Two young gay photographers

Han Chao / courtesy of Zen Foto

Two young gay photographers whose sexuality is a significant element in their work have shows running through this weekend in Tokyo.

Chinese photographer Han Chao’s autobiographical and often candid-looking photos are on show in “Rhapsody for my Wretched Little Universe” at the Zen Foto gallery in Shibuya, while Japanese photographer Eiki Mori’s more clearly studied compositions make up “you see rainbows” at the Kaori-za bar in Okubo.

Zen Foto has been open for just over a year, but I first heard of it this week when I attended the Hills Breakfast x Pecha Kucha event where owner Mark Pearson gave a brief presentation. He has one gallery in Tokyo and another in Beijing, and has made it his mission to promote cultural ties between Japan and China by putting on shows by the two countries’ photographers. These sorts of bridges can be built one person at time, but he said he has had at least one notable success already. One of the first Chinese photographers he brought over was someone who – unbeknownst to Pearson at the time – was actually anti-Japanese. But over the course of his show, the photographer fell in love with Tokyo and eventually admitted that he wouldn’t mind living here.

I decided to check out Zen Foto’s current show, in which Han Chao, 25, documents his life as a gay man with what must be daring frankness for China. Many of the photos are self-portraits, while others show his family, friends and boyfriends. Few of them look posed.

If his life is as “wretched” as he says, claustrophobia must be one reason why. The people in his photos generally don’t look unhappy, but nearly all of the photos were shot indoors, in cramped, cluttered rooms. The one outdoor photo I noticed was of a solitary man walking down the road on a snowy night, but even here he is hemmed in by deep darkness that completely hides his surroundings.

Many of the pictures show men in his bed, but there is very little nudity and only a few obvious attempts to appear alluring. Most of them look like morning-after photos, in which energy is just above ebb level and bed-head is the most common hairstyle.

One such photo, the main publicity image for this show, appears at the top of this entry. Han Chao’s usual method of displaying his photos in China is to stick a bunch of prints directly on a wall, poster-style, and then write captions on the wall under them in pencil. Most of the prints at Zen Foto are shown this way. The writing beneath the photo at the top of this entry reads: “Is this love? Like a paper aeroplane, fragile, launched into the air, soon begins its descent.”

Pearson described this manner of display as being more like an installation than an exhibition, and said that such prints have no real sale value because of the condition they wind up in by the time the show is over. For example, people are likely to touch them, and the fingerprint oils they leave behind hasten the prints’ deterioration. Along one wall of the gallery, Pearson had things his own way and put large color prints of Han Chao’s work in nice frames with mats.

One of these pictures, my own favorite, is the most obviously posed in the show. It shows a delicate-looking young man, seen from the waist up, wearing a sprig of dried greenery in his hair and holding a bunch of dried flowers to his naked chest. What really makes the photo work is that he is standing in front of a curtain with a floral pattern similar to the flowers he is holding. The fake flowers on the curtain are always in blossom and will never fade, but the real flowers in the photo are already goners. Standing between them is a person in the bloom of youth, but… You can see where this line of thought leads.

While I was there, Pearson handed me a pamphlet promoting Eiki Mori’s show “you see rainbows,” which was only a short train ride away at the Kaori-za bar in Okubo.

While many of Han Chao’s works comprise a kind of photo diary, Mori’s appear intended primarily to be objects of beauty. (And speaking of objects of beauty, the pamphlet for this show was superbly designed by Aaron Nieh.)

Kaori-za is a basement bar just a few steps from the South Exit of Okubo Station on the JR Sobu Line. Owner Kaori, who can cook a nice little bowl of beef and mushroom stew, apparently often hosts art shows in her tiny space. I admire what she is doing, but in all honesty I have to repeat that the space is tiny.

Mori’s show was dominated by a 20×40-inch horizontal print hanging above the bar’s low sofa. It was taken outdoors in the middle of the night, and shows a naked man standing in a flower garden. Most of the photo is solid black, especially across the top and across the bottom. Across the middle, though, white flowers speckle the darkness, forming a band that cuts across the picture like the stars of the Milky Way cut across the blackness of the night sky. And strictly speaking, the man standing in front of this background isn’t totally naked – he’s wearing a necklace whose small, star-shaped pendant, gleaming in the camera’s flash, reinforces the heavenly body motif.

And of course, the main object to regard in this photo is the man’s body, the paleness of which makes it stand out starkly in the night. As I looked, it occurred to me that he had a physique very like (and a pose not too unlike) that of Donatello’s bronze David. Upon further contemplation, the photo’s composition began to remind me of Botticelli’s painting of the birth of Venus – if one imagines the flowers to be foamy surf rather than sprinkled stars. However, having later gone home to look up that painting on the Internet, I must admit that most people would consider that comparison to be a bit of a stretch. I still see it, though.

If this photo was the one in Mori’s show that impressed me the most, it may be because it was the one I spent the longest time looking at. Some of his other pictures were also interesting – such as the colorful photo of a shirtless man in jeans casually reclining on the zebra stripes of a Tokyo crosswalk as busses and taxis drive past him – but due to the cramped space, these prints were much smaller and were often displayed on odd patches of wall that were hard to see.

Mori works full time as a commercial photographer, and this is only his second show of his photos as art. Hopefully he will get more wall space in the future.

Han Chao’s “Rhapsody for my Wretched Little Universe” continues today and tomorrow (Nov. 20-21) noon to 5 p.m at the Zen Foto gallery in Shibuya. See www.zen-foto.jp

Eiki Mori’s “you see rainbows” continues today and tomorrow 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Kaori-za bar at B1, 1-23-19 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Phone 03-3368-6548. For more of his work, see http://eikimori.com

See Aaron Nieh’s portfolio at http://graphichug.com/2009/12/19/aaron-nieh

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