The artist Nobuyoshi Araki is known for tightly weaving motifs of sex, fetish, female beauty and the natural world throughout his work, so it's fitting that for the opening of his retrospective, "The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life and Death in the Work of Nobuyashi Araki" at The Museum of Sex, bondage would somehow be involved. The exhibit, which runs from February 8 to August 31, traces the career and compulsions of this prolific, controversial Japanese photographer. On a drizzly Monday evening in April, guests packed the entrance to the newly unveiled exhibition space to add a few bends and threads to Passage, a site-specific installation and "rope environment" created by multimedia artist Midori in homage to kinbaku-bi, the traditional Japanese craft of erotic binding that adorns the space's antechamber. Midori, a Tokyo native, based in San Francisco, has collaborated with everyone from Nick Knight (British Vogue) to Singaporean choreographer Ong Ken Sen and was once referred to as "The Supernova of Kink" by Savage Love podcaster Dan Savage. On this night, however, she would be presenting a brief history lesson on post-war East Asian sexuality and aesthetics to a sizable crowd of art writers, Japanese culture buffs, photographers and kinksters of all shades. As a bonus, she offered tips for booking a luxury sex hotel in Tokyo.
For Midori’s woven commission she drew on many inspirations.“The actions, the structure, and scents mattered more [than the ropes themselves],” she explained, citing a desire to “dissolve the artist/viewer/maker/consumer divide and create a mystical garden path.” Other influences included the scent of traditional Japanese tatami mats, baby cribs woven with folkloric creatures, and the annual Japanese tradition of building a wicker “gate” to welcome in the New Year. Passages, whose fibers form a web-like structure, both draws in the eye and creates an artificial boundary between the viewer and the space. The same could be said of photography itself, with its ability to let us gently observe a world but never enter it; this is especially true of Araki’s work, which features women bound in various erotic yet triumphant poses, accessible visually, yet unknowable.
His images challenge us to question who is in control. Is it we, the observers, or is it the artist, who wields the camera as an extension of himself? Or is it the models, many of whom have worked with Araki for decades as both muse and collaborator, and who can rightfully claim credit from the strong impact of these images, with their unique and subtle bodily gestures and nuanced facial expressions. (It’s been said that Araki’s women often project a reverse gaze; rather than viewers appraising them, they size us up, gently teasing our conventional morality.) His photographs have also been used over the years as a path to still-timely discussions of pornography and art, eroticism and intimacy, and aspects of inherent sexism in the West’s fetishization of East Asian women in art.
In this exhibition, however, we also get a glimpse of the artist’s hidden, softer side. On display are the candid, unstaged images Araki shot of his late wife and prima-muse, Yōko Aoki, before her early passing. (Their relationship would inspire some of Araki’s most powerful images, including those in his seminal photobook Sentimental Journey). One of the highlights of the show is a collection of Araki’s candid photos of wife on their honeymoon, posing beside an unmade bed, naked yet truly “visible” only to him.
On display near Araki’s photographic work is also a massive interactive installation of hundreds of his photobooks, meant to stir a deeper discussion of the nature of both media and the boundaries of art. Viewing decades of his work, it's easy to recognize the influence of Araki on photographers like Terry Richardson and Richard Kern, and on fashion designers like Simone Rocha and Riccardo Tisci, who teamed up with the artist in 2014 to creative direct a shoot for Vogue Japan. While Araki has had many shows, this combination of his colorful images with Midori’s work provides an ideal synergy.
“Midori's installation provides a physical, immersive space for visitors entering the exhibition,” explained co-curator Maggie Mustard, a Riggio Fellow in Art History and expert on Post-War Japanese Photography. “Everything from the texture of the rope, its thickness and intricate knots—all of it allows visitors to more intimately understand the relationship between their own bodies and the kinbaku-bi imagery they will encounter in the exhibition itself.” She explained that she chose to highlight Midori's work as an artist and sex educator to help contextualize Araki's artwork within the history and culture of sexuality in Japan (and later abroad).
After nearly half a century, and more than 500 photobooks, Araki’s images continue to provoke, entice, and repel in equal measure, touching on the intersection of love and death, sex and spirituality, and the concept of what is and isn’t verboten—both in love and art. 233 5th Ave.; museumofsex.com.