Saturday, May 23, 2009

Harajuku Art Walk

Today, my Australian friend joined me on a walk through Harajuku's streets in search of the contemporary Japanese art on exhibition in small, supposedly experimental galleries. It was clear from the minute we stepped outside Harajuku station that the art was not going to be on the walls, but on the streets. While we dutifully followed the path to what are supposed to be Japan's up and coming artists,
we just kept coming back to the
freaks on Takeshita-dori. This is dolly girl, cutesy heaven. It was infectious enough to have me madly searching for my size socks and shoes so I could go part way to imitating their crazy teen girl style.

However, what I found more striking was that Tokyo has a place for the costume drama of identities in motion where so many major European cities do not. It's true that teen style is at its most flamboyant on Takeshita-dori, spilling over onto neighboring streets, but it also infuses much of the city with cool abandon. This may be a world in which public behavior is rigidly and complexly coded, but it is also a city where certain codes are flexible and fluid. Gender and sexuality being the most visible on the streets. The teen-girls in their fancy dress costumes, the young guys with outrageous hairstyles, some wearing women's clothing, others in tight tight jeans and t-shirts, make up and piercings are not given second glances on Tokyo's streets.

That said, even in their chintzy girl costume, women always remain excessively feminine, while it is men who seem to cross the gender and sexuality lines with ease. It's a city that is so audacious in its visual aesthetic, that the lurid performance of gender and sexual identity among the young - and often the older - is easily absorbed by the bright lights.

If then, the surface is so carefully chosen and so well-polished to reflect uncertainty and confusion for me, the Western viewer of Tokyo, the question I came away with from my day in Harajuku, is: what exactly lies beneath the facade? I have no idea, and given my lack of access to the language, I don't imagine I will be finding out over the next week. My only task is to sit back and receive the visual stimulation, be inspired by the aesthetic .... and find those shoes!

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