Public Sex, Public Art

Added by GF Wahlquist on April 10 2010, at 7:06 pm
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  • It dawned on me yesterday that I hadn't looked at or even much thought about art since returning from New York to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, so in the effort to distract myself from another subject of study (by the way, if you're driving around with dope in your car, keep it in the trunk) I decided to take a walk around the corner and stop in at M+B in West Hollywood. (Side note: the vast majority of the shows M+B puts on are really solid, yet I rarely see them written up in either the Los Angeles press or in major art publications. What's up with that? Is it because they often show work that's not exactly new? Does the near hegemony of abstract photography and Pictures-esque examinations of the production and dissemination of images in this town scare people off from other photographic practices?)

    The gallery has mounted the first large scale exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki's "The Park". I've seen these pictures before at SFMOMA, but never so many of them in one place, and the show is a knockout. Yoshiyuki, with the aid of infrared film and a filtered flash, patrolled Chuo Park in Shinjuku in the early 1970s and (without the consent of the subjects, although consent on this score is a tricky proposition) photographed various denizens of Tokyo in flagrante delicto in the parks at night. The lurid activity going on is not exactly the focus of the pictures. Rather, Yoshiyuki frames the scenes in such a way that the real subjects are not the lovers themselves, but various observers and peepers, some masturbating, some not. In many images, the peepers become so bold as to actually reach out and touch those actually engaged in the sex acts, who seem not to mind at all.

    (Untitled, Plate 31, 1971)

    As per the gallery's press release (and general critical consensus), the photographs implicate the viewer as yet just another peeper, meditating on the scophophilic nature of a great deal of photographic practice. The grainy, from-the-hip style of the pictures calls to mind Robert Frank, Weegee, and other key photographic figures of the mid-twentieth century. Yet there's a lot more going on in the work than consideration of tropes of photography (however interesting they may be), and that is where the real interest lies.

    (Untitled, Plate 59, 1979)

    For starters, I was surprised by how egalitarian and democratic the images and activities are. The couples (and sometimes threesomes and more) represent a broad cross section of the spectrum of human sexuality. There is definitely a culture of park cruising in the United States, even now, surprisingly enough, but it's always seemed to me a uniformly gay male affair. This egalitarian spirit makes it clear that Yoshiyuki's intent with the series was more anthropological and political than erotic. This is particularly perspicuous when the images are contrasted with another body of Yoshiyuki's work represented in the exhibition, the companion project "Love Hotel", which are stills pulled from videotapes made by clients of Japan's love hotels (they rent by the hour). "Love Hotel" is definitely erotic work, and actually less successful, although it did made me wonder if Thomas Ruff has ever discussed his own sex pictures in relationship to them, as the similarities are striking.

    (Untitled No. 7, 1978)

    The real subject of the photos, it seems to me, is not sex but the idea of public space. Sex is generally considered one of the most private of affairs, whereas park lands are usually considered paradigmatic examples of public space. "The Park" is thus an examination of intimate activity brought out into the open, and the way in which when that occurs, the supposedly dichotomous nature of the public and private is confounded. Much has been written on the supposedly problematic ethical status of Yoshiyuki's pictures - the models never formally "consented", but such a contention misses the point. When you engage in sex in public, you of course assume the risk that you will be seen. That, in fact, is the point. Bringing sex into public space spectacularizes it, turning it into an act of performance. I suppose that for at least some of those who engage in public sex, this performative (public) aspect of it may also simultaneously heighten its intimate aspects. The public and the private, in this case, are mutually determining and founding, but also easily slide into one another, like a mobius strip. As a legal scholar, the relative privateness or publicness of sex is also of interest to me. Freedom of sexual expression in the United States is grounded in the right to privacy, resulting in the interesting paradox that in order for sexual freedom to be publicly recognized and guaranteed, it must first be privatized. Some legal scholars have referred to this as the "closeting" of sexuality. (See: Lawrence v. Texas)

    (Untitled, Plate 24, 1973)

    It's this emphasis on the idea of the public v. the private that seems most relevant about "The Park" now, particularly in Los Angeles. LA is having a public art orgy at the moment, with a new public art nonprofit surfacing seemingly every few months. USC's Master of Public Art Studies puts on program after program concerning the subject. For me, one of the often frustrating things about "public art" in Los Angeles (and perhaps elsewhere, although I can't speak to that from personal experience) is the nebulousness of what is considered its subject, and furthermore, what we even mean when we say "the public." Asking an artist or critic in LA what they mean when they say "the public" is often like reading the apophatic theology of the medieval period: everyone knows what it's not, but no one can say what it is. The question I want to raise is whether the mobius-strip-like nature of public/private on view in Yoshiyuki's photos might function as a possible answer. I think that, in spite of the fact that the exhibition here on view is a commercial affair, existing in the "private" space of the gallery, that it is nonetheless a species of public art, at least inasmuch as it meditates on the collision of the public and the private. (Conversely, just because something occurs "in public" and is sponsored by a nonprofit or government entity does not mean it is public art, at least when there seems to be no substantive critical public address going on. See: Jeff Koons, Puppy.) Regardless, if we want to move the practice of "public art" forward, as a preliminary matter we ought to attempt to arrive at a coherent notion of what "the public" really means, however tendentious and temporary. Such a definition should itself be suitably public; that is, it should be capable of migrating or being translated out of the language of critical theory and into language that is legible to the broader public itself. (I love Zizek and Agamben as well as the next guy, but if you think you'll get anywhere with public agencies or sponsors by riffing on discourse, you, sir, are mistaken.) Finally, whatever the "public" in "public art" means, it should at least be broad enough to sweep in bodies of work that, whatever their commercial origins or terminal points, include thoughtful interrogations of public space such as Yoshiyuki's.