Araki: A life lived through the lens

Malcolm Burgess – The Financial Times

October 11 2005 03:00 – Copyright The Financial Times
Nobuyoshi Araki, Japan’s photographic firebrand, has flirted with Britain before, but with Self.Life.Death, his new show at the Barbican, he has embarked on a full-on courtship. In essence this is Araki: A Life in Pictures, encapsulating 40 years of photographic activity.
So does this show reveal the man? Although he is famed for having “documented” his own life ceaselessly over the decades, there are pitfalls for literalists: for example, Araki, who is fond of dating his photographs as a form of signature, admits to having altered the dates for effect. Still, his stated disdain for any objective approach to his art and craft should be warning enough not to take things at face value.
In seeking formative moments amid the sanctioned biographical facts, however, one leaps out: as a child, Araki is said to have played at an old burial ground for prostitutes in an area of downtown Tokyo that had been a red-light district for centuries. Here alone are many of the elements that epitomise Araki’s works: life in the grip of death, childhood memory, urban decay and the sexual everyday. The fact that his childhood home was later turned into a parking lot – as recounted in previously untranslated texts in the 700-page Phaidon tome that doubles as an exhibition catalogue – may also explain his fondness for local community and childhood scenes.
Although Araki’s 65 years are clearly visible in his bald head and portly bon viveur build, he retains a defiantly youthful energy that makes clear that “retrospective” is hardly a suitable term for this show. Out of the thousands of images on display, 40 per cent are new.
Born in 1940, Araki worked in advertising in the 1960s, where he became increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as the falseness of contemporary commercial photography. In 1971 he published Sentimental Journey, a visual diary of his honeymoon – the first example of “i-photography”, a genre that Araki pioneered and whose creative focus and fuel was his own life. When his wife, Yoko – who Araki says brought out the “genius” in him – died in 1990 of cancer, Araki did not fail to capture the tragedy on film.
No Araki show would be complete without his notorious kinbaku works. In these controversial images, women are restrained with ropesyet seem oddly relaxed, sometimes hung from rafters while giving the impression of floating. These are not necessarily the product of a troubled mind: in Japan, they have a historical pedigree, such restraints having been the subject of Edo period wood block prints, often featuring beautiful women. Elswhere, light is shed on their possible meaning in one very personal work. In “A’s Suicide by Hanging after his Wife’s Death, 7 July 1990”, a self-portrait of Araki fashioned from Yoko’s favourite breadboard is suspended by her kimono cord. Are the ropes an attempt on Araki’s part to bind himself to the women on whom he has relied for his creative energy?
While other European outings have tended to focus on Araki’s more extreme works, Tamoko Sato, who curated this show with the help of two other Japanese women, Akiko Miki and Yoshiko Isshiki, says she has tried to portray Araki in context. She points out that almost all the models are amateurs who themselves seek out Araki. One model affectionately calls him a “monster” in Arakimentari, a documentary about the artist screening as part of the show.
Sato felt it important to show the traditionalist as well as the innovator at work. In Araki’s Tokyo streetscapes, subjects are often cut off by the framing, an early technique also borrowed by such painters as Degas to signify movement.
If Araki – who has said that art is about doing what you shouldn’t, and whose shows have been raided by police in Japan for alleged obscenity – holds anything sacred, it is perhaps memory pure and simple. His only use for a digital camera, he says, would be to take a “great photograph” – only to delete it so that it would exist only in the mind.
‘Araki: Self.Life.Death’ is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC1 until January 22 2006. Tel +44 20 7638 8891

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