'____and ____ up a tree F-U-C-K-I-N-G'. All photos of her work by Aiko Robinson

This Artist Creates Sex-Positive Erotica Inspired by Traditional Japanese Porn

New Zealand-Japanese artist Aiko Robinson takes her scenes from contemporary porn but renders them in the style of Shunga, a form of sexually explicit traditional Japanese printmaking.

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17 December 2018, 12:04am

'____and ____ up a tree F-U-C-K-I-N-G'. All photos of her work by Aiko Robinson

During Japan’s Edo period, which spanned from 1603 to 1868, mobile pornography libraries would travel the country, stopping door to door to lend collections of Shunga for a small fee. These erotic prints, which were widely enjoyed by women and men of all classes, depict encounters between heterosexual and same-sex couples alike. Some prints even delved into fetishistic fantasies, imagining voyeuristic ghosts, trysts between clergymen, and, in one case, a threesome between a woman and two enthusiastic octopuses.

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Aiko Robinson. Image by Saki Miyashita

When Aiko Robinson first learnt about Shunga, which was outlawed in the 19th century, she was taken aback by its celebratory portrayal of mutual pleasure, especially in comparison to the sexism of contemporary mainstream pornography. Using stills from contemporary porn as inspiration, she began creating her own take on Shunga, recontextualising problematic porn in a more palatable light.

Robinson, who is of Japanese descent but grew up in New Zealand, moved to Japan to perfect her printmaking craft, and is currently working towards her masters at Tokyo University of the Arts. VICE sat down with her at her campus to talk about what modern porn could learn from Shunga.

VICE: How did you first become interested in Shunga?
Aiko Robinson: What drew me into them was the fact that they were quite different to the erotica and pornography that we see today. I think the West probably romanticises the Shunga prints quite a lot, but essentially what they’re all about is love and mutuality. It was also all about the craftsmanship; they’re very beautiful to look at. They often deal with humour as well. Another name for Shunga prints is warai-e, which means ‘laughing pictures.’ It had a lot of positivity around it, and the warai-e concept of making people laugh as opposed to it being purely for pleasure. It was all about having a little bit of a giggle over them as well.

I thought I could bring back some of those ideas into contemporary society, because a lot of the time pornography can be quite offensive, especially to female viewers. I just feel like it has a slightly more negative connotation. It’s viewed as being a bit taboo, a bit sinful in this day and age. I wanted to bring back a more positive outlook on erotica, because I think sex is a wonderful thing.

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'Smuggling budgies'

When you say offensive do you mean misogynistic?
Yeah, there are a lot of problems with pornography. There definitely is a lot out there that I feel is doing it right, but the stuff that is readily available to us online can be a little bit aggressive towards a sexual partner. Things that they convey seem to be a little bit unhealthy. I remember reading some text when I was doing really thorough research on this back in my honours year... It talked about how when you repress sexual desires from people, when you tell them it’s sinful and you tell them it’s taboo, and not to look at erotic material or to masturbate or whatever, it brings out a slightly creepier kind of desire. When you’re told not to do something I feel like it comes out in a very aggressive kind of way, and I feel like that’s what I’m seeing in a lot of contemporary pornography. Whereas in the Japanese Ukiyo-e (a style of painting and woodblock printmaking) in the Edo period, the 17th to 19th century, people were very open, and this was available to both men and women. Their religion didn’t tell them that it was sinful to look at these things. It was viewed as something to celebrate.

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'Is love a tender thing'

You mentioned earlier that the West tends to romanticise Shunga, can you tell me what you mean by that?
Even though sex is a universal thing, what we view as erotic can be vastly different. So in the West, Shunga was never seen as being like pornography because the way it was approached was very Japanese and the way it was crafted was very laborious. A lot of work went into it, a lot of creativity. So even historically I think it was hard to view it as pornography, it was often seen as a craft or an art. And now the West sees it as a form of high art. It was shown at the British Museum in 2013 in a major exhibition of Shunga prints.

One of the things I’ve been really interested in about Shunga is it’s actually seen as being a bit taboo here in Japan now. Whereas it was something they celebrated in Japan back in the day, they now see it as something we should be ashamed of. And I think that notion comes from the fact that the Japanese understand that Shunga was primarily used as pornography.

Why does shame around it exist in Japan?
In the Meiji era, with the introduction of Western trade and Christianity into the culture, Japan started to view Shunga as something taboo, and that sadly continues to this very day. Whereas in the West a lot of places have been exhibiting Shunga and a lot of books about Shunga will show them crystal clear, the Japanese have kept it a little bit secretive, and even if Shunga is featured in textbooks it’s often censored.

1544998444832-Ecchi-Etching-2-2018-2018-etching-Ganpi-chine-colle-on-washi-paper-117x-360mm
'Ecchi Etching #2'

What are the main differences between traditional Shunga and the prints you create?
It’s kind of hard to say differences because in my work it’s really important to me that it visibly references Shunga prints because I want to talk about their idealised visions of pornography and bring that into contemporary society. But some of the ways I try to make it relevant to contemporary society is by bringing in modern visuals, like sometimes there’ll be a little tissue box or some used tissues around the couple.

Can you tell me about the significance of leaving your figures without heads?
It was first sort of like a tool to abstract the figures a little. I noticed by removing the heads it made the entire composition a lot harder to read. I want people to spend time with with my work, and when the statement is a little bit too bold I risk scaring my viewers away. So by removing the heads I noticed that it made these abstract forms which people wouldn’t be able to figure out straight away, and that meant they would come in and look at my work a little longer and then only after a few seconds realise that it was erotic.

So that was sort of the beginnings of it. Since then the headlessness has taken on new possibilities, and I use it as a way of creating humour in my work. My sense of humour is possibly a little bit dark and weird, but I often have couples engaging in oral sex, which is actually physically impossible for my figures, and I just find that a little bit funny. I like the juxtaposition of these headless figures. I think the idea of headless people not being able to engage in oral sex, not being able to kiss, not being able to even have sexual fantasies for lack of a mind, yet still engaging in these sexual acts – it just seemed like a really bizarre and hilarious thing to me.

1544998512046-Getting-wet-2-2018-Pen-and-colour-pencil-drawing-on-washi-paper-236-x-303mm
'Getting wet #2'

Do you think humour is lacking in contemporary erotica in a way it isn't with traditional Shunga?
Yeah, I think that the Shunga of contemporary society is actually anime and manga, some of the erotic stuff. And those are quite hilarious sometimes, but in a cruder way. I think it’s possibly lacking, or maybe it’s just humour that I don’t get. But I think by bringing humour into these works it makes them slightly easier to approach, and so I‘m really obsessed with juxtapositions and things like that. I like the idea of working with this supposedly challenging material but trying to make it approachable and easy to look at. So I think humour has been my way of doing that. I don’t really see that much in contemporary pornography, at least not in the stuff that’s really easily accessed online.

How does using contemporary porn as source material make your figures different from those in traditional Shunga?
Shunga prints depicted their ideal, beautiful person of the time, which tended to be quite round and sort of shapeless. I think one of the things about Shunga prints that is interesting is that it’s hard to tell whether the figure is female or male, just looking at the full figure of the two people involved. But for the pornography I’m looking at, I think there is more definition between the two.

Traditional Shunga was quite homoerotic, is that something you explore as well?
I have done a fair bit of homosexual works too, or ones where the genders of the couple are quite ambiguous. I think that’s also a really interesting topic. In the Shunga of the Edo era, the reason why those homosexual works were quite common is because Tokyo was apparently two-thirds male... the whole idea of male homosexuality was quite common and really easily accepted by society. I’ve been trying to bring that into my work a little bit more.

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'Ecchi Etching'

Do you have a favourite era or style of Shunga?
For me it’s definitely the Edo period. I love the 17th-to-19th century style of erotica in woodblock print form. They’re very stylised, and quite graphic too. Woodblock printing was perfected in that time, so it gets quite technical with so many layers involved. It’s really visually overwhelming at times, they’re really amazing prints.

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'The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife' (1814) by Hokusai, one of Robinson's favourite Shunga prints. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Do you have a favourite work or artist?
I do love a lot of Utamaro’s prints and also Hokusai’s prints. I don’t know if you’re aware of the The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife ­­– the one with the octopus – it’s pretty incredible, like, the composition.

And then another one of Utamaro’s prints. You don’t see much in the print, you just see a couple kissing, but it’s from behind so you only see a little bit of the man’s eye and then you see just a tiny little bit of the woman’s neck and a bit of her bottom. It’s enough; it already conveys so much. I like that print a lot just because eroticism can be conveyed just through a glimpse of a white neck. You don’t need to be too bold sometimes.

See more of Aiko's work on Instagram.
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