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These photographs also challenge wider questions about the interplay of fiction and reality, fantasy and the everyday, in all the photographs we consume. For the curator, whose gallery boasts one of the most important and extensive collections of postwar Japanese photography outside of Asia, his desire to display work of this kind is simply to do with a desire to tell stories, and to showcase the unique way Japanese artists have always told powerful narratives through pictures.
All our artists alive, or no longer with us, in Japan, share that. They are all storytellers. But for Hoppen and Sawatari, Hysteric Ten should be seen in-conversation with older forms of image-making, not the kind of tentacle erotica one might find in hidden corners online or on manga store shelves today.
In early modern Japan, between and , thousands of sexually explicit works of art were produced and circulated. Created through ink paintings and woodblock prints — applied to hand-scrolls and mass-produced illustrated texts — sexually explicit artworks were deed to be viewed in book form, to be shared between couples or friends in the privacy of the home.
They were, importantly, anything but taboo — owned by men and women who were often gifted prints on their wedding nights , they were a source of laughter and pleasure that transcended the constrictions of class and gender in public society.
In translation, the written notes that line the backdrop controversially indicate that all parties are pleased. Inspired by a popular Taishokan Buddhist fable, in which a female diver steals a pearl from a palace at the bottom of the sea and is pursued by various creatures, other contemporaries produced shunga that depicted their own octopus fantasies in the same time period. But by the turn of the century, with the dawn of the Meiji period, the wholesale importing of Victorian views on modesty meant that shunga was officially deated an obscene remnant of the past.
Shunga has long fascinated artists in the west, too, with works of tentacle erotica making their way into the collections of 20th-century Japanophiles in Europe and into the artwork of figures like Rodin and Picasso. The latter publically rejected shunga in public, including in front of avid collectors Gertrude Stein and Apollinaire. We feel that a real woman has encountered a real octopus in these images; we can almost feel the suckers on our own skin. And yet the artist is not alone in this approach. The late Ren Hang, whose bright architecture of limbs interacting with nature were fuelled by his activism for freedom of expression in China, sometimes photographed his nude female subjects with octopuses, covering their faces with their slimy limbs or picturing them eating them off a plate.
But Hysteric Ten, which in the original book also includes a wider, more demure series of portraits of the actress, seems an equal collaboration between artist and actress. And while Hysteric Ten might confront a taboo, taboos are always relative, as the photographer explains.
The fact that these eight-tentacled, nine-brained creatures have slithered their way out of strict censorship and moral codes over the centuries, simply shows the imaginative drive behind our inner lives. But I do think people need to operate within fantastical imaginations.
That less-than-flattering image makes us question what should really be taboo, or unallowable, in art. Either way, between the devil and the deep blue sea, tentacles in art continue to fascinate. Dazed media sites. The Another Man world has moved to AnOthermag.
Text Claire Marie Healy. Gallery Hysteric Ten by Sawatari Hajime. Jack Mills.Japanese tentacle erotica
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