Araki and Cupid: the power of sex in art

Lady Gaga | Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Michael Hoppen Gallery is currently showing the photography of Nobuyoshi Araki. His series of Lady Gaga in bondage (see above) may be familiar, or his portraits of Bjork for her remix album Telegram, if his other works aren't. Alongside his charming incidental shots of everyday life (including of his cat, Chiro), the Japanese photographer is renowned for provoking strong hostility with controversial and sexually explicit photographs. This series promises nothing less with its focus on Kinbaku – the Japanese art of bondage. If any work blurs the lines between artistic nudity and purely pornographic imagery, his does. Indeed, many would go as far as saying that looking at the photos is no different from perusing the latest issue of Hustler

The pictures are undoubtedly explicit, but, for me, there is no denying that they inhabit a certain beauty. In my opinion what distinguishes them as art is simply that they are intended as art. This clear intention is often what makes the difference. I strongly believe in functionality and – like the contrasts between music designed for dancing and that perfect for a warm summer's day with a book – art approached with an open mind can easily be appreciated in light of the artist's original purpose. Perhaps I will hear murmurs that I am being naive here, or that one man's art is another man's perversion. And that is true. But my point is that art is rarely designed to be overlooked and go without commentary. Art externalises something that is felt internally, and the more personal that is, the more unusual (and therefore striking) it is and the more people it will challenge. And nothing is more personal than sex. Sexual expression to some may be the ultimate personal expression, and therefore the ultimate art. The fact that Araki's photographs express somebody else's body does not necessarily mean they are not an extremely personal representation of his own sexual curiosities. And ultimately, like many artists, he is simply challenging certain social paradigms by championing strong imagery and unashamed provocation.

The same goes for film. I recently downloaded a film from iTunes for relaxed Sunday evening viewing, and as it unfolded I found myself thinking 'did I just download a porno?'. The nudity is beautifully shot, yes, but it is nudity in its entirety. I saw enough skin, transparent plot directions and passionate sexual activity to question its purpose.

However, there were other aspects – many as subtle as to be beyond conscious thought – that definitely made it art, rather than porn. The soundtrack, for one, is artistic. The original score was written by a contemporary composer whose music I have come across before – Jocelyn Pook, whose film composition resumé is varied and extensive. The characters' movements, along with the camera speeds, are carefully considered and as other–worldly as they should be in a film made for artistic purposes. And there are elements that interrupt the realism of the narrative – most notably a scene of over-dramatised pathos in which one of the characters is pierced through the heart by a coarse wooden arrow; the arrow of Cupid. Such a cinematic feat keeps it in the realms of art. So before you loose faith in my morality, it can be defined as a European romantic erotic art film... I checked.

Chiro, Araki's feline muse | Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki shows at Michael Hoppen Gallery until 8th June.
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