Review: Nobuyoshi Araki at Michael Hoppen Gallery

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On for one more week at Michael Hoppen Gallery is a show of work by acclaimed Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Araki’s practice is diverse to say the least, reflecting numerous aspects of Japanese culture and society, from the ordinary to the bizarre. This show falls into the latter category, and consists of some of his most controversial work, a series of photographs of women, many dressed (or undressed) in traditional costume, tied up in Japanese rope bondage. Interspersed amongst these are variations on this theme, several women untied and some more significant digressions, including polaroids of rather suggestive looking flowers and a close-up of a woman’s face on a highly pixelated television screen.

It’s a collection of images likely to divide viewers into two camps, those who will see it as art, and those who see it as very expensive porn (buyers will be looking to stump up at least ten thousand pounds per photograph). Given the current debate in this country over pornography, and particularly that which implicitly or explicitly depicts violence against women, the timing of this show is maybe pertinent, or perhaps it’s just unfortunate. The obvious question that Araki’s photographs ask, and which struggle to escape from, is the question of  where the line lies between art and pornography.

As if to complicate answering this, also on show are a series of eighteenth and nineteenth century shunga woodblock prints. These prints are sexually explicit, much moreso than Araki’s photographs. The shunga depict various improbable erotic encounters including one involving a Buddhist monk and another showing two lesbians with a vast dildo. These prints are a Japanese tradition dating back several hundred years, comparable, but not equivalent, to western pornography because they simultaneously occupied the status of fine art (and whatever you might think of the content, these prints are beautiful objects).

One reading of Araki’s work is that it’s not much more than a modern day equivalent to shunga. That it’s pornographic fine art updated to make use of a more technically sophisticated and aesthetically engrossing medium. If that’s really all there is to the work then it’s a disquieting collection of images. Regardless of their beauty as photographs and the apparent consent and complicity of the models these are in some cases really disturbing, degrading images.

On the hand a little more contextual history reveals that Shunga was gradually banned in the late nineteenth century as Japan opened up the rest of the world and was increasingly influenced by outside ideas about sexual morality and art. It’s easy to imagine that what was suppressed was never dispelled, and without getting too psychoanalytical it’s not hard to read Araki’s photographs as a critique of barely concealed sexual desires that lie beneath the surface of very polite, formal and conservative modern Japan (boom, take that Freud).

As I said at the start of this review, Araki’s photographs are likely to prove fairly divisive amongst viewers in this country, as they have elsewhere. They are in some cases really beautiful images, but with a lot of baggage, baggage which is well worth taking your time over unpacking. You won’t have long to do so though as the show closes at the end of this week, Friday, 7th June.

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