Photographer Nathalie Daoust spent several months in a Japanese love hotel exploring female sexuality and the subversion of gender stereotypes. She had no idea the people she met would be so special and kind.
She also didn’t expect to be tied upside down by a shibari master – a specialist in Japanese bondage.
“He said that I should try it if I was going to photograph his model in this position. I said, ‘Why not.’”
Daoust lived in Tokyo’s Alpha-In, one of the biggest S&M – short for sadomasochism – love hotels in Japan. S&M practioners are pleasured either by inflicting or receiving pain or humiliation from their sexual partner.
Daoust photographed 39 women of all ages who took dominant roles in S&M. The photos show them in their private rooms, surrounded by the specialist equipment and costumes that define their trade of dominatrix.
She believes in confronting stereotypes of gender roles that exist not only in Japan, but all over the world. Her goal is to provide an insight into the concept of women as dominant beings.
“I would say that women are more oppressed in Japan, [but] of course not all,” Daoust said. “Even the dominatrix that I met would bow lower than their customers and walk behind them. Only when the hotel doors would close would they then have the power.”
Love hotels, also known as fashion or boutique hotels, can be for short stays (up to three hours) or overnight. They’re operated around the world with the primary purpose to allow couples undisturbed time together, but they’re also used for budget travelers looking to share accommodation or prostitution.
Daoust had the idea for the project after living in the Carlton Arms Hotel, also known as the Artbreak Hotel, in New York City from 1997 to 1999. Each room in the hotel was designed by a different artist: for example, British street artist Banksy decorated a stairwell.
She lived in and photographed every room in the hotel, and it was during this time she met some Japanese tourists who told her about theme-decorated hotels in Japan. The purpose of these hotels, though, was for three-hour stays.
“I was interested in documenting this and moved to Tokyo for two years,” she said.
Daoust photographed many love hotels in Japan, but the Alpha-In didn’t allow it. When she published her first book, her New York Hotel series, she returned to Alpha and showed her work to the owner.
“He then invited me to come back to Japan and do a project on his hotel, and now we are very good friends,” she said.
The artist said Alpha was initially a very strange place for her, but after several months in the hotel everything seemed almost normal.
“I only had preconceived notions to what S&M was and the people that go there. After a while I got used to hearing the screaming from behind the doors, seeing the tools and costumes or even seeing customers ‘playing’ in the hallways.”
Over the years, Western media has sensationalized and negatively affected Japanese sexual practices to the point where love hotels like Alpha were done away with to create a different political image. Daoust said in 2001 when she was documenting the love hotels, hotels were in the process of being taken down because of foreign media.
Healthy practices of sexuality and fantasy, she said, seem to be constantly swept under the rug in North America. She said it’s this unwillingness to openly discuss sexuality that’s a major contributing factor to the challenges of confronting stereotypes of gender roles.
After several months in the Alpha-In and talking with different people, Daoust said she realized there was actually nothing wrong with what they were doing as long as everyone consents.
“It was quite sad [to see them go because] many hotels that had amazing decorations were being destroyed or just painted in plain white walls. What was so wrong about this fantasy? Before this experience, I mostly learned that S&M was bad, and whoever does it must be disturbed. [But] Japan is quite open to experience any type of fantasy. I find this better then repressing it.”
The opening reception of Nathalie Daoust’s Tokyo Hotel Story is on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. at Gallery Connexion. Daoust will give an artist talk at the gallery on Jan. 14 at 2 p.m., and Salon Connex, an open forum critical discussion about the work, will be held Feb. 26 at the Charlotte Street Art Centre. The exhibition runs until Mar. 2.
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