There's a long history of idiotic and irrelevant discussion about nudity in art, so I guess I shouldn't have been taken aback when an argument broke out on Slog the other day about whether the artist Akio Takamori is encouraging viewers at the Henry Art Gallery to "surrender to our inner pedophile," as the commenter "Art Lover" claimed.
The exhibition in question is Takamori's The Laughing Monks installation at the Henry, two rooms in which ceramic monks by Takamori, representing the irrational, wonder-drunk side of Buddhism, interact with objects the artist chose from the museum's permanent collection. In one room, two chubby monks sit with selected ceramic bottles between them. Either they're about to consume a lot of sake, or they just have. Their expressions are mischievous, but the impish naughtiness of this room is nothing compared to what's across the hall, where another room is painted sunny yellow and features two standing ceramic monks posed as fellow visitors, looking at images of children from the collection on the walls.
There is plenty of variety in the images, but you stop dead in your tracks when you hit Edda and Klara Belly Dancing, Berlin (1998), a Nan Goldin photograph that came into the museum's possession just last year. Both of the young girls are laughing and playing; one of them is wrapped in a scrap of sheer costume fabric and the other is lying on her back, her knees bent under her, her legs spread wide for the viewer. Though this is a perfectly natural moment, the dark open hole of the girl's vagina is harrowing. My first thought is that she is about to be raped, or maybe is being raped already, by me, by my looking. I come to my senses. She's at home, playing with a friend and laughing. She's fine. I'm the one who's afraid.
The monks in the room are sphinxish, so I can't be sure of their point of view on this; but they're old, maybe wise, and not without a sense of humor. Suddenly I feel that they're not there for me to see through, but to watch me as I look, to aid in conscious looking. "I think it's really important to kind of check on your perception," Takamori told me.
The idea that Takamori is encouraging our inner pedophile is silly (do you have an inner pedophile?). He has made entire series about sex, and his erotic work is playful—in a traveling survey of his work now at the Tacoma Art Museum are vessels shaped by the intertwining bodies of interracial couples, and hanging proudly in his studio in Magnolia are two clay lovers doing—how should I say?—69. But a 2005 work at TAM best displays the links he's making, through sex, between infancy, senility, and the loss of control inherent in the body. Karako is a Chinese art that depicts children as happy little adults, and also the title for Takamori's oversized ceramic infant whose stubby ponytails and gown folds form exaggerated, swollen protuberances. Only an adult would blush at the firstname.lastname@example.org