EIKI MORI, Intimacy (No#1), 2013, C-print, 27.9 × 35.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Shikijo: Eroticism in Japanese Photography

Blindspot Gallery
Hong Kong Japan

On view at Blindspot Gallery until the end of the month is an exhibition ambitiously exploring the diverse facets of sexuality and erotica in Japanese society, presented through the works of 13 photographers across different generations. “Shikijo: Eroticism in Japanese Photography,” examines the subjectivity of eroticism and its prevalence in contemporary Japanese culture, where sexuality can be viewed as a form of self-expression, a means of indulging in pain and pleasure, as well as a medium for social commentary. Together, the exhibited works document cultural change and the transformation of traditional norms concerning the depiction of eroticism in modern Japan.

DAIDO MORIYAMA, A Room (No.1), c. 1980s, gelatin silver print, 50.8 × 61 cm. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Co-curator Mark Pearson, who has resided in Japan since the 1980s, writes thusly in his accompanying essay for the exhibition: “We cannot define eroticism, because each person finds it where they will and when they will.” Nevertheless, in an attempt to highlight particular aspects of eroticism, Pearson has divided “Shikijo” into four thematic threads—“Staged,” “Private Diary,” “Performance for the Camera” and “New Expressions”—showing how the flesh and body, depending on its portrayal, can take on new and varied meanings.

In 40-year-old Eiki Mori’s series entitled “Intimacy” (2011/2013), shown as part of the “New Expressions” section, the artist connects ephemeral moments of joy, sadness and loneliness to the gay male sexual experience. Intimacy (No#1) (2013) shows the hand of the artist extended in front of the lens, covering the face of his lover. This small act draws the viewer’s attention to the intimate distance between Mori and his lover, and invites onlookers to gaze upon moments of the artist’s private life through his photographs. Strongly saturated and bathed in natural light, Mori’s photographs showcase how intimacy and eroticism are present in all aspects of life, particularly in small, day-to-day moments, from the gaze of a lover in Intimacy (No#13) to the way the trees rustle under daylight in Intimacy (No#9) (both 2013).

Included in the “Private Diary” section, Daido Moriyama’s images from his 1980s-era series “A Room” present suggestive close-up views of the naked female body shot in private domestic settings. Photographed from the perspective of the male gaze, the female subject’s face is never revealed; her body is proffered as one that is sexual and pleasurable for the photographer and viewer. A Room (No.1) (1980), which was shot in high contrast black-and-white film, shows a woman lying down on crinkled bed sheets with a towel sprawled across her backside, partially covering her buttocks and thighs. The suggestiveness of the photograph highlights the desirability and suppleness of the female body against the harsh textures of the towel and the room’s carpet flooring.

More unreserved than Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, one of Japan’s most prolific artists who is notorious for his explicit imagery, captures the female body in states of pleasurable pain and sexual play, depicting a genre of eroticism derived from bondage and fetishism. Exhibited under the theme of “Staged,” Marvellous Tales of Black Ink (NA-BK_26) and Marvellous Tales of Black Ink (NA-BK_65) (both 1994) are dramatic visual depictions of masochism. In both images, the central subject is a woman tied up in bondage presenting herself as sexually submissive; black ink spattered on their genitals enhances the explicitness of the photographs. Like many others belonging to the same series, Marvellous Tales of Black Ink (NA-BK_26) also shows Araki himself engaged in play within the photograph, forcing viewers into a voyeuristic role.

Hideka Tonomura, a contemporary of Moriyama and Araki, equally captures intensely sexual and intimate scenes, but from a female perspective. Appearing more intrusive, Tonomura links her fascination of sex to her familial relationship with her mother, creating an unusually painful and uncomfortable context. Mama love (ML No#1) (2008), is one in a series of photographs where her mother is photographed having an affair with another man. Her unflinching stare at the lens suggests that she is fully aware of Tonomura’s camera. The photographs are confrontational and reveal the tension within the mother-daughter relationship.

The theme of family reappears in the exhibition in Noritoshi Hirakawa’s series “A Sense of Accomplishment” (2008) and “A Daughter’s Proposal” (2008), where his main subjects are adolescent women, sometimes shown with their parents. The suggestive poses of the models, juxtaposed against compositionally similar portraits of their parents, depict the conflict of “the daughter,” who negotiates between the polarizing identities of being a father’s child and a grown sexual woman. By flipping the photographs from vertical to horizontal, Hirakawa displaces the subjects and the backdrops to create a space where the traditional Japanese familial hierarchy is confronted by the burgeoning identity of “the daughter.”

NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA, Kumi Kawasaki, 1:40 P.M., Aug 14, 2008, Tomioka, Gunma; Aya Hosoi, 9:30 A.M., Aug 14, 2008, Shinsen-cho, Shibuya; Haruo Kawasaki, 1:30 P.M., Aug 14, 2008, Tomioka, Gunma, all 2008, gelatin silver print, set of three, 45 × 56.1 cm each. Courtesy NANZUKA, Tokyo, and Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong. 

TOKYO RUMANDO, Orphée (Z3), 2014, gelatin silver print, 27.9 × 35.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong. 

In the “Performance for the Camera” section, Emi Anrakuji and Tokyo Rumando both explore the reclaimed gaze of the female body through self-portraiture. While Anrakuji’s portraits attempt to frame her from a voyeuristic and foreign perspective, Rumando’s photographs are cinematic and staged. Objects like dolls, flowers and sex toys, and the nostalgic but dark quality of Anrakuji’s photographs, portray her sexuality to be a part of her selfhood. In Rumando’s work, the mirror is a recurring motif that acts as a portal, displaying surrealistic scenes that are inspired by personal memory and thought. They narrate the experiences Rumando associates with sexuality and with being sexualized. Their work urges the viewer to be imaginative when considering the performance of the female body, revealing how sexuality intersects with fantasy, fear and the formation of identity.

From self-empowering and staged portraits to more suggestive and voyeuristic gazes of the body, the variety in the aesthetic and style of photography showcased in “Shikijo” reflects how eroticism is not only multidimensional, but also changing in definition in contemporary Japanese society.

“Shikijo: Eroticism in Japanese Photography” is on view at Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, until June 25, 2016.