Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Richard Agerbeek
No one likes cliched language, but I think I can safely use the phrase “no stranger to controversy” in reference to the Araki show at The Museum of Sex, which combines two institutions that are particularly unafraid to mix it up with a little controversy.
The press preview conducted by whip smart curators Maggie Mustard and Mark Snyder revealed a show that begins by diving right into the aforementioned controversy. If you’re unfamiliar with Araki, one of the most influential, prolific, and recognizable photographer of a generation, he is known for his photographs of nudes, particularly female nudes, often in bondage positions; although, there are so many photographs in his oeuvre that it’s hard to generalize about the subject matter.
The curators immerse you from the very beginning by creating a tunnel of ropes tied in the same Shibari style that the Araki uses on the models in his photographs. The viewer is thus aligned (bound, as it were) with the subject of the photo as well as with the photographer who they’ve come to see.
Bondage is bondage, and it’s controversial, but in the next room we begin to see how the controversy takes on a completely different shape in Japan than it does the U.S. In Japan, as we learn, the controversy surrounds Araki’s breaking of public decency and anti-pornography laws that prohibit such a thing as a pubic hair from being shown without being blurred. Araki was, in fact, arrested on these decency-type laws early in his career, and, of course, was also responsible for reshaping the conversation about such things in Japan.
Moving to the next room, we learn how in the West the controversy is focused more on the power dynamic between the male photographer and the female subject. Mustard went on to point out how the fact that controversial aspect has not always been fully problematized in the West itself became the subject of the further controversy that Araki was getting a pass because western critics were practicing a kind of orientalism that was more permissive of the objectification of East Asian women (an argument advanced by Christian Kravagna).
The curators make it very clear that they are presenting these controversies to the viewer without taking a particular side, and there is an Araki photograph of Lady Gaga presented as a counterpoint to the orientalist argument above. There is also a video of Bjork praising the work of Araki as a photographer and a collaborator, and an extensive interview with Komari, who was a very important model and collaborator for Araki. This approach by the museum is both fascinating, informative, and also seems like the responsible move.
In the second half of the first floor we begin to get to know Araki. Here we see the photographer as he appears within his own artwork. Particularly effective in this section is a photograph of Araki in the process of creating one of the bondage images featured in the beginning of the exhibition, a callback that nicely heightens the unity of the show.
After seeing these images of the artist at work and in his work, the exhibit continues upstairs where we see Araki’s early photographs and his legacy positioned within the tradition of Japanese art history. We also see a massive expanse of books that he’s published stretching out on an enormous table under glass. And when you learn that this is only a fraction of his published work, you really appreciate job the Museum of Sex has done distilling it all and creating this portrayal of Araki that is succinct even if it is “incomplete.”
The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life, and Death in the Works of Nobuyoshi Araki is on view through August 31 at the Museum of Sex, 233 Fifth Avenue.