Pillow Pictures

Program Note: Spring Pictures of the Floating World

[Spring Pictures of the Floating World was conceived by the Peculiar Works Project, and it lived for four days in the basement of La Mama. For those who have asked about it, I’m publishing my program note here.]

Spring Pictures of the Floating World was inspired by the erotic imagery of Japanese shunga (‘spring pictures’). Shunga have a long tradition in Japan, but during the Edo period (1603-1868), the woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’), flourished. As a reflection of their variety of tone, shunga were also euphemistically known as pillow pictures (makura-e), laughing pictures (warai-e), and erotic books (koushoku-bon). These six rooms respond to the witty artifices and signature erotic imagery of the shunga, which depicted scenes of wild fantasy, domestic longing, and sexual education. It is a celebration of spring and an experiment in erotic, site-specific phantasmagoria.

One of the most popular shunga artists was Suzuki Harunobu, whose forte was mitate-e (“likened”), which melded contemporary customs with classical Japanese and Chinese themes as subject matter. The process of creating Spring Pictures of the Floating World mirrors that of Harunobu: six artist/director pairs were invited by Peculiar Works Project to develop their own interpretation of the sexual scenes of the shunga they peered into.

After each artist was paired with a director, together they envisioned and built a “room” based on the shunga to which they had been assigned. To aid them, each pair was also provided translations of the dialogues and narratives that accompany the shunga in calligraphy. Some of the pairs utilized this text not at all; others developed their own adaptations of it; still others borrowed fragments from the poetic inscriptions.

You are now the voyeur and participant in these shunga visions. The puzzles that have emerged from their work resonate with both shunga and our contemporary interest in them: each pair asked questions about how we see erotic images, both elegant and vulgar. Each one gravitated towards different elements found in their shunga: there is a celebration of transitory pleasures, like a woman in the grips of an elaborate fantasy; there are paeans to the queer scenes found in the shunga, such as the affair of an older man and a kabuki actor, or the shared amusement of two women trading newly bought dildos; some pursue the humor of the narrative overlays, like the woman delineating the superior characteristics of her husband’s capabilities in bed; other shunga attend to the optimism of young love, the brazen infidelities of beloveds, or the lived fantasies of voyeurism.

Some artists chose to obscure what could have been revealed; they took their cue from the shunga artists who covered the flesh with extravagant kimonos. Others turned to music and the physicality of dance; still others analyzed the colors or patterns of the shunga backgrounds and kimono fabrics, and found ways to recreate them in the rooms. Some were inspired by the sensuality of the lines of the shunga, something as small as the detail of a fingernail, or the abstract tangle of limbs.

Why present a celebration of the lusty spring season in a basement? This underground location isn’t about hiding, but intimacy. Many of the shunga depicted scenes from the entertainment districts of Japan’s urban culture during the Tokugawa Shogunate. La Mama’s building tells its own story, of the evolution of our twentieth century urban theatrical culture—one that embraces international genres, forms, and images—and allows the raw material of shunga to be a performance, and not just a display.

The term “ukiyo” (“floating world”) had once conjured images of sadness and transitory anxiety, denoting its Buddhist origins in the suffering world. During the Edo period, however, ukiyo came to mean a place of consumption, sensuality, and hedonism—a floating world of pleasure. Rather than a transitory world of illusion, “floating world” suggested stylishness and the varied pleasures of life.


Richard Lane, Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print (New York: Konecky and Konecky, 1978).

Hayakawa Monta, The Shunga of Suzuki Harunobu: Mitate-e and Sexuality in Edo, trans. Patricia J. Fister (Kyoto: International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2001).

Charles Pringle,Shunga—From Titillation to High Art,” The Surrealistic Side of Japan (2007), http://chapan.wordpress.com.

[The photo at the top is from a performance created by director Kathleen Amshoff and artist Jill Pucciarelli, and the one below it was created by director Melanie Armer and artist Marcy Chevali. Photos by Raymond Haddad.]