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.