A Very Brief History of the Art Form
Shibari/Kinbaku as an art form was inspired by the martial art of Hojojutsu during the Tokugawa / Edo period (1603–1867) where ropes were used to capture and bind prisoners, with often intricate and beautiful ties reminiscent of the Mizuhiki art form (794-1185). The emphasis of these ties were that they were both safe but inescapable, aesthetically beautiful packaging that would communicate the social status, crime and to whom the prisoner was to be sent to. In some cases in Japan, as well as in the west during the middle ages and the Spanish Inquisition, ropes were used also for torture purposes, particularly in suspension scenarios.
Hojojutsu ideas entered art through the “new theatre” of Kabuki/Noh (1603-), and then through the imagery of woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e. Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1865) and Yoshitoshi Taiso (1839-1892) eroticized the art form by depicting women bound for the male gaze in these prints, rather than prisoners. The art form made a great leap forward in the 1920s-1950s with Itoh Seiyu in Japan, who tied real subjects for inspiration for his drawings and paintings and John Willie who did the same in NYC for his works such as Sweet Gwendoline and for his magazine Bizarre. Further, the 1940s Wonder Woman comics provided many instances of rope bondage as a liberating experience, informed by the same strains of artistic influences.
The happy circumstance, best encapsulated in the issues of the Japanese magazine Kitan Club of the 1950s and 1960s, was that the form wasn’t merely for the male gaze, but that the subjects bound also enthusiastically enjoyed the experience.
Where I fit in, 2020
Flash forward to today, the internet has made this underground world, once fit only for pornographic consumption, accessible to a wide and ever-growing community of enthusiasts. The hetero-normative origins have been shattered, and tying pairs come in all possible configurations of gender and body types. It is a performance art, a visual spectacle, a hobby, a pastime.
I first conducted Shibari Life Drawing in Melbourne Australia in 2012-2013, just a year after discovering the practice, and recognizing and appreciating its artistic aspects. For years since, I mainly practiced in private developing my craft, exploring the physiological, psychological and emotional aspects with a minimal of artistic interest beyond the occasional souvenir photo. Upon returning to the States in 2016, I re-discovered the broadening artistic influences of shibari, slowly leaking into the mainstream. For example, shibari is seen prominently in FKA Twigs’ video for Pendulum (2014). Cate Blanchett has been tied in a photoshoot for a magazine. There are growing sightings of the art form embedded in the arts of others. Currently Hajime Kinoko is doing the most amazing art installations with these fiber arts.
Meanwhile, I have inadvertently found myself as a street performer in NYC exploring shibari using the urban structures offered and against the iconic backdrops so unique to the city. These works have been highly positively received’ albeit at times controversial. I now feel ready to pursue an art studio in my own city of Journal Square, where I can further develop the art form in a setting that allows for more time and a richer development of images, a space to perform, to provide shibari life drawing, lessons and cross-collaboration of art on art, the merger of sculpture, ropes and human bodies in performances and short-lived installations.