Barefoot in the Park (and more)

Larry Craig – The Guardian

Copyright The Guardian
Anyone looking for sex in a public place is in effect asking to be looked at and perhaps found out. The likelihood of exposure – of being recognised by a partner or featured one day in the police blotter – is so high it should be factored into any sexcapade in a city park or an airport restroom. For some, this calculation no doubt stokes the heat of the encounter. Anyone who just wants to get it on with a stranger can usually do so in relative privacy. That’s why God invented escort services.
The American public’s fascination with the Larry Craig case has a lot to do with the insane risks he allegedly took in his quest for sex and, of course, the delicious hypocrisy of a family-values US senator caught in a bathroom stall with his pants down. The arrest report also turned a flashlight on the rituals of a hitherto underground world. The elaborate codes that initiate gay dalliances in public restrooms, the toe-tapping and under-the-partition hand wipes, were news to many and probably invented, as were those in espionage tradecraft, to heighten the illicit thrill for the participants as well as to cloak the action from the uninformed.
Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs of Japanese having sex at night in Tokyo’s public parks, which ran at the Yossi Milo gallery in New York and now moves to the Doug Udell gallery in Vancouver on November 22, are revelatory in much the same way. They would simply be tawdry and exploitive if they weren’t also, like the Craig saga, so odd and funny. The behavior they record has to my knowledge never been recorded before on film. In an essay that accompanies a reissue of The Park, the long out of print book that for most people has been the only source until now about Yoshiyuki and his work, the critic, Vince Aletti, calls them “among the strangest photographs ever made”.
Taken between 1971 – 1979 at a time when sex all over the world was more crazy-casual than it is now, the pictures show both straights and gays getting their rocks off under trees and on the bare ground. Yoshiyuki shot with infrared film and a discreet electronic flash so that he himself was all but invisible. The figures loom in the foreground as bright smears, their limbs entangled and eyes glowing monster-like from the tiny explosions of light. Faint traces of the city can be seen in the distance in a few pictures. But civilisation is for the most part beyond the frame, as black night swallows the actors in primeval darkness.
What makes the work extraordinary are the many levels of voyeurism expressed or implied. Yoshiyuki has trained his camera on his countrymen as an African wildlife photographer might track lions by moonlight, or Jacques Cousteau might descend in a bathysphere to study unusual creatures on the ocean floor. The general tone here is amazed but also tender, one of wonder at what a photograph can and can’t convey about so intimate (and ludicrous) a human act. The sexual gestures are seldom explicit. Genital close-ups, the money shots so crucial to pornography, are nowhere to be seen.
As with any voyeuristic activity, especially one involving sex in public, there is a contagious furtiveness to the work. It can be sensed in the denizens of the park themselves, hiding under bushes and behind tree trunks. But a wary stance is also evident from Yoshiyuki, crouched low and trying to focus without being seen, and from viewers, who will be uncertain if it is proper or even legal to gaze at these kinds of photographs. (During the only other time this body of work has been exhibited, at a Tokyo gallery in 1979, the space was kept dark and visitors were given flashlights to illuminate the prints on the walls.)
Yoshiyuki adds further complicating layers when in several pictures he captures small groups of Japanese men who have taken their cameras into the parks to take snapshots of couples in flagrante delicto. It may be the predatory nature and pack behavior of the enterprise, like a stag club on a nocturnal picnic, that makes their behaviour seem creepy while Yoshiyuki, who of course is doing much the same thing, albeit alone and ostensibly for other purposes, is spared such a judgment. Even if he is undeniably complicit in peeping, he stands coolly apart from the acts of lust and longing he has captured.
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