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In her seminal On Photography, Susan Sontag describes photography as “to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” That perfectly describes controversial Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s work, known for their distorted and contorted representations of Japanese women in bondage, currently on view at Mana Contemporary in New Jersey.
The exhibition features an enormous range of Araki’s photographs selected from a major anonymous private collector known by Mana Contemporary founders Eugene Lemay and Yigal Ozeri. From a gathering of 500 strewn Polaroids to a glass panel of film stills to his more composed large-format photographs, as well as a wall-mounted selection of his over 450 published books, the large survey of work allows for a deeper understanding and appreciation of his explicit, challenging and sexually intense work beyond its initial shock value.
One particularly striking aspect of Araki’s work is the significance of Japanese cultural heritage and history. As Lemay explained, “In Japan, Araki is a cult hero. His work challenges the conservative social norms.” Araki also mines his Japanese heritage for inspiration. His use of bondage references kinbaku, the Japanese art of erotic rope-tying, which has been practiced in Japan for centuries. Through the use of kinbaku and the aesthetics of geishas, Araki uniquely utilizes the cultural language of Japan instead of employing Western conventions.
At first glance or in a smaller exhibition, Araki’s treatment of women may seem objectifying and dehumanizing, rendering women as merely sexual objects. However, “As you walk through the exhibition, you will see the range of his style, and arrive at conclusions that you didn’t expect. His eye for composition is simply stunning. There’s power in his visual language, and when you see his life’s work as a whole, you recognize the enormity of his legacy,” said Lemay.
Araki also uses bondage scenarios to comment on the power of photography. Araki’s work balances the thin line between dominator and dominated, pleasure and pain and life and death. As Araki is quoted on a wall of the exhibition, “To observe life as well as death embraced in life or life embraced in death. That is the act of photography.”