Space in CyberSpace

The Invisible Male Body

Filozofski vestik XXIII "The Body", 2002

This article is included in Filozofski vestik XXIII "The Body", 2002, an interdisciplinary philosophy journal edited by an artist/critique Marina Grzinić Mauhler, and published by the Institute of Philosophy at the scientific research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Science & Arts (ZRC SAZU), Ljubljana.

Two pieces of conversation I have recently had with friends motivated me to write on this subject. One is about pieces of paper I always find thrown into my mailbox at my apartment in Kyoto. They are all of the same size, as small as a page of a pocket paperback, showing naked young female bodies, with their stereotypically innocent-looking faces unsuitable to their provocative poses. They are advertisements of 'sex delivery service,' which is quite common in Japan's urban areas today. Girls are delivered like pizza, and the customer is charged by every twenty minutes (maximum 120 minutes). I showed one I collected to a friend who was just visiting me at my place. She turned it around and found out there was another advertisement. On the other side, the leaflet was recruiting new ''workers,'' explaining how easy and safe the job was. On the bottom I even found an advertisement for males who would work as drivers sending a girl to the customer.

'Here you see,' said a friend, 'You can buy sex on one side, and sell it on the other. This kind of business used to be dominated by Yakuza, gangsters, and perhaps still is, but you can no longer detect any danger or crime in this advertisement. Prostitution has become part of industry in this country. Sex is just consumption, neat, safe and systematic. Girls are not forced to do it from poverty. They just want to make quick money for their own pleasure. So, what's wrong?'' I replied, 'Sex is always represented by representing female bodies, and they are too visible in the society. This overexposure blinds us, and makes our own bodies invisible. Male bodies are invisible behind the affluence of female ones. Perhaps male bodies are inseparable from industry itself. They are, in a way, merged into the system.

The other conversation was about the photo exhibition of Laurie Toby Edison, an American photographer, which took place in September 2001 at The National Museum of Art, Osaka . The show included works from two series of her work: Women En Large, Familiar Men and some from her new project: Women in Japan which she started. I have been interested in Edison's approach to photography, because she challenges the representation of human bodies that is deeply influenced by mass media. In mass media, you can never encounter fat female bodies unless they are supposed to illustrate something negative (the body before diet, for example) . In the same way, men's naked bodies are not shown as such, never seen as something ''familiar.'' They are always represented as signs of sexual (bodies of actors, rock musicians, etc.) or physical strength (those of athletes, football player, etc.). Edison's photography breaks this unspoken code, and makes us notice how invisible the human bodies are made in our society.

I know the curator of this exhibition, Ms. Akiko Kasuya, for many years. When the exhibition was over, I asked her what kind of response she got from visitors. ''It's amazing,'' she said. 'First I thought it would be the nudes of fat women that might be felt provocative to some audience. I was wrong. It was male bodies in Familiar Men series which turned out to be more embarrassing. 'Embarassing to whom?' I asked. 'To some middle-aged male viewers, those who work in the administrative office of the museum, for example. They found the series almost disgusting. They told me that they just couldn't stand looking at that part of her work.' 'Is it because they think male bodies are not something you can appreciate in the artwork?' 'Perhaps because those are the bodies of ordinary men, in a normal, everyday situation."

I thought she was right. If the male bodies were shown as something exceptional, like those of macho athletes, film stars or gays, these images could be accepted much easier. Finding the body marked as some extraordinary, the viewer would have a feeling of safety, feeling assured that he doesn't belong to what is represented here. But what we find in Edison's photos are just ordinary males. They are naked, but there is no appeal of physical strength, nor any sign of sexual seduction. So, the response that the curator told me about is an unreasonable one. Why should usual and ordinary male bodies be seen with embarrassment, while unusual and extraordinary ones are seen as a commonplace?

These conversations reminded me of a passage in a newly published book I happened to be reading then, whose title would be literally translated into What It Means to Make Love to a Man. The book is the record of a long talk by three female writers based on their experiences of men. The main topic of their conversation was how obsessed men are with limited image of sex and sexuality in our contemporary society. Among three is Tomoko Minami, a writer and sex worker who declares that she has seen more than thirty thousand penises(!) She has observed that many men seem to hate looking at their own naked body in the mirror. ''Many men feel the male body is ugly. They say their desire is spoiled by finding their own body in the mirror. It's perhaps because they are not accustomed to being looked at. They don't understand how women look at them, either in a sexual or non-sexual way.'' Sex industry exploits fantasy. It casts sexual fantasy into a certain mold, which is based on the dichotomy of the overexposed female body and the invisible male body. What interests me here is that, in the industrialized society, being a man is required to hide the individual body under his social function. Being a man means being able to identify oneself with what he is supposed to be in society, instead of what he really is. And I suppose this can be seen in Japan in an especially obvious form, as here modernization in this aspect has gone very far, even farther than Western countries.

Modernization has taken the form of standardization and uniformity. Uniform might be the key to think about the structure of desire in this culture. People love being uniform, because they are brought up in such a way as coming to love it. The uniform put on the body produces uniform sexual fantasy. Uniforms for female students and workers are very often associated with men's sexual fantasy (Miwa Yanagi, a contemporary Japanese artist, critically represented this shared male view in her early works) . On the other hand, uniforms for men show how they function in the system. By wearing uniforms, women have to suggest, and men have to deny, the existence of their body.

Here I am not only referring to uniforms like those of policemen, but to everything people put on the body to show how they should be treated. Uniform culture in this sense can be seen in two very popular male stereotypes in modern Japan: 'Salary-man' and 'Otaku.' 'Salary-man' is a Japanized English word for an office worker, but the important thing is that it implies that someone is decent, normal, average and safe. Their actual uniform is a suit and a tie in rather sober color. Salary-man' represents the sociable side of Japanese male identity. ''Otaku'' is the other extreme. They can be recognized by untidy clothes, disheveled hair, stubble and so on. They restrict their world to a particular field (like animation, computer manipulation, etc.) and typically lack in sociability and communication skill. They are sometimes even infamous for their 'loli-con,' the sexual fantasy about infant females (the word is derived from 'Lolita complex.'

These two types -- Salary-man and Otaku -- may seem to be opposite to each other, but they have the same desire in common, to deny their individual existence as a man. They share the hate to look at their own body, and try to hide behind the uniform appearance. It is important to understand these two characters stand for two basic functions of this society which enabled a quick development of the country: Salary-man represents cooperation spirit, while Otaku expertise in technology. What we can see behind the diffusion of these two popular male stereotypes is how important it has been in the process of industrialization to make the individual male body invisible, to make it an anonymous part in the system, and to maximize the efficiency of the state machine.

To make the male body invisible means, however, to set it up in the mythical dimension. The Japanese body has become a sanctuary, like the emperor's body used to be before the World War II. The body is not just invisible, but something that shouldn't be mentioned in secular words. Sheer racism can result from this, when people are to face the body issue. In 1994, some 'Onsen (hot spring) bathhouses in the small town in Hokkaido put up signs "Japanese only", because they have been disturbed by drunken Russian sailors. They tried to exclude all foreigners, but actually the nationality was not the point, The distinction was made between Japanese and ''foreign'' bodies. A person who had already been naturalized to Japan was denied to enter the bathhouse because he has a Western body.

In this context, I have been so much interested in works of art which attempt to resist this invisibility and mystification of the male body, and to recover the possibility of its representation. Miyako Ishiuchi has taken photographs of human bodies, both male and female, but they are not normal nude photos. Like Edison, she is interested in the aspect of the body that has been excluded in the mass media. She has been attracted, for example, to ''Scars'' on the body, the skin of old people, rough nails of middle-aged women and so on. Fortunately I had a chance to talk with her in 2000, for the first issue of the critical journal Diatxt. 'Why are you interested in ''scars'' and skin of elderly people?' I asked her. 'For me, the photograph is a means to visualize the flow of time, rather than fixing a moment,' she replied. ''Time is invisible, but you can see it on the human body.' In the course of conversation she mentioned the 'quietness' of the body in her works. Though her works include criticism of mass media which brainwash us everyday into the valuation of the perfect young body, they make us think by presenting an alternative way of looking at the body, rather than attacking the dominant way of representation.

In our context, it is important to look at, among her numerous works, a selection titled Sawaru:Chromosome XY. It shows close-up images of male bodies together with their normal portraits. Their bodies are all so close that we feel as if we were touching, rather than watching them (The first part of the title "Sawaru" simply means 'touch' in Japanese). Closeness creates a feeling of intimacy, but it doesn't lead to eroticism as we see in commercial photos. Here again, the crucial thing is that they are all ordinary men, young and old, Japanese and non-Japanese. Under each portrait you read their name (in English) and their year of birth, without any implication of their job or any social role. Still, most men in the portrait seem to try showing their social existence (you can read from their expression). By presenting this interesting contrast between the ID-like portrait and the unusually close sight of the body, Ishiuchi seems to suggest a new way to look at male bodies. In other words, she is trying to demystify the male body, ease its tension, and rescue it from the suppressive invisibility in our modern society.

While Ishiuchi's work suggests the possibility to represent the male body by giving a gentle look at it, Tadasu Takamine's approach shows a harsh and violent approach toward the issue. In his multi-media performance titled 'Kimura-san,' he obviously addressed to the subject of 'disability,' but I think the work connotes the issue of the male body too, or, maybe the male body as something systematically 'disabled.' 'Kimura-san' is the name of a man who is a victim of Morinaga arsenic milk poisoning incident in 1955. In spite of disability affecting large part of his body, he has lived alone in Kyoto for fifteen years. Takamine had worked for five years as one of voluntary helping staff visiting his house once or twice every month. One day, he happened to 'discover' that Kimura-san had sexual drive like any other man, and this dramatically changed his view of the body of the disabled. He masturbated the man who was obviously unable to have a relationship with a woman in a normal situation. The artist videotaped the scene, at that time without any intention to make it public. But he finally decided to use the tape in his performance, partly because Kimura-san himself wanted its publication.

In the performance he wears a kind of framed headgear (like that of a ice hockey player), with two small video cameras attached inside it which take close-up pictures of his eyes. He sat in front of the table with plates of glass on it, and behind him there is a huge screen showing the scene of Kimura-san's body. In the course of the narration (which is in English and read by his own recorded voice), he abruptly smashes the glass by hitting it with his head, and the moment he does this the screen suddenly changes into the image of his irises. He does it again and again.

'This,' the narration goes, 'The world awakes by this laughter,' when Kamura-san's face shows the moment of ecstasy on the screen. 'I want to say we are not gay. This is based on something but not on sexual desire. His behavior -- being just opposite of masculine -- that's a rare sphere in which no one will lose their reality.' By 'opposite of masculine,' the artist refers to Kimura-san's disability, not only in the sense of his physical handicap, but the 'disability to refuse.' In order to survive, the man has no choice but to accept others. 'This body does not have privacy in the first place." But this very 'disability' leads to the laughter that awakes the world, affirming the visibility and existence of the body.

The body is not a matter of fact. On the contrary, it is still an unknown dimension which we should to explore very carefully though artistic expression and philosophical thinking as well as normal scientific investigation. And I believe that various attempts to recover the visibility of the male body could radically change our view over many problems in our society, many of which are caused by stiffness of masculinity.


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(C)Hiroshi Yoshioka