Date(s) - 21st Sep 2020 - 30th Nov 2020
Goh Mishima | Gengoroh Tagame | Jiraiya
After many months of correspondence and virtual meetings with Durk Dehner, president of Tom of Finland Foundation, and his team, I was at last headed to meet face-to-face at TOM House—the office of the Foundation, a museum dedicated to Tom, and a residence to some of the team who runs it. It was a mild and clear late morning in LA, the sun was bright and I was excited and still slightly jet lagged from my flight from Tokyo.
I was welcomed by Durk and his team upon arrival into a dining room that is best described as a cross between my grandma’s and a gay porn stars: heavy wooden table and chairs with old-school charm, decorated with dicks and muscle-boys. Some of the Foundation’s team members were clad with full leather gear: trousers, boots and all, on a Tuesday morning, and all I kept thinking was how universal gay aesthetics are. You can be in Europe, America, or Asia, in a gay club, cafe, or indeed, a homely dining room, and it doesn’t really matter, as a particular aesthetic language binds all the locations and settings.
It is the hypermasculinity-charged environments and depictions that became synonymous with Tom of Finland’s works—exaggerated muscles, enlarged penises, and a gaze full of lust. Of course, this is hardly what homosexuality is all about, but the visual language it has developed, the fashion it created and inspired: from the Castro-clone man, to the policeman and leather-clad biker, to the Village People, and the ubiquitous mustache and sideburns—are all gay. “Very gay.”
Tom of Finland, his art, and his tireless activist work for the rights of LGBTQ people, have inspired a couple of generations. It is easy to credit him for impact and awareness in the US and Europe, but important to highlight that his reach was much wider, and even here, in Japan, artists and LGBTQ people were inspired by him and his works.
The exhibition at The Container, An Ode to Tom, was initially roused by some conversations I had with Durk Dehner, and features artworks by three Japanese homoerotic artists that evolved to be pivotal in the representation of homosexuality in contemporary Japanese art: Goh Mishima, Gengoroh Tagame, and Jiraiya. All three artists have spoken openly in the past about drawing inspiration from Tom of Finland’s imagery and political activist works, and represent also two generations of homoerotic artists in Japan.
Goh Mishima (1924-1988) was one of the central figures of the first wave of contemporary gay artists in Japan (as defined by Gengoroh Tagame’s art history reference). Similarly to Tom of Finland, he had started his adult life with a military career and had his first homosexual experiences in the military. His service in many ways defined his aesthetics and appreciation for the male body and masculinity, as well as direct influence from the works of Tom of Finland after he discovered his drawings in the late ’50s.
Mishima’s earlier works are typified by illustration-like depictions of athletic men, often fashioning crew-cut hairstyles and adorned by Japanese-styled tattoos (irezumi). Mishima’s interest with this style of tattoos may derive from his fascination with the yakuza, who coincidentally, also operated at the time many of the gay bars and clubs in Tokyo’s gay area, Shinjuku Ni-chome. The drawings are clean and reminiscent of classical artistic nudes, with added sexually-charged compositions. Most of them do not reveal the body in full or the genitals.
Later works, following the death of his good friend Yukio Mishima, turned more morbid, where compositions of violence, shibari (Japanese bondage), and torture became more commonplace. These later drawings also featured genitals more frequently, and have a more aggressive and more pornographic nature. In the exhibition we are featuring both types of works to give a well-rounded insight into Mishima’s practice.
Gengoroh Tagame (1964-present) is Japan’s most celebrated and internationally renowned contemporary gay artist. In addition to his prolific practice as a manga artist, he is also a well respected academic, art historian, a published writer, and an archivist of Japanese homoerotic art. Indeed, most of the pieces by Mishima we are showcasing in this exhibition are kindly borrowed from Tagame’s private collection (with the exception of one, which we received from the collection of Tom of Finland Foundation.)
Tagame’s works are characterized by his fascination with fetishism, in particular sadomasochism, torture, and bondage and an aesthetic sensibility that is detached from reality and rooted in a newly constructed fictional actuality. His interest in fetishism had evolved already in his childhood and teenage years, while realizing his sexual orientation and coming to terms with it. His particular style and interests had broadened after his graduation from “Tamabi” (Tama University of the Arts) and following extensive international travels, that enabled him not only to expand his personal sexual horizon, but also to be introduced to many types of decorative and religious art elements that found themselves influential in the aesthetic language that he developed.
Much of Tagame’s artistic and activist ideology has matured in the mid ’90s with the realization that Japan’s conservative attitude towards homosexuality lacked any kind of representation of gay culture or LGBTQ awareness. This cognizance encouraged Tagame to reevaluate his own position as an artist and led him to redefine his role exclusively as a contemporary Japanese gay artist, hand-in-hand with political activism to bring attention and recognition to LGBTQ issues in Japan. His artistic contributions as a manga artist, as well as his activist work and academic work, are integral of the progress LGBTQ people have made in Japan in the last few decades. Tagame is one of the most open and vocal forces in Japan about homosexuality, and has been indispensable to contemporary efforts to bring awareness and acceptance to LGBTQ people. In the last 15 years Tagame’s work also became recognized and influential in the international arena with exhibitions and publications worldwide, and forced its way even into the mainstream in Japan, with commissions from the national broadcaster (NHK).
In the exhibition at The Container we showcase a selection of works that explore the many faces and influences of Tagame’s works—from his pencil and acrylic clean and stylized pin ups, to the torturous pen and ink compositions of Ginjiroh, his graphic depictions of fetishism, and the mythology-inspired painting “Ikigimo”, showcasing yōkai (monsters) eating the organs of a living man (ikigimo is the Japanese term for the act of eating a living human’s liver in order to gain power, based on an old myth from China).
Lastly, the exhibition also features a number of digital drawings of the reclusive Japanese illustrator and gay manga artist Jiraiya (1967-present). He is the most playful selection for this exhibition and represents a lighter and more joyful perspective of the Japanese LGBTQ community. His drawings usually portray Japanese beefcake pinups / couples (gachimuchi, a term used to describe chubby-muscular men), often fashioning traditional Japanese accessories or paraphernalia. They are frolicsome and merry, a high contrast to the loaded and dark imagery of Tagame and Mishima.
Jiraiya was introduced to gay culture in his twenties, after discovering Japan’s gay magazine Sabu, the same magazine that inspired Tagame in his youth and by the late ’80s featured his work heavily. Indeed, Jiraiya points out that he was profoundly influenced by Tagame’s work, and later, also by the works of Tom of Finland. His professional work, however, as a gay manga artist did not unfold till the late ’90s, when he was already in his thirties, after publishing works in the Japanese gay lifestyle magazine G-Men, where Tagame served as the resident cover artist. By 2001, after Tagame’s retirement from the magazine, Jiraiya took over to become G-Men’s cover artist, as well as manga contributor.
Jiraiya’s works reflect his personal relationship to homosexuality—closeted and reclusive he evades political or activist confrontations and focuses more on social aspects of gayness: drinking, romance, group sex, and playing sports. His, almost exclusively digital, illustrations of effervescent men have a commercial and affable quality which found their way also to clothing and brand collaborations worldwide. While he did not position himself to consciously create awareness to LGBTQ people in Japan, his joyous and masculine Asian men, helped to challenge the perception of the western notion that Asian men are effeminate and androgynous, and indeed, define in many ways, the fashion and demeanor of contemporary gay men in Japan.
Similarly to the impact Tom of Finland’s works have made in Europe and the US on LGBTQ lifestyle, aesthetics, and rights, these selection of three Japanese homoerotic artists contributed to increased awareness and change of attitudes in Japan towards LGBTQ people. While much work still needs to be done to recognizing the rights of LGBTQ people in Japan, there is a slow and gradual social transformation that pushes for equality and acceptance. Mishima, Tagame, and Jiraiya are some of the catalysts that promoted these social changes, and are credited through their relentless artistic efforts to bring a change for the next generation of gay people in Japan.
The Container is proud to give a platform to these efforts to make a positive change, and to create an opportunity for discourse in Japan, through artworks, for social equality and the rights and inclusion of social minorities.
-Shai Ohayon, curator
in 1999, a cocktail reception was held at TOM House in Los Angeles to honor the famous pioneer of Japan’s gay community Mr. Bungaku Ito, editor-in-chief of Barazoku Magazine, Japan’s preeminent publication for gay men. Mr. Ito presented Tom of Finland Foundation with three pieces of erotic art. Know as the Father of the Japanese Gay Movement, Mr. Ito selected each piece from his private collection, which is believed to be the largest assemblage of homoerotic art in Japan. In 1971, Mr. Ito began publication of Barazoku, and over its often tumultuous twenty-eight year history, the magazine has featured original drawings and illustrations by Go Mishima, Go Hirano, Tatsuji Okawas, and Sadeo Hasegawa, as well as other Japanese erotic artists.
— Pen Magazine (@Pen_magazine) September 15, 2020
— 田亀源五郎 (@tagagen) September 22, 2020
Published: 21st September 2020
Categorised in: Exhibitions - Other Artists