In the Kinky City

Pawel Jaszcuk’s seedy photographs of Tokyo in an exhibition at Zen Foto Gallery.

poster for Pawel Jaszczuk

Pawel Jaszczuk "Kinky City"

at Zen Foto Gallery
in the Roppongi, Nogizaka area
This event has ended - (2010-06-04 - 2010-06-20)

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In Reviews by Sophie Knight 2010-06-11

I entertain myself on trains in Tokyo by watching one of Japan’s most enduring stereotypes; salarymen. Usually found in their natural habitat of a colourless office, members of this penguin-coloured species commonly subsists on a slurry of canned coffee, menthol cigarettes, large tankards of beer and hurriedly slurped noodles. Aesthetically uniform and ubiquitous, they become part of the familiar and predictable wallpaper of the city; white shirt, black suit, tired eyes, pointy shoes. Staring down the train carriage at the rows of slumped, identikit drones, it is easy to imagine that their lives are equally colourless and repetitive. But wait; hold that thought. Fix your eyes on one; imagine him stripped to the waist and being flagellated by two girls half his age wearing cartoon character masks. It’ll make the train ride go a lot quicker, I promise you.

This is the arresting image that greets me at Zen Foto: executives literally caught with their trousers down, their shirts snagged in bondage ropes tied to hooks on the wall. The cluster of photographs around it look like the fragmented memories of an orgy; a mélange of mouths, hands, bodily fluids interspersed with whips and tightly knotted shibari rope. A line of raised scarification marks run down a neck; expanses of skin shimmer, dimly lit and beaded with sweat.

Pawel Jaszczuk, 'Kinky City'The shock value of the images, however, is belied by their smoky black and white rendering, which imbues them with a kind of timeless elegance. From a distance, these could be ballet dancers, athletes – masters of the flesh in a very different sense. Yet up close, the luminous bodies are charged with sensual energy. The lead image for the show, for all its sass and scent of sex, is the most demure here; a woman’s shapely bottom, tightly sheathed in polka-dotted lycra and caught with the hips mid-swing.

This in itself is a rare sight in Tokyo, where many — if not most — women assume a knock-kneed, pigeon-toed shuffle, that seems decidedly unsexy. Before I lived here, I imagined it to be a lascivious and erotically charged city, peppered with underground joints where all manner of kinkiness occurs nightly. This illusion is perpetrated not only by Japan’s own exports — such as photographer Araki and his ilk, as well as the renowned pornography industry — but also the foreign media, who prefer to reinforce images of a “bizarre” and fruity Japan. Tourists, still drunk on the perception that the city is pickled in freely available sleaze, head to Roppongi for inauthentic and overpriced kicks. For long term inhabitants, however — both native and foreign — it is easy to sink into a quotidian existence of offices, work, supermarket, bars — with nary a reminder of the more liminal experiences out there.

Despite this, Japan, with its rigidly defined social roles and prescribed, ritualized behaviour, is a fertile ground for clandestine transgression. Context defines action far more than it does in the west — meaning that different roles, masks and personalities can be assumed according to the circumstances. The bondaged breasts, the nymph mask, and the swinging ass all belong to people who live and work in this metropolis: perhaps the man who granted you the bank loan last week, or the girl who served you in the conbini this morning. But at night, under wraps, they escape to let their fantasies run riot and the rules dissolve. The fascinating part of fetishes is that they belong to ordinary people — like salarymen on the train.

Pawel Jaszczuk, 'Kinky City'

Salarymen were in fact the subject of one of Pawel Jaszczuk’s books, in which he chronicled their spectacular talent for passing out in a drunken stupor on train platforms, stairways and other public spaces. A humorous and somewhat surreal peek into the darker side of Japanese daily life, it seems the natural precursor to his attempt to peel back the daytime masks in “Kinky City.” Motivated by curiosity and a hunger for some of the more extreme experiences on offer in his adopted home, Jaszczuk notes that he merely acts as a background observer, aiming to document rather than interfere in the scene.

Pawel Jaszczuk, 'Kinky City'

The intimacy and extremity caught on camera, however, is impressive. Away from the chaotic clusters of photographs (where a new image leaps out every time you look), there is a single, large image of a woman’s face, pale and glistening with tears. Haunting and provocative, one ponders the cause of her pain — or is it pleasure? While it might be easy to see her as another poster girl for the “submissive Japanese woman” trope, she exudes a quiet but steely strength. With such titillating and sensual subject matter, the line between art and pornography can be a thin on. But Jaszczuk is firmly on the side of the former, as he lacks the objectifying voyeurism of the latter. His photographs, like the best art, enlighten us to those layers of life and experience that we may have missed; and imbue beauty in scenes where we might not have imagined it.

Sophie Knight

Sophie Knight. Born in what she likes to refer to as the ‘Saitama of London’, Sophie's fetish for foreign languages and hatred of puddles meant she always had itchy feet. After enduring a homestay in Fukuoka and bussing her way through South America, she studied Social Anthropology in London, which convinced her of the essential essence of mankind... and that she had to get away from England. She came back to Japan after a brief stint in Barcelona to find some of the electric nuttiness and zarusoba she had been craving. She now spends her days deciphering Japanese newspapers, translating, writing a zine, speeding around Tokyo on her racing bike to discover tucked-away galleries, making bentos, injuring herself pole-dancing and getting used to the fact that nothing interesting is ever at ground-level in this city. » See other writings

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