Currently reading : Torture Garden Japan
Interview with David Wood by Ira Lupu
What comes to mind first when you hear words ‘Torture Garden’? It may be a 1899 French decadent novel by Octave Mirbeau or an album by John Zorn’s band Naked City. If you’re not that into decadent literature and avant-garde music, you might just imagine a blooming garden furnished with Judas cradles, Brazen bulls and other torture devices. But if you have at least slight interest in fetish/BDSM culture and history of British underground, you surely know Torture Garden as an eponymous London fetish club, and legendary party series started in 1990 by David Wood and Allen Pelling.
Yet ‘party series’ is a rather poor term to describe the dark extravaganza of Torture Garden events. Apart from nightclub’s regular booze & dancing, they are also about radical performances, like Ron Athey and Franko B’s blood rituals; S/M messes; fetish fashion shows, and special musical acts. Kinky visuals and strict fetish dress-code make Torture Garden events a mixture of morbid fairytale and your secret sex dreams, shared in the most welcoming atmosphere.
With time, originally tiny and arcane world of Torture Garden in London had steadily grown into a whole commercially successful fetish empire ”” and also a travelling circus. The first country to host David and Allen’s parties outside UK was Japan. Japan, with its kinbaku traditions and certain taste for all things deviant (for traditional European mind), seem to be a perfect match for Torture Garden. ‘From the beginning, I was seen as another perv’, ”” laughs Torture Garden Japan initiator and long-time organizer Sota Suzuki, referring to year 2001 when debut party has been held in Tokyo. ”” ‘But then 10 times more people came than we actually expected. I imagined Japanese market to be as small as 200-300 people, but in reality a crowd of around two thousand people got together for the event’.
And Torture Garden Japan story goes on. Recent party took place by the end of winter in luxurious Azabu Juyban district in Tokyo. This time, the whole Torture Garden UK delegation came to party ”” including David Wood. We talked to the begetter about peculiarities of Japanese culture, local edition of the party and the last ball itself.
You started running the Torture Garden parties in London a quarter-century ago. What are the main evolutionary changes of the event and do you find them connected with changes in whole fetish movement?
Wow yes a quarter of a century this October!
Our concept for the club hasn’t really changed at all. We wanted to create an event that was more than a night club, more than a normal fetish party. We wanted multiple rooms and different themed environments, and a diverse progressive music policy. We wanted a creative platform for performances, fashion shows, visuals, art etc. We wanted a more open and imaginative dress code and crowd that was about fantasy and transformation.
The style of music, performances and crowd has evolved and changed every few years so the club still seems fresh, edgy and contemporary, but the concept has stayed the same.
What we do is as extreme as it ever was, but what has changed most is the society around us and that fetish, fantasy, sexuality and dressing up in London and the UK has become so accessible, acceptable and almost mainstream. It’s no longer underground and forbidden like it was when TG started. Almost everyone seems to know someone that goes to Torture Garden now!
So the best of our crowd is even more dressed up than it used to be and as extreme, but we do also get a more commercial crowd attending now as well and even though they may be in the dress code they are more curious than the more underground and serious scene crowd.
The other thing that has changed is the scale of events moving from 500 people in 1990 to 2500 people at our biggest events of the year now, and the more spectacular shows and production. We always knew that big crowds gave us more power to get away with more and to be more creative and spectacular.
So Torture Garden is not underground anymore. But from the beginning, you were inspired by ideas of, say, George Bataille, which are dark, rebelliously erotic and, from a mundane point of view, rather abstruse. Not for masses, for sure. Do you find staying driven by these or any other philosophical ideas still important for you?
George Bataille was, and still is my favourite writer and so Torture Garden has perhaps always been themed more around sex and death and a dark eroticism rather than classic fetish S&M.
When and how did the TG story in Japan begin and how did it fit into the whole TG story?
We were first invited to bring Torture Garden to Japan by Tokyo based promoter Sota Suzuki in 2001, and we’ve continued to work with him ever since. Along with Torture Garden in Rome, Tokyo has been our longest running event outside of London and I think we’ve staged around 10 events there now.
You travel and run your bizarre parties all around the world, but Japan is the place where they get special attention. Why it is so? What is this that makes the TG and Japan such a good mix – maybe some peculiarities of Japanese culture?
Japan seems to have a natural taste for fetish and fantasy imagery and you see so many visual aesthetics and characters in Japanese culture that look fetish from the outside. Every country we visit has its own unique style and they mix fetish, fantasy, sexuality and dressing up in a different way. But in the parties in Japan we see the really original, unique and one-off costumes that we love the most and we definitely feel that the crowd is the best dressed we’ve seen outside of London. Otherwise perhaps there’s a similar aesthetic and style between Torture Garden and Japan, it just fits and works. Hopefully the Japanese crowd have loved the shows, performances, fashions and music that we’ve brought to our events there?
There was a 4-year break between two last TG events in Japan – why? And were there any law issues the party faced, since in recent years there were some restrictions in Japanese clubs?
The laws or the fashions or the venues can always change in each city, and that can change the clubbing scene for a while. That’s why we always work with a local promoter with all our international events, and we have to trust them to worry about the venues and the laws. We weren’t sure if Torture Garden would ever happen in Japan again, so it was great to return and hopefully it will be a regular event again over the next few years.
Once you’ve said Japan is your favourite country, even after 10+ visits. What makes it so special personally for you? What are the most impressive things you saw and experienced there?
I think everyone has another country that they instinctively connect with and even from a child I loved the visuals and aesthetics and culture from Japan. I knew I would love Japanese food even before I tasted it! Often you can love the visuals from afar but when you finally go to the country you’re disappointed, but with Japan it was the opposite and I loved it even more. I love the traditional and spiritual culture of Japan and probably my favourite experience was staying in one of the Buddhist Temples on Mount Koyasan and walking through the cemetary in the forest at night in the snow. But I also love the crazy techno modern Japan. It’s the contrast of the 2 sides together. Before our first visit Allen TG wasn’t that into Japanese culture or food, but now he’s the one with the long term Japanese girlfriend and child, so we both fell in love with the country!
What is your audience in Japan and does it differ from your regular audience in London?
The great thing about a fetish crowd is that it can be so diverse and mixed, and the Japanese crowd seems similar. In London we get a really mixed crowd, so as well as the fetish and SM we also get goth/industrial, body art, burlesque, cabaret, gay, drag, high fashion crowds. So it will be good to see more diversity in Tokyo!
Please tell about the last party in Japan.
We returned to a venue that we’ve staged Torture Garden a few times over the years, now called Freq, and it was great to be back as the venue has a strong energy and atmosphere, with 3 themed rooms and 2 stages. Torture Garden Japan is less dungeon and play orientated than London events, but the crowd looks amazing and they love the performances and music. For this event our special guest performers were edgy piercing and suspension star Miss Crash (USA/Berlin) and surreal latex costume performer Marnie Scarlet (UK). Plus touring DJS The Secretary and myself playing Electro House, Dubstep & Drum n Bass in the main Club Room and Burlesque, Electro Swing & Mash-ups in the Cabaret Room. Last time at torture Garden Japan, there were some amazing costumes. A girl in a British Busby Guard uniform in latex, 3 people in full latex dog costumes, a latex bunny. We love to see unique and original costumes!
How does the perfect Torture Garden party, held in Japan or elsewhere, look like in your most impossible and surreal dreams? What are the unbelieveable venues, performers, guests and atmosphere you can fancy?
Venues are always the most limiting thing for us. We are restricted by the venues that exist and are possible to hire. We always love to find a venue that isn’t like a night club. We want to create a perfect fantasy that is like stepping into a film scene or another world outside the normal real life.
As for shows and performers we’ve put on most people that we want to. We would have loved a fashion show by Alexander McQueen.
Photographs by Yuliya Libkina