have a completely different feel from one another. The original edition was a vertical format book and some of the images are reproduced (in nice gravure) as spreads across the gutter, which between the two pages, equals the 35mm frame ratio. The other images that are reproduced one to a page are printed cropped into a ratio closer to a 6 by 7 frame ratio, thus cropping off about one quarter of each image. The new edition reproduces the images full 35mm ratio. The original also has identity protecting black bars over the eyes of the people whose faces can be seen.

This presentation includes 69 photographs and the 1980 edition held 78 according to Volume II of the Parr and Badger history books. The reason for some of the images not appearing in the new edition is not due to editing but apparently due to several of the original negatives from the series have been lost which made their inclusion impossible. This is a real shame because upon seeing which images were lost there were at least two from the original edition that I think are really great. One that may be lost forever is of a man and woman necking while somehow, the man’s wallet appears, not in his pocket as would be expected, but lying balanced on his hip. The original edition also starts the third section with an image of a couple on the street entering one of the “love hotels.” That section of video stills is also ended with a final shot of a TV screen that is entirely blank with static TV “snow.”

Yossi Milo penned an introduction that tells of how he became aware of the work and Vince Aletti contributes a wonderful essay called Night Vision. Also included is an interview between Nobuyoshi Araki and Kohei Yoshiyuki called Tiptoeing into the Darkness…with Love from a 1979 issue of Weekend Super which is almost worth the price of admission alone.

For those interested in getting an advance copy of The Park, the Yossi Milo Gallery has a very limited amount of copies (about 60-70 left) that are signed by Kohei Yoshiyuki. The Park will not officially hit the stores until next month.

This book will surely be in my top five favorites for the year, so thank you to Yossi Milo for taking the reigns and getting this work republished. This allows a new generation of viewers (peepers?) to experience work from this photographer who seems as elusive as the subjects he once described.

An additional thank you to Yossi Milo for allowing me to view the original 1980 edition of Document Kouen for comparison.

Book Available Here (The Park)

Buy online at Hatje Cantz