araki at the barbican

nobuyoshi ara­ki is japan’s most famous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and a nation­al­ly revered fig­ure there.  his name and noto­ri­ety have long been rec­og­nized inter­na­tion­al­ly. he is also one of the most con­tro­ver­sial of pho­tog­ra­phers, and the open­ing this month of the largest exhi­bi­tion of his work to be held in britain, at the bar­bi­can, will no doubt be met with some­thing less than uni­ver­sal approval.

araki’s work attracts sharp reac­tions, from sup­port­ers and crit­ics alike.  to his allies, he is a flam­boy­ant and irre­press­ible per­former, a sen­su­al­ist in love with life; a poet of the sad­ness and tran­sience of plea­sure, and the ‘float­ing world’ of his native tokyo.  to his detrac­tors, he is mere­ly a pornog­ra­ph­er and worse, a misog­y­nist whose rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women are abu­sive and repel­lent; whose cam­era reduces women’s bod­ies to objects of bru­tal sex­u­al fantasy.

an enor­mous under­tak­ing, bring­ing togeth­er a huge col­lec­tion of araki’s out­put from a career which spans over four decades, the cura­tors have attempt­ed to redress what they see as over-sim­pli­fied mis­read­ings of araki’s work in its, until now, restrict­ed expo­sure here.

one of the barbican’s own cura­to­r­i­al staff, tomoko sato, togeth­er with akiko miki, of the palais de tokyo, paris, have been respon­si­ble for putting togeth­er this huge exhi­bi­tion.  in the four years it has tak­en to organ­ise, it has been their inten­tion that a much more sym­pa­thet­ic under­stand­ing of araki’s com­plex­i­ty might be gen­er­at­ed, which will get away from some of the sim­ple-mind­ed char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions and clich­es which have been thrown at it  in the past.

sato and miki are attempt­ing to place ara­ki as an artist with a par­tic­u­lar­ly unique vision, which can only be appre­ci­at­ed in rela­tion to his place in his times, and in his own rela­tion­ship with japan­ese cul­ture and his­to­ry.  to accom­pa­ny the exhi­bi­tion, phaidon press have pro­duced the most com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of his work ever pub­lished in the eng­lish lan­guage. the same title as the exhi­bi­tion: ‘nobuyoshi ara­ki: self, life, death’ this weighty 700 page vol­ume con­tains repro­duc­tions of much of the work shown in the exhi­bi­tion with many more exam­ples, from each of his major projects and pub­li­ca­tions, tak­en from every stage of his career.  edit­ed by the cura­tors of the exhi­bi­tion, togeth­er with yoshiko isshi­ki, the gor­geous­ly repro­duced prints are sup­port­ed with essays from ian jef­frey, yuko tana­ka, akiko miki, and jonathon watkins. there is also an inter­view with ara­ki, con­duct­ed by hans ulrich olbrist, and many of araki’s own writ­ings from orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tions, trans­lat­ed into eng­lish for the first time.

meet­ing ara­ki at the gallery, i was aware these occa­sions can be some­thing of an event.  i had read of the ‘arak­i­zoku’, or in rough trans­la­tion, ‘ara­ki gang­sters’; a coterie of mod­els and young admir­ers who accom­pa­ny him on his every trip abroad.  now six­ty four years old, ara­ki still pos­sess­es a seem­ing­ly inex­haustible store of ener­gy and humour.  he arrives, fol­low­ers in train, cease­less­ly gig­gling, cam­era shut­ters click­ing mad­ly, the qui­et last touch­es to the mount­ing of the exhi­bi­tion dis­rupt­ed by a small man in trade­mark round sun­glass­es and mous­tache march­ing about the gallery, mar­vel­ling at the bril­liance of his own work.

when asked why he takes so many pic­tures, he laughs, telling me that an ordi­nary per­son only takes a cam­era when they go out with the pur­pose of tak­ing pho­tographs. to him not car­ry­ing a cam­era, “…is like going out with­out trousers,” he paus­es, “or with­out con­doms”. pro­lif­ic hard­ly seems ade­quate, promis­cu­ous might be more apt.  he nev­er stops. over three hun­dred mono­graphs pub­lished in japan, many of them have also been pub­lished abroad, along with count­less exhibitions.

he took his first pho­tographs, he says, as an eight year old, with a cam­era giv­en to him by his father.  he lat­er took up the study of pho­tog­ra­phy at chi­ba uni­ver­si­ty. broad­ly, there have been two con­tin­u­ous areas of inter­est for ara­ki since his ear­li­est days, the pho­tog­ra­phy of women, and the streets and peo­ple of his native tokyo, in par­tic­u­lar the tra­di­tion­al work­ing class area where he grew up dur­ing and after the sec­ond world war, known as shi­ta­machi.  it was pho­tographs of this area which found his first suc­cess­es as a seri­ous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, with a series which won him the first taiyo pho­tog­ra­phy prize in 1964. this charm­ing col­lec­tion, is a por­tray­al of one boy and a group of friends as ara­ki fol­lowed them round from day to day, play­ing and pos­ing for the camera.

when con­sid­ered against the total body of his out­put, it is work of his youth, and of its time — even quaint, in ‘satchin’, there are indi­ca­tions of some of the con­cerns which come to dom­i­nate his lat­er work.  his fas­ci­na­tion with life and vital­i­ty, and nos­tal­gia for a dis­ap­pear­ing world, are both themes which come to obsess him in many of his lat­er projects.

such nos­tal­gia is evi­dent in one of his most famous pub­li­ca­tions, and the piece of work which real­ly made his name in pho­tog­ra­phy.  ‘sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney’, pub­lished in 1971, is a col­lec­tion of pho­tographs doc­u­ment­ing the hon­ey­moon, in inti­mate detail, of ara­ki and his wife yoko, who he met at the dentsu adver­tis­ing cor­po­ra­tion where he worked after grad­u­a­tion. it was also at this time that ara­ki embarked upon the dis­play of erot­i­ca, and sex­u­al­ly explic­it pho­tographs, which were to become the most noto­ri­ous, and most wide­ly known aspects of his work.

at the death of his wife, from can­cer, in 1990, ara­ki pub­lished a diary-like work “win­ter jour­ney”, doc­u­ment­ing the last days of his wife, their life togeth­er, in all its aspects, and  the tragedy of her death. she was just 42.  this of course was a piv­otal point in his life and career.  short­ly after, he pub­lished both works, in a com­bined vol­ume, “sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney / win­ter jour­ney” . despite the exu­ber­ance of his sub­se­quent pho­tographs, there is an aware­ness of death which per­me­ates his work from this point on.

one of the first things that peo­ple note, on meet­ing ara­ki, is his great charm. the mis­chief in his eyes, the infec­tious gig­gle. his con­stant jok­ing and teas­ing.  per­haps a defence, it is instant­ly dis­arm­ing.  he is able to put peo­ple at their ease almost at once.  this abil­i­ty, cou­pled with his appar­ent tire­less­ness, can be seen reflect­ed on the faces of the sub­jects of his por­trai­ture, in the peo­ple caught going about their busi­ness on the neigh­bour­hood streets, in the mas­sive ongo­ing project of pho­tograph­ing faces around japan.  from satchin onwards, ara­ki has assert­ed that he, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, should be a tan­gi­ble pres­ence in his work.  his pic­tures he says are a pri­vate act between him and his sub­ject. “a pho­to­graph”, he says “is a kind of inter­view.”  he goes into great detail about how he nev­er changes lens­es dur­ing a pho­to­shoot, nev­er uses zoom.  he, the cam­era, the  sub­ject are all one, bound togeth­er in an inti­mate and pri­vate narrative.

“art’s a strange busi­ness, but essen­tial­ly it’s all about doing what you shouldn’t do.”  with such dec­la­ra­tions, ara­ki claims his right to pho­to­graph the nude in what­ev­er way he choos­es, accord­ing to his own desires.

the parts of araki’s work for which he has become well-known, and most noto­ri­ous, are amply rep­re­sent­ed in the show. it is impos­si­ble to obtain a bal­anced under­stand­ing of araki’s sex­u­al images, with­out plac­ing them firm­ly with­in the con­text of his cul­ture. many of the erot­ic images show his nude mod­els (almost exclu­sive­ly japan­ese girls and women) with opened or dis­card­ed tra­di­tion­al japan­ese kimono.  the back­drops are often tra­di­tion­al hous­es with paper screens, and tata­mi floor­ing.  they invoke the edo peri­od, that two hun­dred year phase when japan was iso­lat­ed from the out­side world.  araki’s pic­tures allude to ukiyo‑e or ‘images of the float­ing world’, the pop­u­lar wood­block prints which were mass-pro­duced in tokyo dur­ing that time, typ­i­fied by artists such as uta­maro.  the porno­graph­ic strain of this genre, known as shun­ga, is quite clear­ly being invoked in araki’s images of the erot­ic under­world of tokyo clubs and bars, with it’s bondage and cos-play clubs, sex shows and prostitutes.

the explic­it images, ara­ki him­self is quite hap­py to have referred to as porno­graph­ic, still gen­er­ate great unease.  we’ve been liv­ing with page three pic­tures, inter­net porn, and late-night tv sex­u­men­taries, long enough now for his work to have lost a great deal of its shock­ing edge.  alh­tough, despite his protes­ta­tions to the con­trary, many of the sex­u­al images have a dis­turbing­ly clin­i­cal cold­ness about them, a relent­less prob­ing often to the point of tedi­um. some images seem mere­ly puerile, with nei­ther wit nor warmth.  per­haps it’s the relent­less onslaught of image after image, naked body after naked body, where this work seems to lose its intend­ed inti­ma­cy.  the mod­els often regard the cam­era with a vacant bore­dom or pas­siv­i­ty, which will make the view­er won­der at the claims of friend­ly com­plic­i­ty.  this mas­sive out­put of porno­graph­ic or qua­si-porno­graph­ic work, for ara­ki, is evi­dence of his genius, for oth­ers evi­dence of obsses­sive-com­pul­sive behav­iour,  he has var­ied his prac­tice over the years:  there are large scale care­ful­ly-lit, stu­dio shots, casu­al late-night encoun­ters in karaoke bars snapped with his leica.  he went through a phase of pro­duc­ing thou­sands of polaroid images, giv­en their own room in the show.  he some­times used paints and chem­i­cals to attack the sur­faces of pic­tures, in ges­tures which real­ly do shock in their violence.

while women in araki’s work are often served up as con­sum­able objects, his oth­er, non-human sub­jects also some­times seem to aspire to the porno­graph­ic.  his flower pho­tographs, for exam­ple, which fill an entire wall of one of the down­stairs spaces, dis­play their bio­log­i­cal func­tions with a sen­su­al­i­ty and las­civ­i­ous­ness which echoes the nudes.  the flow­ers are often decay­ing and dying.  ara­ki con­tends that sex­u­al­i­ty is ever linked with the cycle of birth, death, re-birth, some­thing cen­tral to his bud­dhist back­ground. “flow­ers” says ara­ki “have the smell of death”. a com­ment which he made not with regard to the large flower prints he pro­duced in the 90s, but in the por­tray­al of the ill­ness and death of his wife.

in recent years, there seems to be a marked ten­den­cy for ara­ki, to revis­it the neigh­bour­hood tokyo of his child­hood years, and ear­ly career.  say it qui­et­ly, but he seems to be mel­low­ing. in tokyo sto­ry, and towns cities streets, we are pre­sent­ed with a real­ly joy­ful cel­e­bra­tion of the urban chaos of one of the world’s most com­plex cities.  these pic­tures are like a long love let­ter to many faces of his home town and an end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of its streets and people.

it’s very dif­fi­cult to con­dense such an enor­mous and diverse body of work as this, with­out reduc­ing it to an absurd­ly sim­ple for­mu­la.  what this exhi­bi­tion does achieve, is to sweep away once and for all any notion that ara­ki is sim­ply a char­la­tan, or a self-pro­mot­ing clown, with an unsavoury fond­ness for rope and naked women. what is left is the stag­ger­ing out­put of a prodi­gious­ly tal­ent­ed and dri­ven artist.

araki: self, life, death”
barbican art gallery
6 october 2005 – 22 january 2006
nobuyoshi araki: self, life, death”
published by phaidon press
£45.00. (£39.95 at exhibition)

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