Nobuyoshi Araki at the Tokyo Met. Museum of Contemporary Artby Monty DiPietro
Nobuyoshi Araki is holding court. From New York City galleries, from Japanís best homes, from prestigious art universities and from sleazy cross-town sex clubs, over 500 guests have made a pilgrimage to Tokyoís Museum of Contemporary Art (MoT) for the mother of all opening parties, and the bouncing bundle of charisma that is Araki, the man of the hour, is not about to let them down. He smiles, poses for snapshots with giggling girls, with embassy attaches, with a pair of transvestites. Even the people cracking lobster tails and sipping wine at the far end of the museumís largest reception room are facing toward the buzz of excitement that surrounds Araki. Although his late-night wandering and preference for young female subjects has found Araki referred to as Japanís Toulouse Lautrec, tonight he is all Roberto Beningi Ė a funny-faced man with a shock of tangled hair and a knack for making people relax, and smile, and feel good.
Meanwhile, upstairs, thousands of carefully-crafted monochromes and casually-snapped polaroids, splashy poster-sized flower studies and dark bondage nudes, hang to herald the triumph of Japanís quintessential enfant terrible in "Sentimental Photography, Sentimental Life," a retrospective destined to be regarded as one of the most important Japanese photography exhibitions of the decade.
Born during Second World War to parents who ran a shitamachi geta shop, the fifth child in a family of seven, little Nobuyoshi Araki, or "Arachy," as he likes to be called, has become Japanís best-known photographer and its most controversial cultural export. A biography in the catalogue attendant to the show documents in detail the artistís clashes with authorities Ė the 1988 police-ordered removal from sale of the magazine Shashin Jidai, which featured Arakiís photographs; obscenity charges leveled against the wily photographer during a 1992 exhibition; and the arrest of a gallery curator who dared to display Arakiís graphic nudes in 1993. One gets the impression that Araki is a rebel bucking the system, and that the good people in the art community have rallied to his defense.
"Arakiís photographs are like a mirror, reflecting the reality in which we live," writes MoT chief curator Junichi Shioda. This reality, Shioda goes on to explain, "includes Tokyo, a city of obscene energy and inhuman emptiness; the noisy clamor of the entertainment districts, the casual circumstances of everyday life; sensual nude women; straight-arrow businessmen; love and sex; the sky and flowers; life and death." In other catalogue essays, all of them gushing, the word "genius" appears more than once.
Tokyo is Akakiís city, to be sure, and the man can often be seen walking the streets, camera in hand. On occasion Araki uses a small, point-and-shoot model, sometimes a larger-format, tripod-mounted camera. The streetscapes in the show, particularly the lonely black-and-white work from his 1972 "Tokyo Autumn" series, are the sort of unapologetically sentimental stuff that Araki does best.
Shot some 17 years later, the pictures from "Tokyo Nude" are also vintage Araki, a marriage of the artistís stripped down treatment of his two principle subjects, Tokyo and women. Arakiís close-up flower studies, a series of large prints in vivid color titled "Vaginal Flowers" (1999), are some of the best of the new work up at the show. Other recent attempts include the crude finger-paint-smeared pictures of "Erotic Women in Color" (1998), and "Aís Paradise," which sees small plastic animal and dinosaur figures dotting streetscapes, the toys occasionally keeping company with pouting young women, and sometimes somehow even finding their way to an interior with said girls, to perch on a breast or nestle between a pair of thighs. "Aís Paradise" can be expected to embarrass anyone who appreciates art. Of more interest is the mocking, wall-filling juxtaposition of the smiling saleryman portraits in "Menís Faces" (1999) with Arakiís woman-next-door pictures from "The Eros of Married Women" (1998-99).
"Life by Leica," which will be regularly updated through the run of the three-month show, joins photodocumentation of the death of the artistís wife and a pillar of bondage and sex polaroids taken in homes, love hotels, and Kabukicho sex clubs to round out a show that features selections from 22 different Araki series and provides an unprecidented opportunity to examine Arakiís lifeís work.
When curator Shioda notes that Araki reflects "the reality in which we live," it should be argued that this is a subjective reality, one born of a consciousness that still terms sex-trade areas as "entertainment districts," that tolerates a "rape" section in the adult corner of a video rental shop while pulling century-old Aubrey Beardsley drawings out of a museum because they depict a penis. In short, what the 58 year-old Arakiís work mostly reflects are the sexist and regressive aspects of the reality in which we live.
While an occasional official slap on the wrist certainly reinforces the idea that Araki is doing something right, it should be noted that the curator arrested for displaying Arakiís work was never prosecuted, and that, according to the catalogue, the sum of Arakiís fines over four decades totals 300,000 yen, or about the cost of a couple of good lenses. Araki has escaped real persecution by tethering the limits of what is tolerated, stretching without breaking the rules, and playing the rebel without constituting a serious threat. If "Arachy" didnít exist, the system would have had to invent him.
The wine has been drunk, and guests are heading to the MoT courtyard where, a slight breeze setting his hair to swaying, Araki charms the crowd with a karaoke-style version of "Youíd be so Nice to Come Home to," while standing silhouetted against a big-screen projection of "hair nudes." A young woman stays behind to linger before a large portrait taken from the series "Arakiís Lovers." When asked how old the girl in the up-the-short-shirt photograph looks to her, the woman replies, "about twelve or thirteen." When asked if she finds the picture obscene, she shrugs, "Itís art, isnít it?"
notes: Until July 4, 1999 (03-5245-4111).
Araki at the Hara Museum, 1997.