On a recent night at The Lodge Gallery, Ayakamay stood inside a spherical sculpture of white drapes, extending a manicured nail, beckoning her audience one by one to join her in the cramped space. Once she lured them in, there was a flash, and a small instant film photo fell to the floor. In one instance, she kneeled in front of a visitor within the enclosure. Sometimes you could see other kinds of flashes in between the drapes— suddenly bare breasts or the pleats of a short schoolgirl skirt. Other than that, you couldn’t see much else. It was up to your imagination.
After the performance was done, the director led everyone in a round of applause. He then asked if anyone would like to donate their underwear to the show in exchange for a signed catalogue. Among the many video projections of Ayakamay flooding the gallery—smiling endlessly as a J-pop idol, holding a pinwheel with panties around her ankles, grumpily tweezing body hair before a night out—there were a few plastic bags with fabric stuffed into them along with a childish pink paper form asking for information like one’s name, career ambitions, and… “first sex.”
This wasn’t just a cheeky addition. Ayakamay, who grew up in Nashville and moved back to Japan when she was 10 (she’s 31 now), explains that selling used panties was a common practice among Japanese schoolchildren as a way of getting easy spending money.
“Every other kid around me there didn’t have parents [keeping] their eye on the kids. So we were outside all the time. Everything was so curious,” she says. “And then those kids needed cash to be able to go play. So, selling underwear was the thing.”
For this, they would go to a burusera, or shop that sold used girl’s underwear, school uniforms, and related items. Just hand over the underwear, get an instant photo taken of you to prove you’re legit, and voila, cash.
“It was more like a game for older teenagers, to get this underwear, to sell it,” she says. They took this game seriously: she talks of wearing five pairs at once and going to every burusera nearby to maximize profits, of trading school uniforms so each person could reap the higher value imposed on the underwear from a girl who attended private school.
Since Ayakamay’s youth, there have been legal regulations imposed on burusera, especially for transactions involving the underage. This only confused Ayakamay. She recounts a time after her move to Japan, encountering a poster of a confident woman posing in fisherman’s garb. She couldn’t read the Japanese at the time, but later learned the poster she had admired was a sexually explicit advertisement.
“I was so shocked, because it doesn’t look like what she’s doing. I thought [the fisherwoman] was a kind of strong power thing. But it was more like, She suck well, her pussy’s so tight. It didn’t match. So that thing was okay to be on the public spaces, and then selling underwear is [not]?”
This dissonance of acceptability isn’t the only unclear thing in her life: Captive Train_reck, she explains, is all about this idea of the “taboo grey area,” where one is not sure what is right or wrong, and the contrast and confusion that can result. The moment of needing to fill in the blanks with your mind is at the crux of Ayakamay’s creative practice, and her beliefs in general.
“I basically believe that I don’t exist as a subject,” she declares. “It’s more built up by people’s judgment. People can tell me what I am by what they see, and I think that’s true. But I’m just reflecting how you see.”
Knowing this, it seems only natural Ayakamay works in photography and performance. Photos, she says, show that everything is merely made up of “reflection and light.” She adds her performance career didn’t begin suddenly, as she’s been performing “the whole time,” whether it be in a gallery, in front of her own lens, or in her youth, acting a certain way to avoid criticism that could come to a Japanese American raised in the states coming to Japan for the first time.
In Captive Train_reck, she’s recreated the fisherwoman poster that left such a mark on her mind, projected next to her piece “Beer Girl.” It’s a similar ad-like creation featuring a busty woman in a bikini holding a massive beer stein, dripping drool from her mouth in a way that could be seen as both cringeworthy and erotic. When you walk into the gallery, you see a wall-sized projection of a woman on the toilet, staring at her phone. Engaging in a private act, but simultaneously engaging with the entire world.
Though Ayakamay feels she doesn’t exist, she seems to have spent much time performing in ways that fulfill other people’s perceptions of her. Living in Nashville, her Buddhist parents baptized her as a Protestant to fit in. When her American classmates mistakenly called her Chinese, she agreed, because she didn’t know the difference at the time.
But letting yourself be defined by what people see is not always easy. There is one piece in Captive Train_reck that she says is truly her, though you’d not necessarily know at first glance. It’s an image of her crouching, clad in the same school uniform and long hairstyle she wore as we spoke. Her white underwear is around her knees, and she’s holding a colorful pinwheel, pouting.
“That’s not me when I was 13 selling my underwear, that’s me. I’m 31 years old, wearing a wig, and pulling my underwear down with a pinwheel. And people will just see me as schoolgirl because of the uniform,” she says. “What I’m saying is I’m 31, I’m Ayakamay myself, I’m just pulling down my underwear for no reason, but somehow people build their own story. Because they want to know what it is, but it’s actually nothing. To be honest, nothing exists. It’s all bullshit and lies. That’s the whole thing [about] this show, it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s a trainwreck, people want to know what’s happening. They can’t stop watching because they want to know what it’s about.”
Ayakamay’s “Captive Train_reck” is on view through January 22 at The Lodge Gallery, 131 Chrystie Street, Lower East Side.