Through eroticism, the photographs of women demonstrate playfulness in soft pornography. Then, Mika Ninagawa’s transition to flowers, details, and objects and observations of everyday life
Whenever Mika Ninagawa sees flowers, her hands reach for the camera – a first instinct – adjust its settings, zoom in to inspect the details of the petals and the bud, hold the position for a while, and click on the shutter. Her immediate circle wonders why she has a penchant for flora, but as she admits to Lampoon, neither she can explain the reason. «It is rather innate than logical. A flower that is blooming today may be falling tomorrow.» The loss, fall, and withering of the flowers put Ninagawa in a trance, and photography serves as her means «to freeze the beauty of their shifts and transform them into something universal since all things change and are eventually lost, which is why I want to preserve the beauty I felt at the time just as it is.» The evidence of this desire fuses with her eye for people and objects as proven by her pilot compendium Pink Rose Suite (2001).
A photograph of pink flowers nestling in a vase and placed at a grave in a cemetery sits next to an image of a blurry bowl of noodle soup over a red tablecloth. She leaves the scene and walks towards a field where she kneels on the grass and captures a bed of pink flowers – their petals and buds bowed – against the swirls of the cloud and blue sky. Standing up, she strolls a few feet away from the scene to shoot the landscape: clouds in the blue sky, clear morning, two aged trees, swaying hip-length grasses, and dots of white flowers. If not that, she zooms in again to display the interior of a flower where the petal resembles crepe paper, and the center seems to house yellow worms invading a territory. In each scene, Ninagawa pays attention to details: the skin, the layers, the movement, the colors, and the instincts that compel her to capture. These ingredients may explain her reverence for flora, people, and objects.
Ninagawa’s directorial debut
Ninagawa grew up with his director father and actress mother, her influences in discovering her reverence for the creative industry at a young age. No wonder she pursued graphic design at an art school during her university where she joined photography contests and tapped publishers to take a look at her portfolio, expanding her career bit by bit. Once, a producer asked her if she wanted to shoot a movie. The idea had never crossed her mind, but she jumped at the opportunity, giving it a shot. In the trailer, Kiyoha, the protagonist, lies on the floor as she smokes, huffing to release the mist. Then, she looks at a bowl of goldfish and throws them food. The shot changes to her kicking another character in a kimono, her foot landing on the chest of the geisha. The clips move to Kiyoha grazing the fingers of a man as they both reach for the teapot, a different man from the one she is kissing in the next scene.
The next shot focuses on Kiyoha and another character fisting on each other’s kimono and pushing each other’s chest. The last scene before the credits zooms in on Kiyoha by the river, reciting her monologue as she cries. Titled Sakuran (2007), the directorial debut of Ninagawa: «Originally by hugely popular manga artist Moyoko Anno, Sakuran is a live-action movie adaptation of the namesake comic series. Set against the backdrop of the Yoshiwara Yuukaku – a famous red-light district – in the Edo period, it tells the story of a girl who overcame her own weaknesses to rise up as one of the most unique and vibrant Oiran (courtesans) of her time. The main character is portrayed by actress and musician Anna Tsuchiya, while Sheena Ringo took on the role of the Music Director. The visually saturated and artistic set, together with a fashion-forward take on traditional costumes, created stunning and vivid imagery in a highly celebrated film that brought to life a story of the feminine soul.»
Film festivals across the globe picked up the movie including the 57th Berlin International Film Festival, The 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival, The 33rd Seattle International Film Festival, Bird’s Eye View (UK) Film Festival 2008, and New Horizons Film Festival (Poland) 2015. During The 2nd Asian Film Awards, the movie won Best Cinematography and Best Composer while it bagged Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction and Outstanding Achievement in Music in the 31st Japan Academy Prize.
Ninagawa + Eroticism = Women
A year later, Ninagawa proceeds to underscore women. This time, through eroticism. In her thirty-two-page compendium named Erotic Teacher ××× Yuca by Mika Ninagawa, the photographer and director photographs women demonstrating playfulness in soft pornography. A woman fries her eggs before she wears them like a bra. A woman puts on an adult diaper, wears a bra and head protection made of yarn, kneels on the floor, raises her left foot, and sticks her tongue out to lick her pacifier.
A woman in her curly wig and pair of eyeglasses wears a black suit without buttons, displaying her white lace bra underneath, holds a peeled banana on her right hand, and smiles at Ninagawa’s lens. A woman lies on a bed covered in pink sheets and stuffed-toy unicorns, props her left elbow and rests her head on her left palm, pulls up her knees to her stomach to form a fetus-like position, shows her thighs and the pink straps of her pink heels, and sucks on a finger as she looks up to the camera and poses. A delineation of her ability to reinvent herself, Ninagawa journeys through people and their deep-seated desires in this compendium and preludes to the aesthetics of her subsequent projects.
After this stint, Ninagawa pivots back to flora and objects, always zooming in her lens to fixate the gaze on the details and crevices of her subjects. In Noir (2010), her lens captures the ripples of the pink, white, red, and yellow roses, bundled in a bouquet. A sea of goldfish swims in a pond, the haze of the photograph shifts the imagery as if they were petals of flowers. The red tulips cozy up in a vase while they wait for their bloom. The pink ribs of a flower stand out over its white skin as Ninagawa stays close to it.
A deer shows off its rose-like headband while biting a strand of a red rose between its teeth. In the other pages, headless bodies of chickens form a pyramid on the tiled counter of a wet market; a stall sells heads of crocodiles; a booth lures in customers with plastic bags of goldfish dangling over the hooks on a wall; a newborn rabbit is dressed in a pink-striped tank top; and nude mannequins haunt a vacated storage room.
Flowers for the dead
The following year, Ninagawa published Sakura (2011), an anthology of cherry blossoms. Across 128 pages, the photographer and director sailed through the budding season of cherry blossoms, glazing her camera’s memory with photographs of the sought-after signature of Japan. «As I have mentioned before, photographing flowers is an act of momentarily freezing and universally transforming the beauty of a transient moment. At the same time, I often photograph artificial flowers, coloring flowers – flowers with various colors created by absorbing colored water from ink – and flowers decorated with combinations that cannot be created naturally. I want to capture the beauty of the world, not only recognizing beauty as it is, or beauty in nature, but also including man-made objects and the thoughts and desires of people there. For example, in hot regions such as Mexico, artificial flowers are often placed on graves instead of fresh flowers. This is because they want to offer flowers that never wither, the eternal beauty that accompanies the deceased, and the hope that memories and remembrances will never fade. Sometimes, the flowers that bloom in our daily lives take on colors that are not found in nature, and sometimes they are associated with different seasons so that the cut-out images become both real and unreal. I am strongly attracted to such things that lie at the boundary between fiction and reality.»
Ninagawa at Van Cleef & Arpels
When she visited the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Switzerland in 2017, she popped by the booth of Van Cleef & Arpels and soaked in the Maison’s Automate Fée Ondine clock and the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate watch. The former: a water lily acts as the dial, concealing a ladybird made of rubies in the rim beneath it. On the platform, a fairy sits with her legs stretched out, her body and wings jeweled in white gold, sapphire, and diamond. In front of her, a lotus-like flower unfolds to reveal its sapphires inside.
The latter: a butterfly lands on a mother-of-pearl flower while surrounded by the sea of blue, lilac, and pink sapphires and diamonds, almost cloaking the silver-toned hands of the watch adjacent to it. «I remember how excited I was. I felt that the views and the things Van Cleef & Aperls valued were close to my own creations. Since then, I have been hoping to be involved with them in some way. You can imagine how happy I was when I received this request from their team in Paris in 2018.» When Van Cleef & Arpels gave her carte blanche to create an exhibition celebrating flowers, Ninagawa presented her works alongside the Maison’s floral creations within the decor designed by architect Tsuyoshi Tane in Place Vendôme, Paris, a marriage between over one hundred pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels’ collection and jewels and the Japanese artist’s photographs of flora.
As Nicolas Bos, President and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, comments: «The Maison loves highlighting affiliations between its jewelry creations and the work of artists who draw from the same sources of inspiration. That is the case for Mika Ninagawa and flowers. The uniqueness of her photographs lies in her immersive approach. Rather than focusing on a particular detail, she creates an overarching universe made up of images that plunge viewers into the heart of nature. That sense of immersion also gave rise to the exhibition’s striking decor: Mika Ninagawa and Tsuyoshi Tane imagined a welcoming labyrinth where visitors lose all notions of scale and distance. Surrounded by a compendium of photographs and jewels, they contemplate a transcendent dialogue between precious stones and projected petals. It all comes together in a magical experience.»
The exhibition formed in three parts, each reflecting a vision of flowers shared by Ninagawa and the Maison. The first section emphasized the colors and the volume of corollas, as well as the textures and particular features of petals both in the photographs and on jewelry pieces such as the 1937 Mystery Set Peony clip and the Myosotis watch. The second part focused on bouquets, exalting the precious compositions that adorn many Van Cleef & Arpels creations from the 1930s and 1940s, together with flower beds such as the flourishing rose bushes Ninagawa admires. The last space presented a vision of flora through graphic lines, blends of color, and a sense of motion. From one room to the next, links emerge among the different creations: the hues of the gemstones resonate with the photographer’s celebration and reverence for flowers and objects in one space.
Objects, people, flora
Rifling through Mika Ninagawa’s images, living beings and objects share the same sphere: red lips, a blue butterfly, fish in glasses, a red rose made of leather, a white strawberry, fireworks at night, a bouquet of blue roses, a stop sign on the street, a hand blocking the lens, a self-portrait in grayscale, and pieces of jewelry and accessories of Van Cleef & Arpels in flowers and nature. Echoing her appetite for flora, people, and objects, the artist shares: «we know that things disappear in an instant, so we want to preserve the momentary radiance of the flower, including the thoughts of the person who carefully nurtured it, at least in a photograph. I thought this was a feeling very similar to when people wear jewelry or when they send jewelry to someone when they think about the brilliance that colors that person’s life.»
Mika Ninagawa is one of Japan’s most celebrated photographers, where celebrities seek her portraiture, she is now breaking out in the West. She captures her ornately clad human subjects against baroque stylings that suggest a firm grasp of practical scenography, and the work achieves a calm, pictorial mastery. Portraits of local and international personalities, from Chiaki Kuriyama to Beyoncé, pepper her portfolio, and her distinct and vibrant aesthetic has been influential around the world. Lauded in Japan as an art photographer and film director, she is formally represented by Tomio Koyama’s influential art gallery.