(This post contains graphic content meant only for those 18 years of age and above. Also, it is NSFW – Not Safe For Work.)
Clearly one of the highlights of my recent trip to the US was my visit to the Museum of Sex. Ending a day’s trip gallivanting across New York City, walking an insane number of blocks to get to it – visiting MoSex made me supremely happy and satisfied (pun not intended).
Located on 233 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the museum seeks to preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. There are exhibitions, publications and even programmes that bring forth work by scholars on sex and sexuality. And, what I feel is a key reason behind it, is to encourage conversations on sex and establish engagement. The museum guides the viewer through the ages (though it lacked any exhibit from India) with a focus on erotica, BDSM, LGBTQIA history, and sex work, among others.
The tickets for the museum can be bought online and the rates differ on weekdays and weekends. The maximum rate is approximately $20.50, with some exhibitions requiring a separate ticket.
The first exhibition is of the New York disco clubs in the late 70s, showcasing around forty photographs of Bill Bernstein’s work from 1977-1979. Night Fever: New York Disco. This exhibition explores the sexually and socially radical multiculturalism embraced by the New York disco clubs during the period. In these revelatory images by Bernstein, ‘straights danced with gays, whites with Blacks and Latinos, young with old and rich with poor’. Quite the inclusive crowd where every person saw the other for who they were. While discotheques go back as far as the 1950s in Paris, in New York it made its entry around the late 60s. An incident, known as the Stonewall Inn riots, pushed the gay liberation movement in the area, and before that it was illegal for even two men to be seen dancing together.
Another key artist showcased exhaustively, yet however much you do will always fall short, is the controversial Japanese photographer and contemporary artist Nobuyoshi Araki. The 78-year-old focuses on bondage and eroticism in the frame of fine art.
Nobuyoshi Araki has been labeled a madman, a pervert and a genius. His photographs are quite explicit, confrontational and can sometimes seem to be downright pornographic, as criticised by some. And yet some publications revere him as a stalwart in the field, breaking barriers and being unabashed with his creativity. He focusses on bondage as a collaboration between the model and himself, and often includes a long-term sexual, emotional, and artistic relationship with them.
Araki has had a difficult relationship with his own country as Japan’s obscenity laws require all genitals to be blurred or pixilated in media, including content for adults. Up until recently, even the depiction of pubic hair was deemed obscene. As recently as 2016, the artist Rokudenashiko was found guilty of obscenity for her work that involved a kayak cast from 3D data of the form of her vagina.
Born in 1940, Araki studied photography and film-making at Chiba University and began his career in the late 60s. You would be surprised to know that he was also worked at Dentsu, one of the key advertising firms today.
“I want to make photographs that maintain their incompleteness. I don’t want them to lose their reality, presence, speed heat, or humidity. Therefore I stop and shoot before they become refined or sophisticated.”
The man has also often been slapped with obscenity charges and arrested, with his work being confiscated by the authorities. But it didn’t stop him. While Japan’s culture post World War 2 focussed on it being a soft power, Araki shed light on Tokyo’s illicit sex clubs and prostitution, and other dangerous elements such as the yakuza or Japanese mafia.
Araki’s work is heavily influenced by bondage and photographing nude, bound women. Many critics have accused him of objectifying and dehumanising women. In 2017, Japanese artist and a former model accused Araki of inappropriate sexual contact during a photoshoot in 1990. In the same year, Kaori, a former model of the photographer, asked Araki to stop publishing or exhibiting her photographs and said that during their working relationship, Araki never signed her to a professional contract; ignored her requests for privacy during photoshoots; neglected to inform her when pictures of her were published or displayed; and often did not pay her. The recent #MeToo movement had encouraged her to speak out against this behemoth of an artist who was as revered as he was reviled.
During one photo shoot, Kaori said Araki had snapped Polaroid pictures of her and sold each individually without paying her any royalties.
“That money that he earned is based on my contribution…He says, ‘I am Araki, and you must be happy and honored that I am taking a picture of you.’”
On the other hand, there are other models and muse who speak just the opposite about Araki. Shino, another Japanese model, worked for Araki from the 1990s to the early 2000s. She describes that working with him gives her a sense of meditative calm, even transcendent. “Every time he presses the shutter, I feel purified. The more photographs he takes, the emptier I feel.”
The museum also has a retail store just as you enter, and it can be quite interesting to browse through the array of flavoured condoms, dildos, sex toys and other paraphernalia.
My visit to this museum was quite exhilarating, especially with all the conversation being around sex and sensual pleasure. I come from a family where sex is not talked about openly, and any steamy scene on the television gets everyone looking either at the plates or the creases on the curtains suddenly start to more interesting. We’re all sexual beings and yet we pretend like all this happens only for the purpose to have children. The fact that it’s meant to be enjoyed, relished, and experimented and explored with consenting partner/s is lost on many.
PS: Do carry an identification card as even if you are visibly old you may be asked to produce it.
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