Nobuyoshi Araki at the Hara Museum

by Monty DiPietro

No Japanese artist is as provocative or triggers such extreme reactions. People either admire Nobuyoshi Araki, or despise him. Like one of his characteristic bondage-nudes, the lifeís work of this countryís best-known photographer is laid out unapologetically in "Araki Retrographs," a retrospective now on at Tokyoís Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.

Iíve never liked Araki.

Iíve always been disgusted by a base opportunism in the artistís work. While visiting "Love You Tokyo," Arakiís 1993 show at the Setagaya Art Museum, I honestly wanted to reach up and tear some of the prints down from the museumís walls. Instead, for the benefit of a handful of startled visitors, I improvised a loud and vitriolic diatribe on the sinister nature of the works, then stormed out of the show in high dudgeon.

Only time Iíve ever done that.

What had pushed me to such a state was a series of self portraits of Araki with Kabukicho prostitutes. It was bad enough that the photographs featured bound Filipino and Thai girls and a seemingly drunken Araki having his way with them. But what put me over the edge was that the wily artist had only displayed photographs in which the girls seemed to be enjoying themselves. Weíre having a hell of a party! - exclaimed the portraits - donít you wish you were here?

There was no hint anywhere in the exhibition that these girls were probably drugged, definitely minors, and literally sex-slaves of Arakiís gangster pals in the cityís sleaze industry. The 57 year-old photographerís work may be real, but it is far from honest.

So, I must admit that I approached the Haraís exhibition of some 200 color and black & white prints, 120mm positives, paintings and Xeroxes by the celebrated artiste-terrible with something less than an open mind.

But when I had finished touring the show my anger had dissolved, and in its place had formed a heavy lump of pity.

While his subject matter is controversial, Araki the artistís mastery of composition and light and shadow is evidenced in any of his dozen or so shows in Japan each year. What makes the 27-year overview of the artistís work in "Retrographs" unique is that it intimately traces the spiritual death of Araki the human being.

I cannot recall the last time an exhibition has brought me to tears, but as I stand in the Haraís small gallery three, the black & white photographs from Arakiís "Travels in Winter" series documenting the 1990 death of his wife Yoko overwhelm me.

The 13 photographs describe a divide in the artistís oeuvre. The relatively delicate eroticism of works produced before his wife succumbs to cancer contrast with the vulgar insouciance of those executed after her death. The pivot in Arakiís life manifests itself in his photograph of Yoko in her casket, her delicate face surrounded by flowers. Beside her head lies a copy of "My Loving Chiro," Arakiís book of photographs of the coupleís beloved cat.

Arakiís emotional bankruptcy is evidenced in his bitter and increasingly pornographic nude and bondage photographs from the 1990s. These are the works of a defeated man.

Of far more interest are the artistís recent studies of flowers and Chiro.

There are also many Tokyo streetscapes in the show, and an interesting stained-glass effect has been achieved in the Haraís stairway, where 800 color positives are pasted over the Art Deco buildingís three meter-high window. Several forgettable paintings round out a show that will satisfy fans and may force Arakiís detractors to a new interpretation of the artistís work.

At the exhibitionís conclusion in October, the photo-book "Summer Novel" will be published from a selection of current photographs Araki is rotating weekly in the Haraís large gallery five. Also due for release this fall is the last installment in Heibonsha publishingís 20 volume series "The Works of Nobuyoshi Araki." The artist will hold a prestigious one-man show at the Vienna Secessionís 100th anniversary in September.

Love him or hate him, Araki is not going to go away. "Araki Retrographs" is the best way yet to come to know the lonely man hiding inside his glittering public facade.

notes: Until Oct 12, 1997.
Araki at the Tokyo Met. Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999.
Araki Polaroids
go to AssemblyLanguage