Interview by Owen Leong
Translated by Miyoko Hoshino
Original Japanese transcript (PDF)
Haruka Yamada is an emerging artist based in Tokyo and a recent graduate of the Joshibi University of Art and Design. Her latest work explores female fantasy, cross-dressing and sexuality. The artist invited women to describe their fantasies of an ideal boyfriend. She then transformed each woman into her ideal man through drag. The resulting work is a series of photographic portraits accompanied by narrative texts. I spoke with the artist after her recent solo exhibition at Galleria Nike.
PERIL: Can you talk a bit about your ideas behind this series and the process of making this work?
HARUKA: I work in a specialized photo salon for men who cross-dress. I always feel a sense of discomfort towards their idealised female images. Heterosexual cross-dressing men tend to get into female characters from a male perspective, because of their strong interest and adoration of the female form. However their idealized female images are often far off from ordinary women. From a female perspective they appear somehow distorted. I often see cross-dressed men out of place in the city.
Then I started to imagine how it would be, if women fantasize their ideal man and try to become one. Women becoming someone they want and desire, particularly women, have a tendency to value more an internal world than the outward appearance.
Therefore I wanted to make opportunities to see this phenomenon through my works. I wanted the audience, both male and female, to rediscover this delicate and detailed ability to daydream particular to women.
I first interview a single woman about her ideal man, situations and her daily dreams. Later, I ask her about the man’s background story and the details of his appearance. The contents of her fantasies are solely in her own imagination. I would encourage her to come up with surreal situations or some dark secrets that she never expressed in the past. The models are shy in the beginning and hesitant to talk about their fantasies, so I start asking their precise preferred physical appearances. Once they feel comfortable
to talk about their fantasies, sometimes the conversation expands upon as if it is real.
Later I’ll go over the story, forming the shot that I will recreate and choose the clothes, wig, locations and other items required for the particular shooting.
For the shooting, the models wear special shirts worn by lesbians and drag kings, which flatten their breasts and broaden their shoulders. Then they will wear the ideal boyfriend’s clothes. I do the hair and facial makeup, then we go to the location to start shooting. I sometimes instruct their poses but there are times that the models actively initiate posing. I merely instruct them to bow-leg, open-stride or space their arms, something that indicates masculinity.
PERIL: Each individual woman’s story is a strong component to this work, and is presented with the images as text. Can you discuss your role as the artist in framing their stories and the importance of narrative in each image?
HARUKA: It is not an overstatement to say that this series is a collaborative work with the models, since their experiences, ideas and existence are the core of these works. This work was born from dialogues and exchanges between me and the models. Each story is 100% from their minds. I did write and edit them, but the structures of the stories are hers. No matter how often the models daydream, their fantasies tend to be blurry, so I try to shape a clear outline. Then I rewrite the contents of the interview to a short novel-like story. I try to shape it as a novel because I think it draws readers to the story more easily. I rewrite hoping to transmit realistic sensations, keeping in mind that there will be sympathy between the models and the audience
The reason I portrayed the elements of narrative story to each photo is my belief that female fantasies contain rational narrative aspects. I’m not intending to generalize gender but through this portrait series and through my job, I feel there is certainly a tendency that men value visual appearances more than women. On the contrary, women likely to answer with inner beauty, for example “gentle man” when asked for their preferable man.
PERIL: How is gender, fantasy, and performance important in your work?
HARUKA: I do have a strong will to continue my career putting gender as one of my main themes. Since I was a child, I hated to be judged based on my gender. I found it frustrating that not only men expected women to behave accordingly, but women themselves tied themselves up in a social role of femininity.
I used to be aggressive trying not to be defeated by men, but I gradually learned that men are also tied in the social category of gender and my aggressiveness decreased. I feel that a lot people, both men and women do not recognize that the social gauge is limiting their possibilities. I was born as a woman, naturally I incline to female perspective, but I would like to explore the society from my perspective, which has been judged as unfeminine.
The theme of my work is to transmit my experience of the unfeminine, which is socially unaccepted. Dealing with female fantasy is a first step. One of my dream societies will be women openly talking about their masturbation experiences. In recent books, authors such as Usagi Nakamura and Reiko Yuyama, mention women’s masturbation. It is normally a much more serious taboo than the men’s masturbation, but there is no reason to hide. In fact, when I answer, “Yes, I do masturbate,” most of the reaction is, “You are the first woman to admit it.” I do feel a bit ashamed to say it out loud, but hope to say it in style. Just being yourself is sometimes enough.
PERIL: Your portraits convey a sense of escapism or power in transforming oneself into the perfect other. Could you talk a little bit about this?
HARUKA: I don’t think that my work portrays the element of escapism. It may come across that way, but my intention is the opposite. On the contrary to escapism, I intend to express, even if it is fictional artwork, the reality that needs to be addressed. I believe it is a consequence of facing the reality.
I think I do have a desire to transform myself. My desire to change is a desire to have multiple faces, not to be fixed to one particular image. I firmly resist to be categorized in one content. I want to exceed other people’s expectations, which leads me to have this big desire for transformation.
PERIL: What are you working on in the future?
HARUKA: I would like to carry on the series of “DANSOU ,” at least 50 portraits will be great. My main focus will be ordinary women in their 20s. The question is what is ordinary, but those women who don’t have self-motivation, buried in society, pleasures and romances. I’m interested in women who are the opposite of me, characters unknown to me. I recently traveled to Tobita area in Osaka. Tobita area is a licensed sex quarter, which I was very culturally shocked to see in such a place. Unlike other sex trade shop areas there were normal residences like houses closely packed with their door ajar. Through the door you can see yujo each one dressed up and displayed in a white light as some sort of mannequins in the show windows. The yujos are accompanied by middle aged zoume who solicit bypassing men. The surrounding of this yukaku is ordinary residential area, so naturally students and kids pass by on their bicycles. I was struck to witness the scene of women’s sexuality actually being sold in the open public. This experience, if I dig in deeper and research might be a source of ideas in the future. I would like to keep producing works that raise awareness to people’s minds.
Dansou – a coined word combining ‘dansou’, which has multiple meanings but in this context means ‘cross-dress as a man’, and ‘musou’, a Kanji character which means fantasy
Tobita – One of the largest red light districts formed during Taisho era (1912-1926)
yujo – prostitute
zoume – maid
yukaku – licensed quarter