Gaze without subjectivity: Kohei Yoshiyuki and Yoko Asakai

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1972, from the series The Park, Gelatin Silver Print 50.8 x 60.96 cm © Kohei Yoshiyuki. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

In a world of mass photographic surveillance, what makes a photograph art?

Kohei Yoshiyuki shot to fame in the West a few years ago for his 1970s series The Park featuring infrared photos of amorous couples in a night-time Tokyo park, and their surreptitious audience of peeping toms. Rather than debating whether or not The Park fits any narrow definition of what constitutes art, it is more appropriate to contextualise it as the cultural product of a particularly turbulent and passion-fuelled period in modern Japanese history. Even if a cultural product is a confused expression, marginal in terms of social norms, it is vital in that it captures atmosphere and unique manners and mores, in this case of the early 1970s when Yoshiyuki began shooting his series.

Amid Japan’s post-war recovery, the period from the 1950s through the 1970s was a major turning point not only in economic progress, but also politics, social issues, ideas, fine art, literature and criticism.[1] The conflicts accompanying the upheaval in art and new technologies coexisted in a swirling maelstrom of energy that encompassed any and every possibility, including the suspect, sinister, and deranged. Within this, the multi-disciplinary practice that is part of the contemporary art mainstream today was advanced in substance, even if the concept itself was still absent.

In the artworld, the decade from around 1955 to the first half of the 1960s marked the zenith of the “Anti-Art” (Han-Geijutsu) debate, played out in the practice of several artist groups – those with international profiles such as Gutai Art Association and High Red Center, and others little-known outside Japan.[2] “Anti-Art” in Japan was not a protest against high art in an attempt to drag the arts down to an everyday level in the vein of the Informel movement introduced to Japan from the West in the 1950s.

Japan never had the Western word or concept for art to start with, and the term bijutsu, a translation from German first deployed for convenience to categorise Japanese exhibits at Vienna’s 1873 world exposition, was not associated with the Western concept of art. [3] From the modernisation starting in the Meiji period (1868–1912), encounters with Western art began to cause complex fissures in Japanese art, and discourse to the effect that “contemporary art has yet to emerge in Japan”. The comments of present-day art critics such as Shigeo Chiba and Noi Sawaragi can to some extent be traced back to this.

While the Osaka Expo of 1970 – Asia’s first world exposition – created a presence for Japan on the international stage, art movements springing up in the late 1960s to early 1970s emerged out of a feeling during this period that modern progressivism had run its course. These movements including “Mono-ha”, the Bikyoto (literally “Artists Joint-Struggle Council” ) centred on art students arising from the nationwide student anti-authority protest movement Zenkyoto (Zengaku Kyoto Kaigi, literally “All-Campus Joint-Struggle Council”), and Japanese conceptual art driven by practitioners including Yutaka Matsuzawa. This cluster of art movements – Gutai, Anti-Art, Mono-ha and so on were manifestations of a conflict that struggled to create art unique to Japan, out of chaos, independent of Western definitions of Japanese art.

Against this backdrop, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs of the period can perhaps be seen as deriving from the avant-garde art response to the times. But while they are part of contemporaneous cultural output, they did not emerge from conflict surrounding the essence of art, and fundamentally should be viewed as marginal to these two realms. Yoshiyuki first presented The Park in 1972 in the popular magazine Shukan Shincho (Shinchosha Publishing).

In 1980 he published Document: Park (Sebun-sha), a collection of photos that went on to form the basis of his 2007 exhibition in New York. In 1989, in the volume Midnight Focus: Mayonaka no Sekigaisen Tosatsu (from the entertainment publisher Tokuma Shoten Publishing) he assembled the story of his association with the park voyeurs, and details of how the series was shot after spending six months getting to know those observers in the shrubbery.[4] Judging by the medium chosen for its release, the series was not aimed at circulation as a work of art.

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1973, from the series The Park, Gelatin Silver Print © Kohei Yoshiyuki. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Originally it would have aligned with the “secret camera” genre of photography common in the Japanese weeklies that used tantalising, titillating articles to acquire huge readerships. It developed into something more than a simple secret camera piece by exposing the complicity between multilayered points of view – the watcher and the watched, Yoshiyuki watching and photographing the scene and the reader who looks at the photographs in turn becoming a watcher. Here lies something of the essence of photography as voyeurism.

More worthy of note is the urge to turn photography into art. Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, known also as the driving force behind the Museum‘s comprehensive and influential survey of post-war Japanese art, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (1994) notes that voyeurism is a common motif in Japanese culture, citing its depiction in the likes of eighteenth and nineteenth century erotic ukiyo-e prints, and in cinema. Munroe places The Park firmly in this Japanese art tradition.[5] Certainly at a glance this seems to be the case, but ukiyo-e were genre paintings so widely disseminated among the general public as to often be part of a bride’s trousseau, while neither erotic prints from the Edo period, nor magazine publication of The Park in the 1970s, were likely to have been enjoyed as art in the present-day sense.

Yoshiyuki’s first solo show was staged at the Komai Gallery in Tokyo in 1979. Then, having not released anything new since 1980, the photographer received rave reviews for his first US solo outing with The Park in 2007 at New York’s Yossi Milo Gallery. Since then it has gone on to be highly acclaimed in the West. Milo notes the connection between The Park and surveillance photography in the context of political and social concerns about the invasion of individual privacy in America today, and says that while conveying the “social and economic spirit of the 1970s in Japan”, at the same time it is also “very contemporary”. [6]

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the status of both a “newly discovered” and “unknown” Japanese custom and photographer has contributed to Yoshiyuki’s burgeoning profile and reputation overseas, far in excess of any kudos acquired at home. [7] This could be described as a modern version of cultural exoticism no different to Japonisme, and in it one can clearly see the system that turns photographs into art. Thanks to temporal and geographical distance, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photos now enjoy the status of art in the West.

Yoko Asakai, Queen of the Damned, Vienna, 2006, Type-C print © 2006 Yoko Asakai. Courtesy of Mujin-to Production, Tokyo.

Intersecting with Yoshiyuki in terms of stratified chains of gaze and the voyeur element is sight by up-and-coming contemporary photographer Yoko Asakai. Sight is a series of photos taken in nine cities in six countries from 2006 to 2010, for which Asakai photographed people watching movies of their choice at home, with no restrictions on subjects’ nationality, age or sex, the number of individuals watching the film, time of day, state of the room etc. The subjects’ appearance, their clothing, the room interior, the snacks they munch on all tell us much about their distinctive personalities, tastes, and living environment. Here we may also perceive the pleasure of being a voyeur.

By spending time with the subjects, and getting them to turn their minds to the movie in relaxing surroundings, Asakai makes them forget the camera; that is, forget they are being seen. Asakai captures the delicate states of mind of the subjects in which their gaze and consciousness will oscillate between those of movie watcher and watched; while immersed in the film, they will occasionally remember the presence of the camera. But Asakai does not photograph the instant in which the subjects realise the presence of the camera; rather, he tries to capture their psychological waves.

By not only choosing their home as the location, but deliberately building a structure of seeing/being seen by introducing another medium–the watched film–[8]Asakai draws out the artifice-free private state [9] of the subjects, and succeeds in underscoring their individuality. Sight is a congregation of urban lifestyles and individuals, but unlike the anthropological approach of August Sander or the obvious classification of objects found in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. It should be described rather as differentiating or individualising, with a gaze more respectful of individuality, getting closer to its object. Because Sight is based not on an unidirected “seeing” gaze; rather, it projects an interactive communication with the subject.

Portraits were once renderings by the hands of painters, symbols of wealth and power accessible only to a privileged few. But since the invention of photography in the nineteenth century the word portrait has also come to mean a photograph of a person. Now widely accessible, today’s portraits are no longer documents of special occasions; rather, they suffuse our daily lives, starting with the internet. And here – in addition to the technological advancement involved – is a change in the way in which see-er and seen communicate, and the authority attached to the gaze.

Yoko Asakai, Bambi, Berlin, 2006, Type-C print © 2006 Yoko Asakai. Courtesy of Mujin-to Production, Tokyo.

These days – when we are all potential photographers and subjects – for better or worse, the power concomitant in the gaze can be manipulated, hierarchy shattered and the defencelessness of those seen exposed. In this social climate, sight demonstrates the value of portraits produced by a one-on-one blending of perspectives based on a relationship of trust with the subject, and in practising an accumulation of individualities that is not classification, is similar to classic painting and photographic portraiture.

Thus, while placing itself firmly in the traditions of art/photography history, thanks to the variability of perspectives among photographer, subject, and audience, sight deconstructs the unidirectional power of the gaze as represented by Bentham’s panopticon. In doing so, it smoothly liberates the photograph from the bonds of ownership and symbolism, the “of whom, by whom, what”, and allows the work to stand on its own. Herein lies the contemporary universality of sight, irrespective of context, that sets it apart from Yoshiyuki’s The Park.

Today’s photography challenges the system surrounding the imperceptibly woven subject-free “see-er/seen” relationship. Photographers have an obligation to reveal images and ideas based on their connection to the subject. Nobuyoshi Araki, says “for a photographer a lack of subjectivity is paramount. As long as the other person has subjectivity, that’s enough ... Unless you take that approach, the photo will never show the truth, the genuine article.”[10] When the power associated with the gaze is ubiquitous, it is the social and cultural context, art system, and we the viewers who turn these photographs into art.


  1. ^ Major social and economic milestones in the post-war years begin with the 1952 signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty recognising Japan’s full sovereignty. 1955 saw the emergence of the Liberal Democratic Party, subsequently the party of government for a full 54 years until 2009, and the formation of the two-major-party ‘1955 System’ with the opposition benches occupied mainly by the Social Democratic Party. Around the same time Japan entered its first phase of post-war economic prosperity thanks to demand prompted by the Korean War, beginning the transition to high economic growth. Then, the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan in 1960 and automatic extension of the Treaty in 1970 gave rise to Japan’s largest anti-government, anti-American movement, driven by students and workers and accompanied by political upheaval.
  2. ^ ‘Anti-Art’ discourse revolved around the radical, avant-garde practice of a number of artist groups, in chronological order of formation: Gutai (1955), Kyushu-ha (1957, practicing from the previous year), Zero Jigen (1958), Neo Dadaism Organisers (1959), Group Sweet (1962), Jikan-ha (1962), and High Red Center (1963; launched happenings previous year as Pre High Red Center), and the Yomiuri Indépendant show (1949-63) that formed their foundations.
  3. ^ Noriaki Kitazawa in Me no Shinden Tokyo, Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1989, p. 105-181.
  4. ^ Philip Gefter, ‘Sex in the Part, and Its Sneaky Spectators’, The New York Times, 23 Sept 2007.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Email from Yoko Asakai to the author, 2 Nov 2010.
  9. ^ Ibid. 
  10. ^ Nobuyoshi Araki, Biography 1991-2000, Nobuyoshi Araki official website, 2011, accessed 3 April.

Shihoko Iida joined the Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation in 1998 for the inauguration of its art gallery and worked there as a curator until September 2009. In July 2011 she completed two years as a visiting curator in the Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

This article has been translated by Pamela Miki