Review: Tokyo Flowers

Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki's erotic bondage portraits offer the viewer a disquietingly intimate look into the artist's private life

Araki's exhibit at the Langhans gallery presents a small but exemplar portion of his series of kinbaku (erotic bondage) portraits, and photographs of flora in macro detail. All photographs captivate, if not for their luscious palette and clever layout, then surely for the subject matter. The bound women are presented half-naked, their distant and empty expressions glare out of the confines of the frame.

Overtly erotic, the images easily entice the viewer while simultaneously creating an air of unease. Araki has alluded to the connection he draws between eroticism and death, and this is exacerbated by the allure of the brooding choice of colors in both the portraits of the women and of the decaying or fully mature blooms.

A rather unexpected revelation is the intent behind this series of Araki's photos. Consistently concerned with representing those on the "margins" of society, Araki’s oeuvre often focuses on prostitutes, transvestites and strippers. This in itself is, of course, not inherently a problem, but his impetus behind binding women lends the series a rather different sentiment.

In an interview with French curator Jerome Sanse, Araki has stated that "I only tie up the body of a woman because I know I cannot bind her soul. Only a physical part of her can be bound. For me it is equivalent to embracing."

In a sense, these portraits seemed to represent his need for control and his desire to present this to the public. After discovering this, I looked at the portraits in a different light. I felt like I was participating a bit too closely in Araki's personal life and that it was perhaps strange to hang these images in a gallery.

My reactions led me to question Araki's motives behind the public display of his work. He photographs women who he has bound and slept with, and then displays them for the world to see. There's not doubt that he understands the importance of layout, color and form in his photographs, but the formalistic attributes of photography don't seem to be a primary concern. Could his photographs be meant to make the audience feel queasy, as if we are participating in Araki's own voyeuristic and sexual tendencies towards those living on the margins of society?

American photographer Nan Goldin, who's also renowned for her representations of the marginalized, took interest in Araki's work and traveled to Tokyo to experience his subject matter. Their artistic cooperation points to a possible link between the motives of both artists in showing that the viewer is just as conceptually involved in the process and sentiments behind their work. Therefore, although the artist must be a voyeur in order to produce the work, so are those who chose to view the photographs.

If you do go to see this exhibit, watch out for the "film noir" influenced portrait of the women languishing in a death-like pose on a set of stairs. Its morbid-yet-beguiling air sums up in a flash the mood, intent and impact of Tokyo Flowers.

• Tokyo Flowers is on display at Langhans Galerie Praha until February 19th, 2006

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