The sculpture and graphic work in the KW Institute aspect of the 5th Berlin Biennial was unimpressive, and I will demonstrate this with some images in a later post. But in these initial posts I will treat the more interesting aspects of what I saw at the Biennial. In the KW Institute the more involving work consisted mostly of video and photography. By photography I mean Kohei Yoshiyuki’s Park series taken between 1971-79, documenting sexual encounters in Tokyo’s Shinjuku, Yoyogi and Aoyama parks.
The images reproduced here were taken directly from the exhibition and show reflections off the glass as well as the images themselves. Click thumbnail image to enlarge.
Yoshiyuki photographs are taken at night using infrared film and in this sense they are extremely voyeuristic. The British photographer Martin Parr has described Park as a “brilliant piece of social documentation, catching perfectly the loneliness, sadness and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo.” (artbook). Parr seems correct concerning the value of Park as social documentation, but it is evident that he is using the concept of alienation to play down the obvious pornographic aspect of these images, but in so doing he is backgrounding one of their most interesting features, which is the issue of voyeurism.
Regarding the sexual charge that these images possess we enter into a thicket of voyeurism which includes the photographer, ourselves and an other. With regard to this ‘other’ Josephine Ayerza provides a valuable insight into Yoshiyuki’s Park series via a Lacanian interpretation, she notes:
Jacques Lacan’s voyeur is for a while hiding behind trees watching the couple making love in the park… but soon he will want the couple to discover him, and this is his jouissance. So he will start making noises, maybe moving the tree-he doesn’t want to get involved with them in another way than them reacting against him—yell at him, throw stones, call the police … With Kohei Yoshiyuki’s the voyeurs seem to go further in their trying to approach the couple, peep from a very close distance, touch the woman … At that point, say … in The New York Times, trouble will happen. (lacan.com)
We enter into a mise en abyme of voyeurism. The first and most obvious voyeur is the photographer, armed with his infrared film and telephoto lens, then we have to add ourselves. Ayerza’s comments, however, suggest that we also have to add another, one who enters into the scene in the photograph itself. And this is in fact very clear in the sequence of images which appear to have a narrative dimension. After images of couples we encounter snaps of people looking through the bushes, or from behind a tree. Then as we progress we see the voyeurs crawling on all fours towards the copulating couple. After that the couples begin to evolve into triples quadruples and quintuples.
Before I read Ayerza’s interpretation, rushing through the exhibition, I overlooked this narrative. My first impression in the gallery was that the images may have been recording a gang rape. Also I wondered to what extent these images were truly documentary or staged. But a second look at Yoshiyuki’s photos bears out Ayerza’s interpretation. One begins to think of these highly intrusive voyeurs—who are no longer voyeurs but active players—as metaphorical embodiments of the photographer and the viewer following his or her evolutionary impulses, passing through the voyeuristic mirror into this infrared park. The question is what do we become part of by looking at these images?
Even clad in “art” frames these images are clinical, the infrared black and whiteness suggests a certain pornographic prurience, but the narrative dimension outlined above evokes something more akin to the orgy scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point,1970, which was a celebration of the libertarianism that exploded in the 1960s. Antonioni’s was a luscious romantic utopianism which is so intellectually sloppy that it is unwatchable now. Yoshiyuki’s, in contrast, is more pragmatic, more anthropological. One could liken his photographs to the activity of a scientist recording nocturnal animal behaviour; except, in this case we are the same species, and have an intense interest in ourselves—although this does not necessarily mean that we understand ourselves any better than we do other species of animal.
A final comment regards the fact that the Berlin Biennial is primarily an exhibition of contemporary art, so why the history? Personally I found this historical piece quite a relief after experiencing the more contemporary but quite vapid sculpture and graphics on show in the KW Institute. Interestingly we overheard a visitor at the other core venue—the Neue Nationalgalerie—say of the work on view there “it’s like Documenta” referring to the notorious Documenta 12 of 2007 (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). Fortunately there were some interesting videos at the KW Institute, but there could have been more.