Taro Masushio’s Homage to the Uncle from Osaka at Empty Gallery
13 January 2021
At the entrance to Rumor Has It, Taro Masushio's current exhibition at Hong Kong's black-box Empty Gallery (23 December 2020–20 February 2021), a giant, meekly illuminated pumice stone is supported by a steel structure—a sparse signifier of a subterranean cave.
Exhibition view: Taro Masushio, Rumor Has It, Empty Gallery, Hong Kong (23 December 2020–20 February 2021). Courtesy Empty Gallery. Photo: Michael Yu.
The atmosphere is mysterious, mythological, almost transgressive; not so much a Dionysian cruising club or a lascivious sauna than a mise-en-scène constructed with restraint.
Single rows of framed black-and-white silver gelatin photographs line black walls: still-life captures that include a camera stand, flowers, soap, and erotic hand-drawn sketches.
For an exhibition centred on the work of Jun'ichi En'ya, one of the first Japanese homoerotic photographers known colloquially as the 'Uncle from Osaka', Masushio's compositional frugality is a striking statement.
Of course, this abnegation is also born out of poverty. Not much is known about En'ya save for his years of birth (1916) and death (1971), his marital status and occupation, and that he photographed over 2,000 men.
Upon accessing En'ya's archive contained in a humble apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo, Masushio describes feelings of trauma and displacement.
The few hundred photographs and negatives he saw by En'ya are the tip of the iceberg; many more were dispersed, or worse confiscated and destroyed, due to the strict Japanese law on the possession and dissemination of pornographic images.
Masushio likens his two-year research process to navigating a gravitational pull, perhaps of a black hole. (The Plutonian En'ya was himself orbiting a larger constellation of influences—perhaps image-makers such as Tamotsu Yato or aestheticians like Yukio Mishima.)
The unbridgeable distance between past and present is painfully evident.
The search has led him to octogenarians and nonagenarians who were on the fringes of En'ya's loose multi-city circle, recounting rumours and anecdotes of encounters with the photographer, or with friends of friends who modelled for him. The unbridgeable distance between past and present is painfully evident.
The aforementioned trauma, therefore, comes from confronting the rare and nakedly candid expression of a queerness from the past, and the realisation that it cannot be broached directly, but preserved in sacrosanct opacity and irresuscitable absence.
What results is the commemoration of a life in palimpsest and pentimento; an elegy written in doublespeak and codes. Staged photographs become the site where Masushio imaginatively intervenes in the present, gathering mundane objects from the Shōwa era for storytelling, yet maintaining a silence around their historical provenance and lore.
'I am interested in how we represent ourselves and are consumed in our current society,' Masushio explained in conversation, 'where queerness is overly circulated.'
Smudged shoe prints crisscross a urinal's rim in Untitled 2, suggesting the activity of an anonymous cruising public bathroom. The untouched freshness of a bar of cheap hotel soap (Untitled 11) and unstruck restaurant-bar match boxes (Untitled 18) contrasts with the debasement of a used paper bag (Untitled 14), creased bed sheets (Untitled 1), and consumed Asahi beer and tobacco (Untitled 15).
A series of photographs capture morning glory plants (known as asagao in Japan) at night, their circadian rhythm suggesting a dual existence not unlike En'ya's. More explicitly in Untitled 26, Masushio luxuriously photographs a live model stroking an erect penis in a tatami room under studio lights.
To feel the weave of opacities, to relate to it, is to suspend the desire for discovery.
Pornographic jouissance spills into Masushio's redrawings of En'ya photographs, painstakingly framed and rephotographed by the artist. After so many elliptical and obscure orbits, Masushio shyly plucks up the courage to step into En'ya's shoes and channels Uncle's lusting hand.
'I cannot produce as many photographs as he does,' says the Japanese voiceover in the culminating black-and-white video, Untitled 28. Referring to the fecundity of En'ya's output, this is the only proper textual reference to a figure that is both central and elusive to the exhibition.
'After all,' the voice meanders on, 'the cock, at least while erect, does not betray the one that adores it.'
Composed of moving images tracking Masushio's pilgrimage to Osaka as he cruises the few places bearing En'ya's traces, the script for Untitled 28 is composed of fragments written by Fujita Ryū in 1971 for the iconic Barazoku.
Beginning publication in 1971, this was the first commercial magazine catering to gay men in Japan, containing erotic spreads, drawings, letters, columns, ads, and fictions.
A silent video nestled under a stairway ends the show, languidly showing slides of underground gay erotica that Masushio sourced in Japan and projected in a dark studio.
Filmed out of focus, poses are veiled, suspended before identity—they bring to mind Poetics of Relation (1990), in which Edouard Glissant champions the 'right to opacity' for the Other in a creolised post-colonial Caribbean in contradistinction to the Apollonian transparency of the prying historical white gaze.
Analogously for the gay Japanese archipelago, Masushio's radical opacity keeps alive the untranslatability, immemorability, and untraceability of En'ya's life and times. To feel opacity's weave, to relate to it, is to suspend the desire for discovery.—[O]