Erotic art images shock, illuminate

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Erotic art images shock, illuminate

Perhaps the Asians of yore were not a bunch of Confucian prudes after all ― at least judging from the erotic art at the Asia Eros Museum, which opens Saturday.
Sure, Confucian scholars set up clear and strict rules about chastity, and urged their followers to practice virtuous conduct. They stressed Confucian virtue, teaching widows to never remarry even if they lost their husbands at a very young age. But how could any theory overpower human emotion, passion and sexual drive?
The museum displays a wide variety of erotic illustrations, photographs and sculptures, including phallic symbols made of ivy, ceramics and bronze, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, when the production of sexual images was at its peak.
Erotic art grew so popular in some parts of Korea that prices for originals soared and the most popular artists’ works were heavily pirated.
The sexual scenes depicted in some illustrations are vivid, often shocking considering that they can be as old as 3,000 years.
We also learn through the museum general and frank facts about the sexuality of the past, such as that bronze dildos were popular among widows during the Joseon Dynasty.
The exhibition also teaches about the oppressive and painful tradition of foot binding, which actually began for aesthetic reasons, to please men with fetishes for small feet. The museum has a pair of the small shoes on display ― worn by a woman with tiny, mangled feet, and used by men to pour tea and drink from as a sexual indulgence.
Sexuality within folk religion is another aspect the museum tackles in the show. On the ground floor, the museum has a model of an ancient Korean sanctuary to the Sea God, comforting the spirit of a virgin who was drowned, offset by a fishing line from which phallic symbols hang.
Sabi Singh, the Hindu god of life who is said to have created the universe, is represented through linga, a male phallus. A Buddhist statue from Tibet depicts a couple in the throes of sexual intercourse, suggesting the harmony of yin and yang, or wisdom and sentiment.
With many sexual symbols used in religious rituals, one can see that sexual energy was often understood as a living force, the goddess of life, despite the social mood of the time that tended to oppress sexual desires. Indeed it is surprising how in such a strict social atmosphere that many of the images were used on everyday (albeit luxurious) items, such as plates, frames, postcards, mirrors, trinkets and even coins.
One notable aspect about the display ― and unfortunately the museum fails to clarify this subject ― is how much more explicitly male genitals have been emphasized in these arts as opposed to female genitals, which were more frequently treated indirectly, through metaphors suggesting fertility.
It is not very surprising, however, considering that female sexuality has often been associated with shame, guilt and taboos. But by representing these arts without providing a clear context, the museum almost seems to reinforce those phallocentric precepts.
Nevertheless the opening of the museum is a boost to the local art scene. Sagan-dong, the neighborhood in central Seoul, just east of Gyeongbok Palace, where the Asia Eros Museum is located, is surrounded by some of the country’s most distinguished art houses, which faithfully reflect the more typical notions of high art.


by Park Soo-mee

Visitors under 18 need parental guidance to enter the museum. The museum charges 10,000 won ($8), which includes free drinks at the cafe on the third floor (even the cafe is alight with erotic images, and tables are phallic shaped). If this is not your cup of tea, you can also enjoy the neighborhood view from the cafe’s balcony. For more information call (02) 733-7719.
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