IPG Project, Sumimasen

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Éditions du LIC (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 55 color photographs (8 of these images are two page spreads with a glossy UV finish). Includes a short explanatory text by the photographers. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sumimasen, the new photobook from the duo IPG Project (Tamara and Yoshi Kametani), is a deceptively provocative examination of contemporary privacy, one that looks snapshot simple on the surface, but resonates with layers of complexity when we look more closely. It explores the nature of our new sharing culture taken to the extreme, and then pushes on notions of identity in the context of that overexposure.

The visual narrative revolves around Mayura, a webcam porn actress from Tokyo who has outfitted her small apartment with cameras so that subscribers can watch her 24 hours a day. In between more explicit sessions (seen via glossy pixelated screen images), she showers, eats instant noodles, paws through the stacks of cardboard boxes and clothing racks that crowd her rooms, dries her hair, and takes naps underneath her pink comforter, all in the nude for the pleasure of her voyeuristic followers, wearing a plastic Hello Kitty mask that obscures her face.

Mayura can’t of course stay cooped up in her apartment forever, so the pictures follow her outside (now clothed, but still wearing the mask), as she shops at convenience stores, has dinner at restaurants, and walks through darkened streets. We see the view from her window and down her drab hallway, and poke inside her purse. She shows us her passport, her laptop, her calendar, her keychain, and her overstuffed mailbox. And she takes both saucy and boring selfies, always wearing the mask.

That we never actually see Mayura’s face is part of the clever inversion going on here. Of course, there is the clash of sweet and innocent – the Hello Kitty mask persona and the pink girly decorations in the apartment – and the explicitly sexual (a common Japanese trope), but either or both or neither of these personalities could be ruses; even with all the personal things Maruya has allowed us to see, we still can’t know her much. Her private/public divide has been entirely breached by the intrusion of the cameras, and yet, she still feels surprisingly anonymous. Is it because we can’t see her face and its expressions? Or is her whole life a mask, a front put up to keep us out of her private thoughts? What’s left for us to see that we haven’t already seen?

Part of what’s different here, at least photographically, is that Mayura is a willing (and savvy) participant; she wasn’t caught off guard by a surreptitious camera (think Walker Evans on the subway, or Miroslav Tichy in the park, or more recently Arne Svenson’s apartment windows) or tracked by some shadowy government agency or omniscient technology (think Trevor Paglen or Google Street View). Her “exposure” is more of a conscious step, of giving up privacy in exchange from something else (in this case money, we can assume) and then finding new ways to craft (and protect) identity under those new circumstances and rules. Mayura’s story is an exaggerated case study of the redefining of cultural norms, a “what if” project examining how a nearly complete lack of privacy influences how we define who we are. The offhand, flash-lit, snapshot aesthetic of these pictures is a good fit for this series, as it increases the feeling of authenticity; the whole thing many be a kind of performance on a stage set, but we are drawn into the situation as if it was a normal everyday occurrence, which of course it may someday become.

The book ends with Mayura standing outside, reflected in the glass door of a modern building, still wearing her Hello Kitty mask. It’s a smart metaphor for the whole body of work – a reflection, but even with all her overt displays, still largely unknowable. IPG Project has taken us on a memorably thought provoking excursion into the depths of privacy, rich with conceptual nuance and implication but open ended in its conclusions. Is Mayura laughing, or crying, or weary, or angry under that mask? We’ll never know.

Collector’s POV: IPG Project (Tamara and Yoshi Kametani) does not appear to have a gallery representation at this time. As such, the best option for interested collectors is to follow up directly with the photographers via their website (here).

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