A family portrait taken by Haruhiko Kawaguchi comes with one unusual condition: he wraps your entire house in plastic and then vacuums you into an airtight bag.
“When I started the series, I asked some of my closest friends to test how long they could hold their breath and found it to be about 15 seconds,” Kawaguchi said via video link from Okinawa, Japan. “So I decided to set up a ’10 second rule’ where I open my bag after 10 seconds, whether I took a picture or not.”
Kawaguchi custom made huge plastic sheets to cover entire houses, including trees and cars. Credit: Photographer Hal
Starting with intimate images of lovers locked in airtight bags once used to store futons, his photographs have since grown in scale. In the latest installation in his series, The Flesh Loves All, the photographer encases couples or families and their most important places – usually their homes with trees, cars and motorcycles – in custom-made plastic sheets.
“(The new photographs) convey a message of connection to the outside world and equally express love for everything,” he said, adding: “We put everything in the background to represent the social connection that objects have with the outside world, not only to yourself.”
It can take two weeks to create a custom package and customize a single image, and the final photo shoot requires the help of about seven people. An assistant is always available to open packages or cut them in an emergency if the photographer is unable to do so. He also keeps a portable oxygen tank and spray on hand to keep subjects cool during hot summer photo shoots.
In his earlier series The Return of Love in the Flesh, Kawaguchi asked couples to take pictures at places that mattered to them. Credit: Photographer Hal
Kawaguchi admitted that some people “feel claustrophobic” looking at his photographs. And he knows only too well how suffocating it feels to be enclosed in one of those airtight bags, because he’s tried it himself.
“When I was in the bag, I felt like my life and death were completely controlled by others,” he said. “I really felt like my subjects trust me with their lives.”
When two become one
The series dates back to when Kawaguchi was a commercial photographer in his 20s. With little free time to create his own work, he took his camera to concerts and nightclubs, where he often photographed young couples.
“I found that couples are very attractive as test subjects because they are full of joy, anger, sadness and happiness,” he said. “When I watched them, I also felt that there was a connection between physical and emotional distance between two people.”
According to him, after finding volunteers among his friends (and friends of friends), Kawaguchi started “Flesh Love” as a way to “visualize closeness and love” between couples. The photographer worked with the subjects to find positions that bridged the gaps between their oiled and sometimes completely naked bodies before removing the air from the bag with a vacuum cleaner.
The photographer said matching the pairs “looks like a jigsaw puzzle.” Credit: Photographer Hal
“I require my subjects to rehearse their poses over and over and then recreate the chosen ones in the bag,” he said, saying it was like “putting them together like a puzzle.”
Kawaguchi said he was inspired by Plato’s Symposium, in which the philosopher said that men and women were once separate beings with four arms, four legs and two faces before the Greek god Zeus split them in half.
“Wrapping objects in a bag was just a side effect,” the photographer said. “The main goal of my art is to turn two people who love each other into one being again.
“I still don’t know exactly what love is, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of distance,” he added. “Surprisingly, sometimes it seems to me that objects do not look very intimate, even if their bodies are very close to each other. The reverse is also true.”
While his early photographs used simple studio backgrounds, Fresh Love Returns saw Kawaguchi filming couples in their homes and other indoor spaces. Meanwhile, in another series called “Zatsuran,” he packaged couples with their stuff, from musical instruments to bicycles, like “blister-packed dolls,” he said.
Now that he has packed entire houses, he hopes to go even further, such as vacuum-packing an entire park. He also hopes to explore “new art styles,” he added.
I’m also doing a TV series called Washing Machines, he said, in which I put items in washing machines.