The complicated and ‘incomplete’ legacy of Nobuyoshi Araki
He is Japan’s most famous photographer and has defined the Western image of Japanese sexuality since he started taking pictures of Tokyo’s anything-goes sex scene in the 1960s: but what else is there to learn about the hugely influential Nobuyoshi Araki?
An ‘incomplete’ retrospective in New York gets to grips with the complexities of the vast oeuvre of the voracious photographer and his larger-than-life public image. ‘He’s not easy; he’s much more complex than the cuddly persona he projects,’ says New York’s Museum of Sex artistic and creative director Serge Becker, who first encountered Araki’s work in the 1990s. ‘Beyond the hype and controversies, there’s actually a real artist and thinker of substance. He’s on the level of Andy Warhol in regards to his prescience about art and culture.’
Those controversies include his inexhaustible depictions of kinbaku-bi, Japanese rope bondage, some of them extreme, especially for an outsider. ‘I tie women’s bodies up because I know their souls can’t be tied. Only the physical self can be tied,’ the artist told the Huffington Post in 2014, by way of explanation. ‘Putting a rope round a woman is like putting an arm round her.’ In the 1980s, Araki also directed a porn film that panned with fans and didn’t win him many.
‘There’s a picture of [Yōko] sleeping on a boat on the Yanagawa River,’ Araki has said, about one of his favourite images from the Sentimental Journey series (1971-2017). ‘It was our honeymoon, so she was exhausted from all the sex. In Japan we say that you cross the Sanzu River when you depart to the “other world”. I had no intention of taking a picture like that so I feel like maybe God or someone made me take that picture. Her posture is like that of a fetus.’ Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo
Becker is part of the impetus behind what is the largest ever exhibition of the artist’s work in the US, titled ‘The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life, and Death in the Works of Nobuyoshi Araki’. The show aims to present different facets to the artist and his interests, through a selection of more than 500 polaroids and 400 photobooks – the latter an important part of Araki’s work from the beginning, and one of the many significant contributions he has made to contemporary photography over the past five decades.
Araki’s legacy is as complicated as the artist, who is one of the most prolific of his generation: despite his fascination with physical bondage, he represents freedom in the arts and life. At the same time, his images of women have also been slammed as objectifying and contributing to a sexual stereotype – if not inventing it for the visual generation, and implicate him in an industry of sex that has not typically favoured women.
‘He ventures in his work and private life into areas that many of us are uncomfortable with,’ Becker suggests. ‘Some of the discomfort is not necessarily because we disagree with him, but because he touches us and shows us aspects of ourselves we tend to cover up. He’s brutally honest, but he gets to do it, because he shows us love and beauty too.’
Sentimental Journey, 1971-2017, by Nobuyoshi Araki. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo
Beneath the brazen appeal of the archetypal Araki picture – black and white, high exposure, youthful naked skin – Araki has more to show us about the murky waters of what we are, and what he is. Hurtling from erotica to hardcore porn, into tender documents of his late wife Yōko and wistful portraits of his cat, Chiro, Araki was way ahead of the game in the way he mixed the personal and the public, forging an ambiguous narrative of fact and fantasy with his lens.
‘We live in many ways in a world he helped shape, and we have adopted his language. The creation of the personal brand, the ceaseless documentation of one’s lives, the lack of privacy and sharing of personal moments, the high and the low of it all,’ Becker reflects.
In the current atmosphere of #MeToo revelations, the question is whether we need more visions of male fantasy for the future. Perhaps it’s time for a new language.
Warning: the following images contain nudity.