Friday, June 21, 2013

Nobuyoshi Araki at Mana Contemporary

The other day Greg and I decided to check out Mana Contemporary. We had nothing particular in mind, but we’d read about the place in The New York Times and decided to see for ourselves. One of “the art world’s best-kept secrets” in the industrial wilds of Jersey City? Sounds interesting. After all Greg had spent five years curating a somewhat different seKret Art zOne in a different region of Jersey City’s industrial hinterlands.

So we hopped into his white SUV, headed South on Kennedy, turned West on Newark, and drove right past it–all those old industrials look alike, dontchaknow?–but not by much. We found our way to the magic button, got buzzed in, signed-in on an iPad–the place, after all, IS contemporary–and were delivered to a tour guide, Amanda.

And she took us to the Araki exhibit, which occupies two galleries (three if you count the small galley where the documentary played) on the first floor. She took us other places too, including several galleries showing stately videos of Palestinian women; but let’s stick with Araki-san. He’s more than enough for one blog post.

Araki is a photographer, one of Japan’s best-known and most prolific. Never heard of him. Which is neither here nor there.

The flower close-ups, yes. Lush. Even when partnered with a desiccated salamander. Cloudscapes. Yes. Cityscapes. Yes.

But Araki is about the women. Some entirely naked, some only partially so. There’s the school-girl sailor suits. But also traditional kimonos.

Some black and white. Some in color.

And the postures. Some cramped and looking painful. Some with legs splayed wide to expose the genitals. Some suspended from the ceiling by ropes.

Many with ropes. Some relatively simple. Some rather complex. Did Araki himself bind his models, or does an assistant do it? Does it matter? Who unties them?

Those aren’t questions I asked myself when viewing the photographs. But they were floating in the air. Bondage. Serious bondage. And, wouldn’t you know, with a history going back to the late 19th Century. Kinbaku is the Japanese word for it.

One question I DID ask myself when viewing the photographs: How would I react to the photos if I viewed them privately? For that matter, would I WANT to view them privately? On the first, of course I don’t know. Well, I suppose I do, since I’ve found some his work on the web. But the images are small, while those at Mana Contemporary were largish (three feet or more). What would it have been like if the galleries had had 20 or 30 people in them, instead of just me, Greg, and Amanda (our guide)? Would we have worked to keep our distance from one another?

What one wants to know, of course, is: Is it art? Is it perverse? Does it exploit women? Pick your answers and work out your justifications for them. Whatever else these images do, they force such questions on you.

Do the photographs objectify women? Well of course. Remove the ropes (if only in your imagination)? Objectification, still. (But isn't all art objectification?) Are the images erotic? Well yes, I guess. In an obvious way.

What these photographs do is bind you to such questions. No matter how you wiggle and squirm you can’t escape them. The photographs don’t let you imagine the genitals away. You have to look at them, to think about them. What they are. What they do. There’s no escape.

But, of course, someone untied the models at the end of the photo sessions. And they got dressed and left.

I rather liked the black and white prints painted with large splashes of primary colors.*

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