Nick Hackworth

Facts of life, Hayward Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

For anyone who has not thought of using a live tortoise as a sex toy, this exhibition will be a revelation. In a tasteful series of black-and-white photographs, we see an attractive Japanese lady simulating fellatio with a tortoise. I say with, rather than on, because it is the entire tortoise, led by its suggestively-shaped head, that appears to be disappearing into her mouth.

Although this is the largest exhibition of contemporary Japanese art ever seen in London, it was inevitable that Araki, veteran photographer of the carnal, would steal the show. The tortoise series is hidden amid a mass of photographs depicting copulating couples and posing models, all of which are mounted directly onto the gallery walls, creating a seamless wall of writhing flesh. Part pornography, part sociology, Araki’s images belie the traditional view of Japan as a nation of prudes.

Araki is only one of a number of big names included in the show. Hiroshi Sugimoto, who has exhibited widely in London this year, contributes a mesmeric video piece called Accelerated Buddha, consisting of a five-minute loop of 16 still images taken in a temple in Kyoto that is filled with life-size statues of the Buddhist goddess of love. The images are repeated ever quicker, until the entrancing soundtrack reaches a climax and the images become one, a symbolic insight into the underlying unity of all things.

Yukio Fujimoto, fresh from the Venice Biennale, uses his sound sculptures to make a similar point. His simplest piece is the most effective. Up on one of the roof terraces, a chair sits between two plastic pipes mounted at ear level. Drawn up to the ears, the pipes distort and magnify the surrounding ambient sound, creating a weird humming, forcing us, as intended, to find interest in the most humdrum of phenomena, background noise.

The inclusion of a fair number of younger artists brings a vibrancy to the exhibition. Tadasu Takamine and Masashiu Iwasaki present Inertia, a video of a young woman strapped, as the conceit would have us believe, to the front of a bullet train and engaged in a desperate battle to keep her dress from flying up above her waist, all of which operates as a metaphor for the dehumanising force of technological progress. Given the knee-jerk tendency to brand the Japanese as a nation of technophiles, its inclusion helps mark out the changes that the country has undergone in recent times.

Hayward Gallery, South Bank, SE1. Until 9 December.