by Bronwyn Watson
A JAPANESE woman, soaking in a wooden bathtub, tears open a condom package with her teeth, her gesture re-enacting that of a traditional courtesan biting on a cloth to symbolise unrequited passion.
This image of a geisha could well originate from 19th-century Japanese master Utagawa Kunisada, reflecting Japan's tradition of erotica in its ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
Yet AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath is a 20th-century picture with a very contemporary theme that makes its impact by pushing the boundaries.
The geisha, for instance, is surrounded by Japanese text that replicates her thoughts about the condom. In translation, the calligraphy reads: "It won't open, no scissors, and I don't want to borrow from next door. Well, I'll open it with my teeth ... oooh, what's that smell - spermicide? Slippery too. This must be extra-large export size. It sure won't fit my boyfriend!"
AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath is by Masami Teraoka, who was born in Japan in 1936 but is an American citizen who lives in Hawaii. In the late 1980s Teraoka began his AIDS series in reaction to learning that a friend's baby had contracted the disease from a blood transfusion. Commenting on this, Teraoka wrote: "I had to take a deep breath to confront my friend's painful isolation. For the first time, I understood that AIDS was not someone else's problem."
Teraoka's experience with AIDS significantly changed his art practice and through his work he expressed his sense of personal betrayal, according to Catharine Clark in Ascending Chaos: The Art of Masami Teraoka 1966-2006. For Teraoka, gone was the sexual freedom of the 60s and instead he felt betrayed by the AIDS virus, which transformed life-affirming touch into potentially life-threatening contact.