Nobuyoshi Araki

Working and living at the intersection of various worlds—including art, fashion, and the periphery of the Tokyo sex industry—Nobuyoshi Araki has produced some of the most sensuous, erotic images you arc likely to encounter anywhere. Araki manages to find eroticism even in the most innocuous places. He also frankly sexualizes the female body, but without objectifying it beyond the extent to which he foregrounds his own libidinal reveries.

Araki’s photographs have been labeled by certain viewers as brazenly misogynist, but this criticism is misplaced. His work articulates a love for women, albeit one that is expressed through contradiction: equal parts tenderness, symbolic violence, virtually pornographic literalness, poetic melancholia, and consummately refined aesthetics. If this supposed moral or artistic inconsistency repels some, it is also what makes these images so poignantly alive and human. Obviously, one should never look to art for “correct” moral instruction, or expect it to improve existing “real world” conditions, although Araki’s work may indeed express aspects of the profoundly complex, hybrid qualities of contemporary Japanese life, and more specifically, relations between the sexes.

“Araki Retrographs” brought together several bodies of work, including the series “Sentimental Journey,” 1970, and “Erotos,” 1992–97. One revelation was the extent to which the photographer incorporates a wide range of subjects into his narrative-based photographic installations, which at times suggest a stream of consciousness. Here, Araki’s visually gorgeous work revealed his talent for constructing image fields that combine the poetic with a hybrid formal language and a deadpan approach to “everyday” life.

The eroticism of Araki’s pictures is complex, shifting, and often surprising: an image of a crying girl may carry a whole set of resonances associated with the fragile innocence of childhood, but when considered in relation to a portrait of a naked woman lying in bed, formed of close-ups of various body parts (such as a breast tied-up in an S/M bondage knot), we may begin to look at the young girl in a different light. Araki is a master of inflection, creating alternately subtle and jarring pictorial intertextualities. In his work, the photographic fragment invariably speaks of a broader experience even as it evokes a suspended moment in intricate detail. It also illuminates an emotional or sexual connection between subject and photographer, which is most evident in his casually yet delicately posed portraits of naked women. All of this suggests that for Araki photography is not merely a means of editorializing life, but that for him it is life aestheticized—and, perhaps, that any aesthetic experience is erotic.

Although he is interested in exploring photography’s storytelling possibilities, Araki seems to accept that any given arrangement of images will never have the same resonance for each viewer, and to deliberately exploit this inevitable gap in meaning. What makes his work intriguing is not that he is able to persuade us that the image of a bound woman (possibly a prostitute) can be redeemed through visual poetics. Rather, it is that Araki seems to believe the events in his life can be just as engaging for us as they have been for him—even though we may have to suspend our disbelief in order to accept his “reality.” He uses any means necessary to communicate the details of his rather unusual existence, ranging from an apparently mundane subject (a lizard in nature) to a seemingly sensationalistic one (the artist shaving a woman’s pubic region).

To a certain extent, Araki does fetishize the pleasures of his life, and there was more than a little hedonism at work here (for example, in a room leading to one of the museum’s bathrooms that he covered floor-to-ceiling in 1994 with Xeroxed sexual images, “re-eroticizing” the space), but the show also included a commemoration of personal loss. At the opening and on the last day of the exhibition, Araki presented a poignant slide show including images of his late wife, in which the quality of emotional truth found in so many of his other pictorial essays was especially evident.

Is Araki interested in embracing his audience with various aspects of his private life (through photography as an index of his desire), hoping that we will return his embrace by allowing his preoccupations to become our own? If so, then we are also invited to leave behind our taboos, and step inside a sensual world in which our moralities may be threatened—charmingly—by Araki’s fascinations and obsessions.

Joshua Decter