Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Last review of the trip

Here is the official review I wrote about the Museum of Sex's exhibit on Japanese comics:

Working Title:
When Worlds Collide: Porn in the museum

A dark room with black walls, small windows cut into each at varying heights so that one must stand on toe or crouch down, face pressed to the hole, to see inside. A peep show? Not quite, though a look within does reveal nudity, prostitution, and all manner of graphic sexual behavior. Set a few inches into the windows of the walls are Japanese prints and drawings detailing sexual escapades dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867) all the way up to modern day’s pornographic manga (comics).

On display through March 6 at New York’s Museum of Sex, Peeping, Probing & Porn: Four Centuries of Graphic Sex in Japan provides an intimate glimpse into the evolution of sex trade and gender roles in Japan, and chronicles the country’s relationship with the western world and its own rapid modernization.

The Edo-era woodblock prints that begin the exhibit feature prostitutes in action within the brothel district. Most include startlingly detailed depictions of colorful engorged genitalia, the artists not shying away from bodily fluids and closeups of penetration. By the time Commodore Perry arrived to force the opening of Japan’s ports in 1854, scenes of rape and sex with demons and animals appeared, a reflection of the West’s invasion. Then western-style clothing shows up and women’s roles appear less victimized, the notes accompanying the pictures pointing out joyful facial expressions and consensual relationships.

Manga exploded after a WWII ban was lifted. Hentai (pornographic manga) now depicts every type of sexual activity and relationship imaginable, signaling a less repressive society in which women are no longer submissive slaves. Wide age gaps, bestiality, and gay relationships are common themes.

The exhibit’s dark walls and bright red floor, small viewing windows, and fabric screens hanging from the ceiling to divide the room into chronological sections all add up to a sense that visitors are participants in a peep show. The copious number of written explanations, however, also provide ample historical context. This mix of sexuality and intellectualism almost desexualizes the pornography, yet the graphic nature of the images keeps it firmly entrenched in masturbatory fodder, making for a uniquely paradoxical museum show.

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