Talking Japanese Eroticism With Bondage Expert Midori

The artist and renowned Shibari rope bondage instructor just unveiled an installation at the Museum of Sex

The dimly lit passageway to the Museum of Sex’s newest exhibit, The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life, and Death in the Works of Nobuyoshi Araki (on view until August 31), is currently covered in 8,000 feet of hemp rope. 

The stunning, web-like structure is the product of famed Shibari rope bondage instructor and social practice artist Midori, who spent three days creating what she calls a “garden path” inspired by humble country homes in her native Japan. Her installation, aptly titled Passage, is brimming with hidden cultural symbolism—both mystical and spiritual—and is a richly immersive precursor to the 150 prints, 500 Polaroids, and more than 400 books on prolific and controversial Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki that are on display on the second and third floors of the MoSex. 

Though Midori hasn’t personally met Araki, his work in documenting Japanese eroticism and bondage through the lens of fine art has heavily influenced her. “There’s a part of him that’s childlike and playful, almost like a naughty child,” Midori said at the unveiling of her installation last night. “His work comes from a place of inventiveness and curiosity—and he’s not afraid to be a little rude. He’s not precious with what he shows, but his composition is really beautiful. It’s really human.”

Some might say Araki’s work, which is often blatantly explicit with the limbs of young-looking girls (who are sometimes in school-girl outfits) tied together with rope and their genitals exposed, borders on exploitative and perversely graphic. “Nobuyoshi Araki has been labeled a pervert, a madman, and a genius,” read a text on the wall of the exhibit. Since the ’70s, he’s been challenging Japan’s strict obscenity laws (all genitals must be blurred or pixelated in media) through his graphic portraits. His work—and the art of Shibari—is often referenced in the fashion arena, with everyone from Simone Rocha and Riccardo Tisci to Christopher Kane and Sarah Burton incorporating fetishistic elements of Japanese bondage into their collections. Araki’s also done an exhibit with Juergen Teller and has photographed Björk, Lady Gaga, and Saskia de Brauw, the latter for Bottega Veneta’s Spring 2015 campaign. 

2018 is indeed a tricky time to unveil such a retrospective, what with the recent accusations toward photographers like Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, and Terry Richardson. Though Araki claimed to have engaged in consensual sex with his models, the 77-year-old was recently accused of exploitation by his former, longtime muse, Kaori. Araki has yet to issue a response, and the accusation was acknowledged in the exhibit (in fact, controversy is something of an ongoing theme in The Incomplete Araki). Still, his work speaks to themes of power dynamics, pornography vs. fine art, and sexuality in Japan.

Maggie Mustard, who curated the exhibit with Mark Snyder, told the Observer that they wanted part of it to focus “very seriously” around the controversies involving photographer-model relationships and “the constructs of power that might go into creating situations where women might not feel like they have the agency with their bodies.”

“You don’t just walk in blindly,” she told the outlet. “There is a lot to unpack.”

“This is essentially an erotic version of a cultural fairytale,” Midori told Fashion Unfiltered. “You have adult women—probably in their 30s and already enjoying a sex life—on the cusp of adulthood. These are not gazes of children, even though she might be wearing ankle socks or a high school girl outfit. It’s wistfulness and longing and unapologetic directness.”

Midori added that bondage is often influenced by “darker fantasies of whatever culture it comes from.” European-based styles of bondage, for instance, might have echoes of historical references, like medieval incarceration, while American bondage often alludes to cowboy fantasies or military references. Japanese bondage (“Kinbaku”) might draw on the Edo period in Japan with samurai and constables. “People are taking these horrible moments in history—of persecution, incarceration, and more—and using imagery to influence shadowed desires of individual eroticism or erotic fantasies of the population.” But, she added, “I want to be careful to note that it’s not a direct historical linage, but an adult fantasy interpretation of the darker echoes of a cultural history, a cultural memory.”

Unlike other cultures, Japanese eroticism often draws on elements of “absurdity and imagination,” Midori continued. “I often find with Americans, they want everything explained. Oftentimes, I find Japanese sexual or outright pornographic images to not need to be answered or resolved or even realistic within our world. It can be tentacle porn—it’s not about a literal seafood fetish but imagination that has not left the adult mind or the sexual mind. If we were to limit ourselves to what we are only physically capable of, that would be awfully boring.”

As she walked me through her rope-filled passageway, which will soon be added to by museum patrons (“Instead of separating artwork from the populace, I’m giving people the chance to leave their own mark so their work becomes part of an actual institution,” she said) Midroi stopped every now and then to smell the rope. “It reminds me of tatami mats. When I was a baby, my crib was lined in the same material, too. It is totally nostalgic to my childhood and my culture.” Like Araki’s work, which she describes as “mixing the bright and childlike with the dark and seething,” her installation is both whimsical and sinister—a contradiction worth exploring. 

The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life, and Death in the Works of Nobuyoshi Araki is on display now until August 31 at the Museum of Sex, located at 233 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, 10016. Hours are 10:30 am to 10:00 pm from Sunday to Thursday and 10:30 am to 11:00 pm Friday and Saturday.

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