Folklore Versus War

Alissa Bennett

Photo by Nick Karp.

Cover Image for Folklore Versus War

Recently, I came across a set of undated photographs that I can say with certainty were taken in August of 1999. I can situate the images precisely because my hair is straw-like, bleached platinum blonde, and I have on a shirt that I only wore once in America. I purchased it that July from a shop in Tokyo during my final tour as a model; it stopped making sense as soon as I got home. I look happy to be back in New York in every single image, drinking beer with my childhood best friend, Pokey, and often gesturing ecstatically towards an enormous and shoddy outdoor wrestling ring that had been erected in the middle of Frost Street in Greenpoint.

I wouldn’t say that we ended up at this event to support a friend, but we did know one of the headliners: he was a bouncer at the Bushwick strip club Pokey danced at, a man who at the time seemed relatively unremarkable outside of his ability to remain seated for extraordinarily long periods as he surveilled the club from a lawn chair. I remember thinking it was outlandishly weird when we found out this man had a second life as a wrestler, though I couldn’t tell you why now. I must have thought it was seedy in a way that was hard to relate to, but if it were a cynical sociological fascination that inspired my attendance, you would never know it from the photographs. Most of the documentation I have of that day shows a version of me who is young and thrilled and almost too enthusiastic, arms raised, mouth agape, eyes widening, as I register the split-second a bar stool makes contact with the bouncer’s head. I don’t find it difficult to understand why ultraviolent wrestling appeals to people. I remember how satisfying it felt to witness the flash of ignition, to encounter the moment when our barely suppressed death drives stopped wandering aimlessly and finally found purchase in the atomized dust of an exploded fluorescent tube. The match reminded me of the hardcore matinees I attended in the early 1990s, and if the ring here supplanted the stage, the circuit between the action and the audience was absolutely analogous.

For as much as we like to qualify this type of entertainment as a subcultural expression of classically masculine transgression, it also functions as an important release valve, subverting the surveillance of our collective superego by probing the membrane that quarantines real-life mayhem from its make-believe proxies. Looking through the images in photographer Nick Karp’s new book, VISITORS, I remembered how thrilling it can be to watch, how life-affirming it is to believe without calculation that we are witnessing a person exposing their interior, stripping bare the parts of themselves that we are not supposed to see.

Karp’s images provide an intimate glimpse of the men and women who joined Game Changer Wrestling’s post-pandemic performances at Tokyo’s legendary Korakuen Hall, a space that accommodates all kinds of wrestling but that many identify as the non-plus-ultra heart of the death match. I learned during a cursory investigation of the venue that it has served as the primary host for gorescapes since the mid-1990s, which means that its reputation as a no-holds-barred forum for blood sport began during the grip of the AIDS crisis and has continued through every subsequent public health disaster since. Though VISITORS certainly offers an intimately panoramic perspective of fans and wrestlers both in and out of the ring, part of the power that rattles through its pages is the service it pays as a document of displaced public anxiety. The percussive quality of Karp’s images is both underscored and redoubled by the historical moment in which they were taken: immediately following mass public trauma, state-mandated lockdowns, and the panic that fomented in the wake of Covid, these photographs deny death by showing bodies unafraid to cozy up to its perimeter.

For all of VISITORS’ lurid depictions of theatrically ruptured flesh, one photograph, in particular, comes to mind. In this image, a man stands with his back teasing against a slat of particle board accessorized with a menacing tendril of barbed wire. Though his body is not yet bleeding, it is thick with evidence of past matches, a latticework of keloid scars that covers every visible area of his skin. I suppose this particular frame sticks with me not only because it conjures and immediately negates all of the doubt people cast about the legitimacy of the sport but because it seems to hold inside itself all of the complexity wrestling addresses about inside versus outside, folklore versus war, dead versus alive. Karp’s work feels important to me, not just because it tells me something about fandom or violence but because my reactions tell me about myself.

I’ve written a lot about how culture mitigates its relationship to fear through spectacle. It seems clear that we engage with mediums like true crime, horror films, and tales of peril as roadmaps for negotiating how to stay alive, and the continued popularity of boundary-testing wrestling slots neatly into the theory. Wrestling has always been an expression of performative public violence that touches on legitimate brutality, a choreographed double of our own worst intentions. We activate another kind of séance when we get the chance to engage with the kind of theatrical rupture that brushes up against genuine carnage; we watch so that we can feel what it’s like to be a ghost so that we can trespass on a mortal boundary without actually having to die.

At that match on Frost Street all those years ago, it didn’t occur to me to question if the blood I saw spilling from the bouncer’s bald scalp was real or not, though I suppose now that it was. It didn’t matter in the moment—it looked believable enough, which was all the crowd required. We wanted to witness something that reminded us that we could all be split open, too. We wanted to witness something that confirmed to us that, for the moment, we were all still whole.

A touring exhibition, VISITORS will be on view at the Trunk Hotel in Shibuya, Tokyo on August 12-14, 2024. Buy the book here.