Maki Miyashita at Guardian Garden

by Monty DiPietro

Once in a while, an artist asks me to get involved. I’m not referring to requests for information or introductions or previews or reviews – those come all the time. No, on occasion, an artist, usually a younger one, wants me to participate in the actual making of their work. This happened several months ago when up-and-coming photographer Maki Miyashita called to ask if I would consent to appear in an ongoing project of hers which, she explained, involved about 60 young women in lingerie. I regard supporting young artists not as a duty but as a pleasure, I told Miyashita, and agreed to do my part.

The pictures caught judges’ attention at the Recruit Co.’s 1998 Shashin Hitotsubo, and part of Miyashita’s grand prize booty is a solo exhibition now on at the publishing and human resource company’s Ginza art space, Guardian Garden. Sixty 35cm x 50cm color prints make up the show "Rooms and Underwear," whose title, it should be pointed out, looses a pun in the translation. The show features, well, girls in their rooms, wearing their underwear, and a guy – me.

Ok, so I’m only in one picture, and the woman posing with me is my girlfriend. I made it clear that it would be my pleasure to act as a model at other shoots, or even to, say, hold a light or something, but Miyashita declined. "It’s important that the subjects are relaxed and the environment natural," she said, "that they don’t clean their rooms before the shoot, for example."

The rooms look natural, to be sure, very much like the interiors featured in Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s excellent book "Tokyo Style." These are spaces that could only be inhabited by females of a certain age group. Hello Kitty dolls and Jean Luc Godard posters share shelf and wall space with surfboards and stereos. Electrical cords octopus around overflowing ashtrays, and in the midst of the mess stands, sits, or reclines the queen of the chaos, a single young woman. But if the tableau is meant to be natural, then why the bra and panties dress code? "Because that’s what women wear when they are relaxing," answers Miyashita, without missing a beat.

Is it, really? This is, in essence, what both titillates and discomforts me about these photographs and Miyashita’s voyeurism, the appeal of which lies primarily in the privacy the camera is invited to explore. It is unlikely that Miyashita’s subjects, most of whom are complete strangers, would have permitted this invasion if the photographer were male. And if the above statement, "(bras and panties are) what women wear when they are relaxing," were made by a male photographer, I would lampoon this show as infantile and sexist. But here we have a young female artist who, with a world of subjects out there, chooses to choreograph a male fantasy, and frame it as the truth.

When then-17 year old Hiromix began snapping and showing her half-undressed self portraits a few years ago, it appeared that Japanese women might begin reclaiming their sexuality, art-wise, in a medium that affords easy access. At first, the nation’s photography senseis scoffed at the amateurish results, but a good many people (most of them also young women) either took notice or took up a camera themselves, and a grass-roots photodocumentary movement was born. But whether our new group of Japanese female photographers have really taken control of their sexuality, or whether they have simply borrowed it back from the male-dominated art establishment with the sine quo non that erotica gets play, remains to be seen.

While it seems unlikely to me that Miyashita would have won the Recruit prize with photographs of boys, it could also be argued that young artists have traditionally taken familiar things as early subjects, and that, anyway, girls are Miyashita’s audience, and girls want to see how other girls live, something the artist does a fine job of documenting. If only the flimsy outfits didn’t suggest that when young Japanese women hold up a mirror, they see a male-created stereotype staring back.

notes: At Guardian Garden (5568-8818) from Nov 9 – Nov 26 1998.