Spotlight On: Ayakamay

Words by Sophie Weiner |

On a chilly January night, I walked through the red curtains draping the entrance to the Leslie-Lohman Gallery’s subterranean Prince Street Project. In a small room, a woman wearing traditional Japanese clothing was seated on a shrine, like a deity to which we were paying homage. The wall was lined with portraits of her eerily perfect face. Her hair was braided into small strands, tied into red yarn which connected to a web that spread across the ceiling like the work of a giant spider. She was trapped, held in place by her hair.

As we filed in, the artist, Ayakamay, a Japanese-American woman who is known for her street performance at festivals like Art Basel, held out a pair of scissors, staring provocatively into the crowd. Other than the soft music playing in the background, there was dead silence. Minutes passed as tension hung in the air. One audience member after another failed to meet her gaze. Finally, I stood up, walked to the center of the room and took the scissors. The prospect of cutting off her hair was terrifying. I quickly grabbed hold of a strand and snipped it near the end. It fell, disentangled from the network of yarn that held the rest of her hair like some eccentric torture device. Full of adrenaline, I shuffled quickly back to my seat.

Over the next hour, other audience members stood up, some apprehensively, others with confidence, and chopped away at the performer’s hair. Strands of her hair hung lifeless from the ceiling, which she would playfully tug and send flying to wrap around further yarn structures. Occasionally, she cried. Other times she laughed or teased the audience members by pulling her head away or hiding the scissors. After all the strands were cut, she put away the scissors and brought out a battery powered buzzer. Everyone laughed with shock. The process began again. At the end, her head was smooth and shaved. Strands of what used to be her hair hung throughout the space.

Later that night, I talked to Ayakamay about her performance and installation, entitled Genderless, in the freezing cold outside her afterparty. We discussed what “genderless” means to her, the characters she inhabits as a performance artist and why she wants her art to make people uncomfortable.

How did you get the idea for this performance?

I got to meet the chairman of the Leslie Lohman Museum, Charles Leslie, and when I met him he said, “you should have a show, performance art is really important.” He wanted it to be a queer thing. He said something like, “You’re a gay man who’s trapped in a woman’s body” and that made sense to me, even though I don’t feel like I’m gay, or I’m straight, I never really like to be categorized. So when he said that it kind of made me comfortable, like, maybe I am a gay man trapped in a woman? Makes sense. [laughs] He wanted to represent me as a queer queen.

I was thinking about what the title of my show should be. I was always questioning my sexuality, and when I think about my past, I’ve had relationships with girls and boys and gay boys, so I didn’t know what to title myself, I never felt comfortable. So I decided I wanted to do a show called Genderless. The key word came first, not the concept.

I started thinking about what gender means to me. What’s gender if it’s not a biological
thing? When I had done 35 different self-portraits, I realized I’d been changing my exterior to be genderless. I was making my eyebrows thicker and adding a little bit of shadow here and there to look more masculine, making my hairstyle shorter to pretend that I’m more manly. But then I realized I’m trapped in my own gender, which is female. To be genderless, I need to be less. I thought that mutilating my exterior would make me genderless, so that’s what I tried to do [in the show]. It was realizing that I’m a woman physically and then it was a journey for me to go through to get to the point where I could become genderless, I wanted to be intimate and interactive with the audience, to let them join my genderless journey.

At what point did you decide the show was going to be about your hair?

When you look at these self-portraits, they’re all about hair. I never thought I would shave or cut my hair. I realized how difficult it is to avoid thinking about gender. One day I was like, oh shit, Genderless means I have to shave my hair. And then it made sense to me. Because I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I knew I was in love with my long hair, with the bleach that takes seven hours.

What made you use a shrine and traditionally Buddhist decorations for the piece?

When I was creating my portraits, I reflected one side of my face onto the other side, to make a perfectly symmetrical face, so that I made a mask. It’s inspired by a Noh mask, a Japanese mask. Masks in America seem to me to be more like death. So it’s interesting for me, because I was born in America and grew up in Japan, to mix West and East and man and woman. I like to mix stuff. So when I was looking at those 30 portraits I realized I’m making my mask, this is my mask. Make up, hair or any exterior is my mask. I wanted to be out in the public taking off those gender elements. I realized that was my effigy. It was kind of utopian thought in the end, what Genderless means. No categories, nothing at all.

How does this performance relate to your past work? You’ve done pieces about J-pop, and many of your other performances have to do with putting on costumes and projecting this aura of perfection and falsity. This show feels more raw, like you’re stripping back layers instead of putting them on.

Ayakamay, myself, will never fit anywhere. That’s how I felt when I grew up here and moved to Japan. No matter how I look, I was always uncomfortable being something. So I thought “there is no me”. I don’t have any identity. I’m just trying to be what someone wants or expects. That became part of my performance art. I can be anybody, to make someone believe me. With Genderless, it’s the opposite process, but the concept is the same.

It seems that your other performances have dealt with the concept of femininity as well.

When I looked at the rest of my career I realize I’m always always talking about femininity. It was always about me being uncomfortable as a girl. That was really a very core thought. Why because I’m a woman do I get treated this way? Why do people expect me to do certain things? I never liked it. So Genderless really made me think, it doesn’t matter what people tell you to be, this is what I am and what I want to be: genderless, no categories. I believe there’s better ways we can share than by telling someone you’re a man or a woman.

What was important to you about the audience participating in this performance?

I want people to be emotional, vulnerable, to really share my journey even if they don’t have the balls to shave their head themselves. [laughs]

It seems you do a lot of things in your performances that require endurance, like holding one position for a very long time. There’s some element of pain in what you’re doing. I was wondering why that seems to be a common element in your work?

It’s because I was never comfortable with talking. I never was good at studying any language. My English and my Japanese are at the same level. So I’m not comfortable or perfect [with either]. Growing up in different countries, I always could gesture, or communicate with my facial expression. So what I want to do in my work, is communicate without language. If I stare at you for five minutes, [my performance] is all in your head, even if I don’t say anything to you, you just start assuming [what I’m thinking]. And that’s when your unconsciousness and consciousness, comes in, telling you what I’m trying to say. That’s very interesting to me. I don’t have an answer for what the performance is about, it’s just a trigger for other people’s consciousness.

Ayakamay will next show at Art New York on May 3 – May 8, 2016.