Motherly love, both romantic and vulgar

by Danielle Demetriou

A naked mother radiates maternal happiness as she beams at the camera with her peachy-skinned wide-eyed baby clasped to her chest. Nearby, piercing blue eyes and oddly elongated ears frame a face attached to a wooden body with women’s breasts and a solitary truncated hand hovering by its side.

The monochrome photography of Nobuyoshi Araki and the surreal sculptures of Katsura Funakoshi may appear at first sight to inhabit two parallel universes in terms of texture and atmosphere as well as materials.

But the works of the two Japanese artists have been fused together in a new show in which they explore, via their respective mediums, the ever-enduring themes of life, death and love.

“An Image of Love Supreme” — the title dreamed up by Araki — is the first time the contrasting works of the artists have been exhibited together in a two-man show, currently taking place within the white-walled confines of the Takahashi Collection in Hibiya.

Describing the union of the two artists, curator Yayoi Kojima says: “First there are Araki’s brilliant human lives; then there are Funakoshi’s figures that go beyond humanity. The two great artists’ works respond and affect each other and they have a similar message: they are both searching for an image of love and a human being.”

A closeup shot of a set of puckered lips presented vertically as opposed to in their usual horizontal positioning sets an evocatively sensual tone upon entering the gallery.

It paves the way for the “Mother and Child” series stuck to the back walls, a row of 12 large black-and-white matte, unframed photographs of naked mothers clutching their babies.

Crying, frowning, staring, giggling and occasionally throwing full-on arms- flailing-head-flung-back tantrums, the reaction of the babies when placed before the cameras is as intriguing as it is realistic.

But it is the scene-stealing mothers who stop the photography from slipping into the pseudo-real category of Benetton and Calvin Klein ads: Their shining eyes, glowing faces and beaming smiles reflect the purity of a mother’s love transformed into the physical.

It was in 2008 that Araki visited Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu, where he shot 21 mothers with babies under the age of 18 months, each of whom responded to ads online, on flyers and in local newspapers.

“I’m convinced of the importance of these moments of intensity between people. I shoot this very moment of love, the deep contact between a mother and child,” Araki tells The Japan Times.

“No one or other thing enters into the relationship — it’s not possible to trick or hide. The opposite of the clothed is the naked, and this moment — mother and child together naked — this is the greatest happiness, the peak of love.”

Among the most arresting of the images is the sparkling gaze and arresting smile of the first mother in the series. In an accompanying folder in which each mother comments on the project, she says: “This baby was my first at the age of 41. I was so happy that this child came into my life.

“I felt the wonder, the fragility and the strength of life during pregnancy and at delivery.

“I am now so grateful to every moment that he lives with his two feet on the ground. And I thank this opportunity to be photographed when our body and soul are pure.”

It is in such a climate of primal maternal adulation that two wooden sculptures by Funakoshi hover surreally in the center of the gallery space.

First is “The Mountain Hears The Words,” a 1997 work. Beneath Funakoshi’s signature-smooth face of painted camphor wood, sad eyes and sculpted patch of hair, a corrugated tin ruffle encircles an elongated neck and two wooden houses perch on the left shoulder. Nearby, the “Sphinx With Far Hand” stands, a hermaphroditic mix of androgynous face, red-stained belly and womanly, maternal breasts — toward which a disconnected hand appears to be hovering.

An assortment of black-and-white Araki photography adorns the remaining walls — ranging from a perfectly composed aerial shot of a woman in a checked skirt sleeping on a boat, to a large image of the petulant, tear-filled eyes of a young girl.

“Funakoshi’s ‘Sphinx With Far Hand’ has it all — motherhood, fatherhood, the androgynous,” says Araki. “It does not want to be only an angel; it’s a jumble of motherhood and femininity, man and woman. Somehow I felt a mother’s existence from this work, so I wanted to exhibit it with ‘Mother and Child.’

“Funakoshi’s work is super-romantic, not the real image nor the substance. Mine is vulgar, and I think that’s good.

“Exploring our works together, the most important and beautiful essence of woman appears: having femininity, motherhood and a little girlishness.”

“Nobuyoshi Araki + Katsura Funakoshi: ‘An Image of Love Supreme,’ ” at the Takahashi Collection runs till Apr. 4; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Mon.; ¥300. For more information, visit www.takahashi-collection.com (Japanese only)