AIKO ROBINSON – Folding in Forests – 5 Nov-30 Nov 2018
FOLDING IN FORESTS
I am currently undertaking my masters in printmaking at Tokyo University of the Arts. This exhibition is made up of a select few works from my time in Tokyo so far.
My work is a response to Shunga (‘spring pictures’), a form of pornography that flourished in Japan during the Edo period between the 17th and 19th centuries. Historical Shunga reflects the acceptance or celebration of sex in Shinto culture, and values love, mutual pleasure and equality between sexual partners. Shunga is also positively associated with Spring as it addresses themes of fertility and new life. Shunga is often humorous in its approach, hence famously known as Warai-e which literally translates to “Laughing pictures”. Similarly I work with humour in my own works, exploring word play, sexual euphemisms and juxtoposition. A signature feature of my work is the headless figures engaging in erotic acts. This makes the identities ambiguous and the bizarre nature of the figures create some rather humourous situations, such as in my work ‘Love looks not with the eyes’ (above) where the couple is engaged in the impossible act of oral sex. Despite working with a seemingly challenging subject matter I have no intentions to offend my viewers. I hope to create works that are more inviting or approachable and to help open a conversation about sex and how it is depicted in contemporary society. I aim to create works that are pleasant to look at and deliberately leave the heads out of the composition so my viewers do not feel confronted by the gaze of the couples depicted. I’ve adopted humour as a way to lighten the general tone of this conversation.
The imagery of couples engaging in sexual acts up in trees came from a childhood memory of classmates chanting the “k.i.s.s.i.n.g song”, but instead, replacing the letters with “f.u.c.k.i.n.g” so that the song went “(insert name) and (insert name) up a tree, f.u.c.k.i.n.g. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage”. Despite the obvious immaturity of the song I took inspiration from the concept of couples seeking privacy in an unexpected place to enjoy an intimate moment. This concept is very interesting to me especially in relation to Edo culture and Shunga, where there was little or no privacy and a third person or “Peeping Tom” was often seen spying from behind sliding doors. Interestingly the concept of privacy comes from the West. The English work ‘Privacy’ is pronounced ‘Puraibashi’ in Japanese; there is no Japanese equivalent. The absence of privacy is particularly evident in Edo architecture where homes were typically made up of large open spaces with moveable wooden partitions and sliding doors made of washi paper. The appearance of a third person in Shunga works was perhaps to be expected, and the added thrill of potentially being found out seemed to increase the sexual excitement of the couple. While Edo style architecture is now unusual in contemporary Japan, the tradition of living with family till marriage is still rather common. This is perhaps why the “Love Hotel” system, which are short-stay accommodations used primarily to allow guests privacy for sexual activities, increased in popularity in Japan. Understandably, some couples prefer not to spend money on love hotels and feel uncomfortable about having sex in their family home. With this in mind suddenly the image of a couple “f.u.c.k.i.n.g up a tree” doesn’t seem so ridiculous. In fact students at my university informed me that the Japanese also have a humorous parody of a nursery rhyme, the lyrics which describe voices belonging to a man and woman coming from the shadows of a forest by a quiet lake, talking dirty.
With the introduction of Western trade and Christianity in Japan in 1853, Shunga became subject to taboo and stricter censorship laws and, until very recently, the Japanese were ashamed of this history. In 2015, however, Shunga made a huge comeback with the major exhibition of Shunga at Eisei Bunko Museum. Ironically the exhibition was initiated by the West following a successful exhibition of Shunga at the British Museum in 2013. During my time here I have had the pleasure of meeting people who were involved with organising and documenting the Shunga exhibition at Eisei Bunko Museum. It seems the British Museum had intended for the show to open in Japan not long after their exhibition in 2013 but Japan was not yet ready for a show of this nature; no public galleries were prepared to host it and there were no sponsors willing to fund it. It took two years of hard work and determination to finally make this exhibition a reality. The exhibition had much controversial media attention and over 200,000 visitors to the gallery during its three month run. I spoke to two gentleman who were involved with the documentation of the show and they believe that it will take much longer for Shunga to be fully recognised as an important history and art form in Japan. They think that perhaps the success of the Shunga exhibition could be seen as just a mere trend of the time. I feel positive about change in Japan however and am very pleased to have been given a fully-funded scholarship from the Japanese Government to support my study. To have been accepted for this scholarship, on an application which explicitly states my area of work, is extremely empowering and I feel very blessed to study Shunga in it’s birthplace.