An unsettling dissonance exists between the metaphysical title of Noritoshi Hirakawa’s recent installation, Garden of Nirvana, and its earthy materiality. Contrary to what might be imagined by the evocative words – a sylvan retreat, a lush tropical grotto, a serene oasis – the installation is banally comprised of a number of women’s underwear clamped to metallic hoops suspended above visitors’ heads. Formally, it is a study in contrasts: delicate, droopy clothing held by a clinical, industrial apparatus. An attentive viewer can easily make out stains, frayed edges, and other marks of wear on the intimate apparel, although some look department store fresh. Any question of whether they are “real” or not is answered not by sight, but by the sense of smell. One may readily rise on tiptoe to get within sniffing distance, but for most visitors, the vinegary, musky odour detected upon entering the room is proof enough of their bodily provenance. A sign that reads “Dear Miss, Thank you for contributing your white(y) panties. Right now! N.H.” and points in the direction of a private changing room, ostensibly reveals the method by which the articles were procured: voluntary donation. It soon becomes obvious that the aromatic “chandeliers” of panties are not the only element of this spectacle – we too are on display, by both passersby gazing through the street-level window and by the gallery attendant.
The label “provocateur” inevitably arises when artists address sexual taboos and bodily processes. With the work of Hirakawa, a photographer who has also worked in audio, video, performance and installation, the label is certainly fitting, yet doesn’t go far in explaining the affective power of some of his work. In a positive vein, one could argue that Hirakawa focuses on highlighting and transgressing restrictive moral codes that, for the most part, centre on the body. His photographs record individuals (mostly women) breaking the confines of moral inhibitions and disciplined behaviour. Photographing women in men’s restrooms, for instance, or the puddle resulting from women urinating in the street, challenges societal conventions regarding the gendering of public space and inconsistent norms of acceptable bodily conduct. Hirakawa is also an impresario of the hidden and overlooked. In collecting and displaying objects that bear traces of the body, such as menstrual pads and underwear, the artist attempts to recuperate corporeal processes that society shuns and endeavors to render invisible. The homogenizing dictates of culture are candidly subverted by Hirakawa’s portrayal of the diversity of personal desires and physiological needs.
Yet even as this work confronts the arbitrary controls placed upon pleasure and the body, disturbing questions emerge concerning the politics of representing, objectifying and commodifying his “collaborators” and the products of their bodies. Hirakawa likens his practice – in which strangers are encouraged to act out suppressed desires – to sociological investigations. That his subjects are mostly women, however, immediately raises suspicions of patriarchal manipulation, whether the activity is framed as art or social science. Coercion may not be directly present, but troubling aspects of voyeurism and exploitation permeate these works, implicating viewers in a realm of foggy gender politics. While some critics align Hirakawa’s work with the iconic scandals of Manet and Courbet, raising the legacy of the avant-garde is not necessarily a effective legitimating strategy. As works such as Olympia and Origins of the World, and Hirakawa’s, contest a certain type of bourgeois puritanism, they also problematically reiterate the privilege of male desire. The collaborator’s disclosures, which have been harvested in the promise of a liberating friendship, are provided few safeguards against potential misuse.
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