A diverse display of Japanese erotica can be seen at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in Chelsea. The contemporary photography of Nobuyoshi Araki which displays the art of Japanese bondage is presented beside traditional Shunga prints of the eighteenth and nineteenth century in a show which engages us with the arresting beauty of something which probably shouldn’t interest us straight away.
Araki’s photographs capture the art of ‘Kinbaku-bi’ which translates as ‘the beauty of tight binding.’ In both the 21st century photographs and the 18th and 19th century prints the figures are partially clothed in traditional Japanese dress, thus not giving everything away, nor being as full frontal as a more western approach to the subject. Yet this may be why Araki’s work seems so much more powerful as much is still left to the imagination.
If we leave behind for a moment the ‘provocative’ aspect of Araki’s work and focus on his use of colour, there is no denying that he is a true artist. His photographs are rich, vivid and ethereal. Despite the positions in which the women have been tied, there is a softer side of innocence in the clothes in which the women are dressed and a sense of fragility and appreciation for the female form which is often lacking in the west.
The gallery seems to defend Araki against those who cite his work merely as a form of ‘pornography’ in its decision to portray the work alongside Shunga prints. This allows the audience to understand that this subject matter was mass produced in Japan for more than two centuries before Araki arrived on the scene. Furthermore, unlike the Shunga prints, Araki’s photographs were not taken for the purpose of mass production.
The expressions on the women’s faces differ hugely between the prints and photographs. Whilst the women illustrated in the Shunga react to their situation, little or no expression is given by the contemporary women captured behind Araki’s lense. If we take it one step further, one must remember that Araki does not once include a male counterpart in his images, whilst the act of sex is nearly always present in the Shunga prints. Thus a clear separation between the purpose and meaning behind the two genres is even more evident.
Whilst Araki’s work is controversial, I find it difficult to deny it’s beauty. It is clear in the artist’s approach that he has a real admiration for women. The exhibition space itself is beautiful and compliments the striking images in a way that could only be described as sublime – definitely not to be missed.
Kinbaku by Nobuyoshi Araki is on display at Michael Hoppen Gallery until June 8