Art & Design

Get To Know The Japanese Artist Trying To Desexualize BDSM

Art & Design

Get To Know The Japanese Artist Trying To Desexualize BDSM

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When most people think of bondage, they think of Noboyushi Araki or Fifty Shades of Grey―but not Leh Yunshan, who sees the ancient practice of Kinbaku as a way to redefine the male gaze. Using traditional rope techniques, the Japanese fashion designer-turned-artist creates sensual imagery that poses BDSM as a symbol for female freedom, rather than repression. Both in her own private life as a Mistress and as a photographer, the Tokyo-based Yunshan explores the ways in which women can be empowered through their sexuality, finding tools to rewrite femme representation in art. Inspired by the late Ren Hang, her images showcase the growing class of Japanese women who are fighting against their traditionally submissive roles. With Kinbaku, Yunshan contrasts literal restriction with the autonomy of being a woman in control.

BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk cultural perception, kink and Christian Grey.



What inspires you about Kinbaku?
Kinbaku inspires me visually, and the stories I hear from the girls I tie up always stay with me. It really feeds into my creativity as a fashion designer and as an artist―I see it as all being connected because it brings out beauty and confidence in women. The goal for me is to show that Kinbaku and bondage can be far more than a sexual kink.

When we first spoke, you said there are a lot of misconceptions about the practice. What do you think that is?  

With all the recent attention on the subject, from Fifty Shades of Grey to the popularization of underground culture in the mainstream, there’s a lot of misconceptions going around. A lot of people, when they think of bondage, they think of some poor girl being dragged into a dark and dangerous world. But a lot of people don’t really know the roots and origins of Kinbaku or understand the psychological and physiological sides. In the West, most people in the art and fashion worlds know Nobuyoshi Araki’s work, so they see it more as an art. However, to the average person, especially in Japan, it’s seen as pornographic, perverted, abusive and shameful. It’s a side of Japanese culture the government wants to hide, especially surrounding the 2020 Olympics. That kind of thinking completely disregards the craft and technicality Kinbaku practitioners have put into refining their art.

How did you get into BDSM as an art form?

I’m a fashion designer first and foremost, and I was always attracted to the bondage aesthetic. So I really started learning Kinbaku from an artistic perspective. But I do practice BDSM privately. When I tie someone up for a photoshoot, I’m focused on the creative process, poses, colors, compositions―being able to convey the story and emotions I want in the picture. But sometimes the photos do happen in the middle of my BDSM sessions.



As a woman photographing women in a sexual way, you’re in an interesting position. Do you see Kinbaku as oppressive? Or are you trying to combat that conception?

Is it misogynistic? I don’t think so. But everyone’s BDSM is different and everyone’s rope-play objective―what they hope to get out of it―is different. Yes, stereotypically it’s older guys tying up women and getting off from humiliating or controlling them―that does nothing for me sexually, especially as a woman. I want to empower the girls I tie.

Do you think your photos subvert the male gaze by trying to desexualize the subject?

I do often try to desexualize the subject by having my pictures look more romantic. Of course, with different girls in different situations, the objective and goals maybe quite different. But I’m always trying to show that Kinbaku is more than a sexual thing.

How?

My photos do obviously explore sexuality, but to me, they always seem quite innocent, too. I think my best pictures are the ones that show bondage as something beautiful, romantic, funny or ironic. I’m more focused on capturing the beauty of the women in my photos, anyway―often times, the bondage just becomes an accessory.



One of these series was inspired by Ren Hang. How has the late artist inspired your work?

Like Ren Hang, I am an Asian artist living in a sexually conservative and confused society. In a lot of ways, I think Japan is worse than China when it comes to sexual conservatism―the Chinese are always ready to embrace new concepts and move forward, and the younger generations are much more open to foreign influence. In Japan, there’s such a strong sense of conformity, and I’m not really understood or appreciated here. Also, being a woman in such a male-dominated society, doing what I do―it really freaks out the guys here.

Have the traditional elements of Japanese culture affected your work?

In Japan, it’s quite normal for women to quit their jobs after marriage. The average Japanese girl is also very submissive, always trying to pull of this kawaii thing. Female submission and male domination is just so embedded in the culture―even looking ashamed and blushing is supposed to be attractive to men here. So, what I do really counters that.

You said you want to empower women through your work. How do you make sure your subjects are able to express themselves, even through literal restriction?

To express oneself means freedom, and the concept of freedom can be seen as freedom from or freedom to. Freedom can be when you let go, empty your head, and leave yourself in the hands of another―there’s a real sense of trust and romance in that. And with Kinbaku, you’re free from the rules of everyday life, and free to be vulnerable and try something risky and new.


Series 1:

Photography/Art Direction: Leh Yunshan

Model: URA

Series 2:

Art Direction: Leh Yunshan

Photography: Huang Juan Tuan

Model: Mana Hamada