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This article was published 29/10/2014 (973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In 2008, photographer Nathalie Daoust was given unprecedented access to the Alpha-In, a Tokyo "love hotel" catering to S&M enthusiasts. She would go on to spend months documenting the hotel's outlandish themed suites -- rentable nightly or by the hour and styled to look like dungeons, caves and operating rooms -- as well as the women working there as dominatrices and escorts.
An exhibition of the project, Tokyo Hotel Story, opened last week at the Maison des artistes. As an exploration of "alternative" sexuality or a challenge to traditional gender roles, it's less subversive than the artist might have us believe, but, in a week when the crucial distinction between consensual kink and sexual violence has been the subject of a national conversation, it's also more instructive than one might expect.
The images that have garnered Daoust the most attention are her smeary, saturated portraits of unnamed female sex workers. They act out various scenarios in the different hotel rooms, striking casual poses in elaborate fetish gear or apathetically groping one another for the camera. In others photos, women are shown bound, blindfolded, clutching at dungeon bars, and, in one instance, seemingly struck unconscious, splayed across the floor beneath a nightstand. Darkroom tinkering with colour and focus lend the images a unsettling, dreamlike atmosphere and icky, voyeuristic intimacy.
Not to everyone's taste and understandably disturbing to many, the portraits reproduce established tropes of fetish photography, embracing the fantasies on offer without obvious reflection or commentary. Though the scenes vary in explicitness and tenor, Daoust favours images of eroticized, estheticized violence, often presenting her subjects as sexually submissive if not physically incapacitated.
She banks on our appetite for titillation and images of female degradation (to say nothing of the widespread and characteristically racist Western fascination with Japanese sexual habits), but the exhibition does offer occasional, important reminders that what we're seeing is carefully managed fantasy. The women pictured, whose trust Daoust earned over weeks and months, are consciously performing roles they've chosen for themselves, and any discomfort we might feel or objection we might raise, however reasonable, doesn't negate that agency.
The less "provocative" (and frankly more compelling) second half of the show provides an unexpected but much-needed reality check. Viewed through red-blue glasses supplied by the gallery, 3D photos of the unoccupied hotel suites appear as hyper-realistic miniature dioramas. An illusory parallax effect makes it seem as if you could peer around corners, and once the novelty of the effect wears off, incongruous details start to emerge.
Rooms at the Alpha-In come furnished with padded crucifixes, dog cages, gynecologist's chairs and whipping posts, and these sit bizarrely alongside mundane hotel accoutrements like wastebaskets, TV sets and minibars. A queen-size bed in an ornate bedframe looks ordinary enough until you notice the leather cuffs poking out from underneath the mattress. The juxtapositions are startling and, after a certain point, vaguely ridiculous.
Even more clearly than the staged and stylized portraits, the room scenes highlight the controlled artifice of the hotel environment and the liaisons it hosts, and there's something deeply if weirdly reassuring in that. At a point when influential public figures evidently feel empowered to leverage relaxing sexual attitudes in a ploy to fend off accusations of domestic abuse and workplace harassment, Tokyo Hotel Story offers an imperfect but important counter: that even outré sex and sexual expression can be safe, sane and deeply strange, but only with mutual trust and unambiguous consent.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.