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Masayuki Yoshinaga at the Parco Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

There is a giant mass of a figure towering in the center of the room, all wrapped up in a surreal green and white outfit that lumps from the top of the head down to the bottom of the stiletto heals, leaving only a heavily farded face to shine out in a playfully menacing manner. There is a half-naked, gender-bending individual prancing around with an electric "I love Anal" sign flashing atop their fluorescent pink wig. Meanwhile, standing at the doorway in a morning coat and striped trousers, wearing a sash with the title of his exhibition draped across his chest, is the ringleader of this quasi-Parisian art circus: Masayuki Yoshinaga.

There is a sly smile playing on Yoshinaga’s lips, and for good reason: Whereas many of today’s new Japanese artists are self-effacingly subdued, here is a man who knows how to make a big splash. As his opening party suggests, Yoshinaga, at a youngish 35 years of age, is well on his way to succeeding lubricious little Nobuyoshi Araki as Japan’s best-known bad boy photographer. Like Araki, he will achieve this by flirting with taboos.

In "Catalogue 35," now showing at the Parco Gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, Yoshinaga displays a welcome combination of technical ability, documentary-style objectivity, and compositional savvy to bring the viewer into the world of Japan’s various counterculture tribes. The exhibition marks the release of the artist’s Photo Musé book "No Excuses," and includes some 70 black and white and color prints featured in the 264-page publication.

"It’s not that I’m an actual uyoku or bosozoku member," smiles the artist when asked how he got so close to his subjects, "I’m completely different."

Indeed. However he achieves it, Yoshinaga’s seemingly unlimited access to uyoku (ultra nationalists) and bosozoku (motorcycle gangs) is part of what makes this show so interesting. Witness a bunch of the bosozoku boys posing with their bikes. The customized machines, what with the favored colors being baby blues and pinks, and favored accessories being sissy bars and banana seats, look more than a little cute, in a slightly awkward way. The riders however, with their no-nonsense scowls, try their best to look anything but friendly, anything but cute. The affected expressions and boy/bike juxtaposition are just too amusing.

But the amusement changes when Yoshinaga takes us out on the road with the gang: See the boys in all their regalia, standing around in a parking lot and plotting their night of mischief. Follow them out onto the streets where, fifty strong, they buzz the hated neighborhoods they grew up in. Watch as they jump on an outsider, some scooter rider it appears, and, after knocking the fellow down, pummel his turtling body with bats and sticks.

One of the more interesting messages suggested by Yoshinaga’s work is that there is a natural connection between the bosozoku and the uyoku, as many of the portraits of not-quite-young-but-not-yet-old gang members leave one wondering whether the face belongs behind a flu mask on a little pink bike or behind a megaphone in a big black bus.

A mob is a mob is a mob, and Yoshinaga’s photos the yakuza (Japanese mafia) are equally engaging and disturbing. One of a pair of prints on the Parco’s west wall, for example, shows a group of casually-dressed men standing around in a field, looking a little tense. The companion shot depicts the same bunch, this time stripped from the waist up to show off the tattoos that cover their chests and spiral down their arms. It is in this second picture, all smiling and joking together, that the men seem most at ease with what they are.

Also prominent in the show are the night club transvestites Yoshinaga invited by to spice up his opening party, as well as the blond, the pierced, and the tanned boys and girls of suburbia. The wannabe-tough hip hop boys in their oversized but spotless and freshly pressed Gap khakis are also here, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t wear a blue suit qualifies for inclusion in Yoshinaga’s counterculture survey.

What might be the most remarkable thing about "Catalogue 35" is that almost everybody pictured in the exhibition, even the half-naked, seems to have rebelled against one uniform by fitting themselves into another uniform.

Notes: "Catalogue 35," by Masayuki Yoshinaga is at the Parco Gallery in Shibuya (3477-5873) to Feb 29, 2000.