Nobuyoshi Araki // 荒木経惟 // Photography Art or Pornography?

If I didn’t have photography,” Nobuyoshi Araki has said, “I’d have absolutely nothing. My life is all about photography, and so life is itself photography.” Araki’s art overflows with life, and his life is awash in images. They are good, bad, indifferent; posed, random, accidental; prurient, erotic, anarchistic, touching, vulgar, lascivious, lurid, sentimental. The cumulative effect is overwhelming.

There are thousands of images , each one unframed, even the many vintage prints on show, and pinned directly to the wall in grids, clusters, arrays, cinematic runs and groups. It might be bewildering, especially in as awkward a space as the Barbican, with its balcony and bays, the columns and intrusive staircase, the obstructed sightlines. But, for once, these are turned to good advantage. One is kept constantly on the move – and Araki’s art is all about movement and restlessness, even though he returns again and again to the same fixations. From sex scenes to the street, and to portraits, clothed and unclothed, of Araki’s models and lovers. Pictures of the dishes the artist ate on his visits to Seoul, and every meal he ate with his wife, the week she was at home during her terminal illness. Tokyo seen from the passenger seat of a car, the images abutted into a continuous tracking shot. I keep reminding myself that this isn’t the half of it, that the curators have consciously excluded some of Araki’s most iconic images. A complete show of Araki would be impossible.

As with all good art, one keeps coming back to the singular, to particular images and moments. One moves from glistening images of food to a close-up of a kiss; from a snail crawling on the lips of a woman’s vagina to wilting flowers, and then to a breast bound and squeezed with rope. The fact that some juxtapositions are alarming is part of the point. Here’s a grid of portraits, from newly borns to 100-year-old matriarchs, all from one area of Tokyo and all photographed in a single day. For Araki, faces are the real private parts.

If what strikes one first about Araki is his frightening energy, it is matched by his inventiveness and generosity as an image-maker. He is equally creative in the way he recontextualises his past, and reworks images in order to bring them to life in new ways: making enlarged, ghostly prints from old transparencies whose colour has degraded; creating, in the series Dead Reality, images of everyday scenes ruined by developing the prints in boiling fixative, a conscious echo of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just about every technical expedient possible is played out here, with the exception of digital photography, whose truthfulness Araki mistrusts. He is much concerned with authenticity, yet his work is also full of plays on what is real and what is not, what is staged and what has been discovered.

For some, Araki is utterly beyond the pale, especially because of his depictions of women: women in Kimonos bound and suspended in Japanese rope bondage, women’s bodies smeared with what appears to be blood (in fact, it is paint), women masturbating, women with lipstick and cigarettes, women with Araki’s bestiary of plastic dinosaurs and lizards. The women look at the man behind the camera, and their gaze reaches us. Often it is a look of severity, as if the spectator was really the one being objectified. What we are watching is the complicit menage-a-trois of photographer, model and camera, a kind of ritualised theatre of objectification.

Araki has been described as a pornographer, a monster, a genius, a “dirty uncle” and much else besides. He has called himself most of these things, too, and makes much of his persona as a somewhat cartoonish, priapic little devil, as though he were himself a character in an erotic 18th-century drawing of the Floating World.

His mischievous and wanton energies, his scurrilous, libidinous images are driven by subjectivity and desire; so too are those images that go to the bone of bereavement, nostalgia and loneliness, their pathos being all the more affecting for being set at the heart, as it were, of a body of work – not to mention a work of bodies – full to the brim with life’s pleasures and excesses. In Sentimental Journey / Winter Journey Araki brings together a famous series of photographs he took recording his wedding and honeymoon, with a later series that documents his wife Yoko’s illness and death in 1990. His eye never flinched as he photographed his own hand in Yoko’s, his shadow before him as he carried flowers to her room the day she died, her bones on a gurney after her cremation. He then spent a year photographing the Tokyo skies unfurling beyond his balcony, Yoko’s cat at the window with him, until it finally pounced in play on the snow, a message to the artist to re-enter the world. This is a work of genuine pathos.

One must take Araki and his view of the world entire, or not at all; we find ourselves at one moment in the sado-masochistic sex club Tokyo Lucky Hole, the next in the anonymous streets of the modern city. In the bed, in the bathroom, eating a meal. The walls of a side room are entirely covered with Polaroids, a relentless procession of sex, poached eggs, glimpses of bodies, couples, foodstuffs and anything else his eye floated across. It is like being inside the camera obscura of someone’s head, on whose walls everything is projected.

Araki’s personality, his biography and work are inextricable. Everything is autobiography in his art, even when he presents us with a sort of constructed fiction. Like Christopher Isherwood, he has said that: “I am a camera.” Rather than having a camera inside him, Araki feels he is inside the camera, which he frequently traces back to the female genitalia, the “vagin-eye”. Araki has had much to say about the photographer’s relation to the camera – as eye, as a sort of body extension – and Phaidon’s new book includes a marvellous compendium of his aphoristic, often funny and provocative thoughts.

Araki himself has published more than 300 books of photographs, many of which are ranged around the Barbican’s balcony railing. The book is in many ways his preferred form, on account of the intimacy, the sequential development, the novel-like structure. Life, he believes, is made up of a succession of moments rather than a great big drama. His books have been described as an equivalent to the genre of the Japanese I-novel, a first-person autobiographical fiction.

All this would count for nothing if Araki’s photographs did not match up to all the words. Those who detest him, for ideological reasons, or for his spending so much of himself working on porn, and on sometimes cheap shots, won’t be persuaded. They probably want to lock him up in some oubliette of the unseen and unacknowledged, or to parade him as a living example of the unconscionable. A bowdlerised Araki would be meaningless. Araki’s art cheers me up. Quite often, it turns me on. It is delightful and sad and truthful, and its playfulness is a great antidote to self-pity. It is an injunction to make more of the things in life that matter; love of life and its complexity most of all, in the knowledge that one day it will all end. The shutter stops time, but only for a moment. At best, he makes one appreciate what is both in front of one’s eyes and in the back of one’s mind. If not a genius, at the very least Araki might be described as a genie, not with a lamp, but a camera.

La estética, o mejor la patología visual, con la que utiliza el medio Nobuyoshi Araki (Tokio, 1940) reflejada en su pasión por fotografiar jóvenes -o niñas- en clave pornográfica corre en paralelo con los orígenes de la historia del medio. Fueron numerosos los autores anónimos en el siglo XIX (básicamente comenzaron a partir de 1865) que recurrieron a esta suerte de argumentos. La pubertad como excusa fotográfica en las clasificaciones de los manuales sólo sirvió para matizar y separar, progresivamente, el apartado de lo erótico de lo estrictamente pornográfico o de los múltiples usos del desnudo con fines plásticos (aderezadas con justificaciones de todo tipo: policiales, médicas, culturistas, naturistas…, como acertadamente las clasificó André Rouillé).

La producción fotográfica de Araki participa más de lo pornográfico que de otras formas de articular gráficamente el cuerpo, el sexo y la edad ante una cámara. Como comentaba este autor, en la fotografía pornográfica no existe ni el velo ni el misterio. Tampoco la capacidad de interpretación porque todo -lo que ven los ojos- lo invade la evidencia. Aquí el autor ofrece más de lo que puede solicitar el espectador. Su serie, ahora expuesta, con la modelo Kaori, una selección de 50 tomas en Polaroid (en la galería Javier López), además de los apartados de flores, bodegones y desnudos de la colecciónTokyo Diary (en La Fábrica), participan de la pasión que mantuvo el fotógrafo Pierre Louÿs, en el París de finales del siglo XIX, por las adolescentes. Herencia de ello son los descriptivos títulos con los que clasifica sus fotos -Araki- como Vaginal Flowers o Tokyo Nude.

Esta colección del fotógrafo japonés es tanto conceptual como formalmente casposa. Tiene mucho que ver con un todo cerrado que se concretó en su libro Shijyo-Tokio, Marketplace of Emotions (Ediciones Stemmle), en el que se mezclaban sus flores con un denso universo de fotos en blanco y negro agrupadas en un apartado titulado Death Reality. Araki hace equivalentes -en clave de cómic- a los mangas (en este caso fotográficos) y los hace con faltas de ortografía. Es producto de una estética superficial cuyo único fin es epatar y de cuya obra supo, a su manera, la España en gris de mediados del pasado siglo, con los almanaques colgados en las cabinas de los camiones y las paredes de los establecimientos más cutres. De él se ha escrito que “siempre ha trabajado entre el filo de la pornografía y el arte”, pero ese matiz hay que saberlo construir, ya que de aquí al roce de lo vulgar o el papanatismo sólo existen las dimensiones del ancho de un hilo.

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