Written by Sofia D’Amico (Student at Fordham University)
Supervised by Asato Ikeda (Assistant Professor at Fordham University and Research Associate at the Royal Ontario Museum)
Cue the unsophisticated toddler: that’s me. Pan to the setting: that’s Japan Society full of well-established and cultured intellectuals, with me in toe. This is the scene of my working at the A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints opening event. “Here I am, a big baby with no idea what she wants to do with her life, hanging out with all of these big shots,” I remember thinking as I sat behind the welcome desk with two experienced employees, a pizza grease stain on my dress that I hoped no one noticed and a glaze of perspiration over my forehead.
Though not knowing what to expect and being with so many notables was for sure intimidating at the beginning, it was also probably the most exhilarating experience of my college career. Being in a foyer full of art connoisseurs, scholars, professors, CEOs, journalists, and other established characters of the art world was nothing short of awe inspiring and as a small town gal from Connecticut, I’d really never experienced anything quite like it.
I am currently interning at the Japan Society gallery in Manhattan, a ten-minute walk from Grand Central. The only reason that I was able to land this position was because I fell in love with Fordham Professor Asato Ikeda’s Intro to Asian Art History class and worked up the courage to email her one day after class about how I could get involved in the art scene since I was thinking about declaring an art history major. She informed me that she was working on a travelling exhibition for Japan Society and would contact them asking if there were any way I could work with them on it. I could not have asked for a better opportunity to get involved and I swear it was destiny. Ever since then Professor Ikeda has been instrumental in getting my foot into the art world so to speak and to helping me discover what I want to do with my studies and future.
As an intern and an art history department student worker, I was asked to help with the VIP opening night on Thursday March 9th and the official opening, which was March 10th. A Third Gender is a show featuring over sixty 18th-century Edo period Japanese woodblock prints and luxury objects that amassed huge success in its first showing in Toronto before opening at the Japan Society Gallery. The exhibition is the first to focus on the subject of wakashu in art, which were feminized young men typically ages eleven to twenty that were the objects of desire for both men and women in Edo Japan. The exhibition poses fundamental questions about gender identity, sexual multiplicity, and eroticism. It invites viewers to explore how traditions of alternative genders and the surprisingly colorful sexual practices of the Edo-period relate to modern day issues, identities, and perceptions. It has proved to be wildly popular with people of all ages and is especially relevant to the ever-changing LGBTQ+ landscape that more and more people all across the gender and sexual spectrum are a part of. Only after getting involved with and seeing this exhibition myself did I realize that my art history concentration would be gender and sexuality in art.
Professor Ikeda seemed to work tirelessly coordinating the exhibition set up, its events, and publicity yet I remember speaking with her right before opening night being surprised at how calm and humble she was. On the official opening night, guests’ tickets were collected and they were ushered into an auditorium where Professor Ikeda gave opening remarks and an explanatory lecture of the exhibition. “The exhibition will make us think about sex, gender, and sexuality and help us understand the history of human sexuality,” she stated to the crowd after a very thorough investigation of wakashu and what defines gender. Every joke, especially a likening of admiration for wakashu to people’s 2010 unhealthy obsession with Justin Bieber, made the crowd erupt in laughter. She continued, “Creation of this exhibition allowed for more discursive discussion with the general public through the examination of sexual and gender history.” Over 400 people in total attended the opening, guests ranging from impassioned students to art world notables and even their children. I am going to venture a prediction that the total viewers of A Third Gender is going to surpass its unexpected Toronto number of 160,000, which blows nearly any other recent Asian art exhibition completely out of the water. The Royal Ontario Museum only predicted about 30,000 and thus did not publicize the exhibition very much… man, did they underestimate.
There was a reception after the lecture where gallery goers were encouraged to eat their weight in cheese and fruit (I know I did) and walk through the gallery with their friends, families, and colleagues. Japan Society teemed with life; in the foreground men and women greeted each other with kisses on the cheek and playful presses on the shoulder, while light-hearted chatter, exclamations, and laughter buzzed in the background. There was such a warmth and an air of excitement emanating from the foyer where everyone gathered and romped around. Upstairs in the gallery, huge groups of people crowded around even the smallest prints and artifacts, studying with intensity and discernment. This was a groundbreaking event full of scholars, philosophers, advocates, artists, friends, lovers, and the most exciting people I’m sure the city has to offer.
Late into the night after the gallery closed I walked sore-footed to Grand Central, feeling the air pull into my body more intensely than before. I could feel the watery stars in my eyes. There is a place among this brilliant crowd and in this incredible art scene for everyone and it would be a waste not to get involved. The art world is full of such well-to-do passionate, bold, thoughtful people and being with those people that night continues to inspire me to pursue the fun, the beautiful, and the artful parts of life. I implore you, no matter your major or concentration, to go out there and do the same.
A Third Gender: Beautiful Youth in Japanese Prints was originally organized by the Royal Ontario Museum and is currently on view at Japan Society, New York (until June 11).
Sofia is trying to nudge her way into the art world to avoid going to medical school. She is a sophomore at Rose Hill doing a biology and art history double major.
This blog was originally posted at Art Ramblings (http://arthistory.ace.fordham.edu/?p=1993)