The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has banned one of three advertisements for the Italian mosaic tile company Bisazza shot by Nobuyoshi Araki on the grounds that “the ad had caused serious offence to some readers”.
Text and images by John Sypal for Japan Exposures
The other night I picked up Araki’s latest book, Tokyo Aruki. It comes in at a modest 160 pages printed at the extremely portable A5 size. Initially I was taken in by the reasonable asking price, but after a couple go-throughs it is plain to see that portability was a major factor in this book’s construction.
Each section is divided between various locations throughout Tokyo, taken over a full year between July 2007 to July 2008. Similar to Aget’s Paris, Tokyo is Araki’s town.
It is worth stepping back for a moment to reiterate that “Tokyo” as you might think is not technically a city in the way that Omaha is considered to be. That said, he kept to a handful of the 23 wards for the photographs which ended up in this book. To be more casually precise (!), the photographic sections have been separated into areas often determined by the name of the local train station.
Interspersed through the pages are brief essays on thoughts of his personal meanings for each area. Some of the sections feature the appearance of young women who have flocked (his words) to him to be photographed. I say that jokingly, but I have with my own eyes seen a young woman break down into tears simply upon seeing the man step out of a room. So “flock” it is.
Often his writing goes further into technique and thoughts on the human condition in Tokyo which in Japanese can sound sweet, but putting it into English they are a little corny. For good measure it seems that the editor felt it best to highlight some of the cornier statements in blue or pink and slap them down on top of a perfectly fine photograph. There are unexpected visual treats here, but one has to look a little harder than usual to find them.
For those who only know the more internationally marketable and nude/bondage side of Araki’s work, the fact that he is a street photographer on par with — and often surpassing — the “greats” might come as a surprise. Due to limitations in printing quality and text placement this book isn’t the greatest vehicle to find this out, but at the price it is a good beginning chance to explore this recent softer side of his work.
If you are at all ever out with a camera in Tokyo you’ll no doubt recognize the locations of a good half of the pictures, or in some cases, have already photographed there yourself.
Earlier I mentioned that portability is an essential aspect to this book’s creation. It wasn’t until looking at the last three pages when the realization that Tokyo Aruki is in part, a Tokyo walk-a-bout type travel companion. It’s “Araki does Tokyo” in a way that is different from his other previous (and often more literal) experiences.
Since it is indeed a travel guide, each section of the book has it’s very own precise map, complete with Araki’s very route highlighted for those who might want to hit up the same spots. If the recent press is of any indication, Tokyo Camera Walks seemed to have exploded in popularity over the past few years and I’m assuming that due to it’s extremely approachable content matter, this book has several print runs ahead of it.
And for those who might be interested in the cameras which he used, a few pages before the maps are devoted to an informative essay about his camera choice (two Mamiya 7II) and (naturally) pictures of Araki on the street working.
John Sypal, born and raised in Nebraska, USA, currently living in Matsudo city (Chiba Pref.).
John has been exhibiting his photographs widely in the US and in Japan. His photographs are frequently featured in Japanese photo magazines.
He is currently a member of Machikata Sampo Shashin Doumei (Walking Photographers Alliance).
John also enjoys meeting people and photographs their cameras for tokyo camera style.
Tokyo Aruki can be purchased in the Japan Exposures Book Store.
Nobuyoshi Araki’s recent Koushoku Painting show at Rathole Gallery (October 17 – December 7, 2008) featured 10 very large silver gelatin black and white prints that Araki had then painted over with various colors. Most of the photos depicted different models in various states of bondage, or “kinbaku” as it is known in Japanese. This is of course very familiar territory for Araki, and on first thought it was hard to get excited about the prospect of seeing more of these, but the show was well worth seeing.
The majority of the painting has been applied in an abstract way, splotches of color here and there, brushstrokes here and there, all with bright, primary colors. While the paint obscures what we can see in the photos — sometimes frustratingly so — it is also quite appealing in its own right. There were also more literal uses of the color, such as in one photo where an eating fork looks to pierce the model’s breast, and here starts a brilliant red daub of paint that eventually runs down the remainder of the canvas. It’s obvious to be sure, but coupled with the artifice of the photo itself, it seemed in keeping for this “wound” to erupt in blood-red paint splotches.
On a purely visual level, the works were stunning. The size of each canvas (each over 130cm by 160cm), the sumptuousness of the black and white, and the vibrancy and texture of the color paint, created works which were gorgeous to look at, despite whatever reservations one might have about the subject matter.
“Coming from crude triangular cut-outs hiding the genitalia, to be confronted with life-size, full-blown labia, was needless to say a rather breathtaking experience.”
Personally I found the works to be highly erotic, which was surprising to me. Frankly I have never cared for this side of Araki — nor of this side of Japanese sexuality and eroticism. Although I realize that I’m looking at it via Western eyes, it remains for me threatening, violent, and when you get right down to it, just not my cup of tea. Despite these prejudices, however, I found myself quickly warming to the idea that there might be more to this art form — and Araki’s treatment of it — than I previously was prepared to cede.
One thing that immediately jumps to mind when you look at the works is that it isn’t often you see such unabashed exposure of the female nude form, especially in Japan with its somewhat outdated restrictions against showing the pubic area. Araki’s own early books are a perfect example of this censorship, with their crude triangular cut-outs hiding the genitalia. Coming from this, to be confronted with life-size, full-blown labia, if you pardon the expression, was needless to say a rather breathtaking experience. More than erotic though, the pictures were very beautiful. And, as with a lot of Araki, they are also ugly and base.
One of the most arresting pieces in the show was one where the model has been suspended in mid-air by ropes. Because we don’t get to see the apparatus by which she is hanging — coupled with her calm, reposed expression — the ropes lose something of their menace. The model seems to be floating, like a diver in water, or an astronaut in gravity-less space. Unlike other kinbaku of this type, where an apparatus is used to suspend the woman in mid-air, and where the photos of models suspended like this are often shown hung upside down, or with their bodies contorted, Araki instead opts for a frontal approach. The model faces us, her legs suspended with ropes in a way that makes her look like she is sitting down for us. It could almost be a portrait. As such, she is presented as a more complete entity than the models in other photos.
The background in this photo helps to set it apart. It is clear that it was shot in a traditional Japanese house, and through open doors we can see outside beyond the model to what we imagine is a Japanese garden. Whereas the other works’ settings have a decidedly Western — or neutral, in the case of one photo with a studio backdrop — feel, spaces enclosed by walls with peeling patterned wallpaper and occupied by old Europe furniture, the airiness of this particular setting enhances the floating impression. On the floor lies an object which looks like one of Feininger’s seashells or some kind of elongated snail. Compared to a Godzilla figure or a rubber lizard that feature in other works, it is non-threatening, but earthy, helping to collapse interior and exterior space. The model’s kimono pushes the traditional aspect further, as does her fringe haircut. With its elaborate design, its excess of material and folds, the kimono makes this particular model the most-clothed of those on display. It is therefore with some irony that anatomically speaking, this is the most exposed of all the models, and Araki has resisted obscuring the woman’s sex with daubs of paint as he has done elsewhere.
There is another work by Araki done along the same lines, not shown at the Rathole exhibition but included in the accompanying catalog. It makes for an interesting contrast with the just-described photo. Here too a woman is hoisted in the air. Again, we cannot see from where she is hanging, only that she is suspended in air, giving us the same sensation that she is not hanging so much as floating. And here too, the model assumes a calm, almost bored expression. However, unlike the image in the show, the background is yet another interior, with a mock-Doric column nightstand with a black cat doll atop it. More importantly, here the model is completely nude. Because she is without clothes, there is no mistaking that her hands are bound behind her back. In fact, the hands can be seen dangling behind her, like a perverted extension of her vagina, or something — a fish, a butterfly — emanating from it. It’s a disconcerting appendage, if you will, but it also viscerally notches up the woman’s vulnerability. It’s a shame there wasn’t enough space to include this and a couple of other works that are shown in the catalog.
“The lizard is a stand-in for a Warhol-like Araki that we know instinctively is just off-frame, turned on by the spectacle, and turned on by his control of the power cords.”
If it was possible to have a show-stopper in this exhibition of show-stoppers, it was one photo where a woman lies on a hardwood floor with her legs kicked up in the air, her hands reaching up to grab her heels in an ultimate “do me” pose. Her arms and legs are tied together as if to seal her available condition. Her head is completely obscured and the ropes give the impression of tied-up meat or a stitched together assemblage of Hans Bellmer body parts. A vibrator has been inserted into her vagina. We presume that it is “turned on” because we see it tethered to it’s battery-powered controller lying on the floor, and because the picture allows us no other realistic choice. As if to power the point home, on the floor lies another vibrator, still sheathed in a used condom, as if it had been castrated in flagrante delicto. The two vibrator cords are mildly tangled up with each other, and together with the slack power cord of a lamp in the background, they all seem to be mocking the taut ropes that bind the model. Near the vibrators is a rubber lizard, its mouth agape, poised between a lascivious grin and a heckling laugh. More threatening than a snail, yet much less self-consciously artificial than Godzilla, the lizard on the periphery of the action is a stand-in for a Warhol-like Araki that we know instinctively is just off-frame, turned on by the spectacle, and turned on by his control of the power cords.
Beyond the ropes and these props however, it is with his paint — the paint that is after all this show’s reason for being — that Araki gives us his final coup de grace. Unlike the majority of the works in the show and accompanying catalog, where the paint is applied relatively sparingly, here the entire canvas of the original print seems to have been stained with some sort of yellowish layer of paint. Since it shows up most clearly against the naked white body of the tied-up model, it gives one the further impression that this is no longer a woman on the floor but mere body parts, as if they were soaking in formaldehyde. But Araki doesn’t stop there. He has painted a circle around the model. This circle, even as it marks her as the haloed/hallowed focal point around which the tawdry props revolve, also demarcates the limits of her existence. Of course the shoot will end, and the model’s rope burns will fade with time, but as canvas she will, like Rauschenberg’s goat, be trapped in that circle, the paint mixing with silver gelatin to fix her twice.
The catalog accompanying this exhibition, Nobuyoshi Araki: KOUSHOKU PAINTING, is available for purchase from the Japan Exposures bookstore. Images from the book can also be seen there.
Lens Culture has put up an interview with photographer Hiroh Kikai that was done by French curator and critic Marc Feustal, presumably conducted recently while Kikai was in Paris for the recently-concluded Paris Photo fair. I always appreciate photographers who are also articulate with the written word like Robert Adams, and have had a sense that Kikai, who studied philosophy at university and whose essays have been extensively published would fit this mold. However, only a few of his writings are available in English.
Truth be told, Kikai tells Feustal that “the idea of writing has always more or less paralyzed me,” and his take on writing and how it compares to photography is just one of several interesting insights into Kikai that the interview provides. I particularly appreciated this part:
To be completely honest with you, I must admit that I never look at the work of other photographers. I am always concerned that I will be destabilized by the fact that some of them are much better than I am. If a photographer cannot look at this work objectively, then he is not a true photographer. A photographer must constantly put himself into perspective because photography is not an innate language. It is not because I spend 24 hours running through the streets looking for photogenic models to pose for my camera that I will get good results.
Read the whole thing. It’s not terribly long but very insightful. Kikai’s Asakusa Portraits was published by the International Center of Photography and Steidl earlier this year, marking his first non-Japan published book. We have several earlier Kikai books in the bookstore (both new and used), including a small paperback version of the Asakusa Portraits, as well as my own personal favorite, Tokyo Labyrinth, now unfortunately out of print and a bit pricey.
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Curious to find out more about Marc Feustal, I was taken to Studio Equis Limited, which puts together exhibitions and publications focusing on post-war and contemporary Japanese photography. Feustal is one of Studio Equis’ directors along with Tsuguo Tada and Helen Feustal.
Studio Equis was behind the Eyes of an Island exhibit that was held in London in 2007, and a Hiromi Tsuchida exhibit in Los Angeles earlier this year. Not surprisingly they were involved in Paris Photo as well, where they presented Tokyo Stories, featuring nearly 100 rare prints by Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi and Shigeichi Nagano. The Studio Equis website has ample slide shows illustrating each of these exhibitions, as well as the Japan: a Self-Portrait, Photographs 1945-1964 one they will be putting on in Tokyo and Nagoya next year.
You can also browse photographs by artists including Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Toshio Shibata, and the aforementioned Hiroh Kikai, among others.
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Michael Hoppen Gallery is currently showing Hana Kinbaku, a series of “handmade, one-off diptychs, never before seen in the UK” by Nobuyoshi Araki.
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I have been looking for some sort of online blogging or reporting about Paris Photo but have not really come up with much. I’m probably not searching hard enough, although it isn’t exactly the kind of event that inspires “live blogging”, I suppose. 5B4/Errata Editions’ Jeffrey Ladd was there and he has a brief report on some of the proceedings, although nothing touching on the Japan side of things except for a picture of Koji Onaka signing books (scroll right to the end of this photo strip). It looks like he’s signing a copy of Tokyo Candy Box, which we are carrying in the bookstore (signed as well).
The event organizers themselves have posted five videos over at Dailymotion, of varying lengths (nine are listed but they include 4 duplicates). They’re a mixture of meandering through galleries and booths, and interviews with various participants or spectators, and more or less professionally done. Sound is mainly French or English depending on who is being interviewed. Japan-related content is scattered amongst all five videos.
This Flickr user has a few photos of the event at the beginning of his photostream. There are more photos here as well, although not so many on the Japan angle. Another gallery is here, along with a video if you scroll down the page. I was sort of expecting there to be quite a lot of photos on Flickr but there aren’t. It’s probably too early since past Paris events are well-represented.
This is supposed to illustrate the difference between digital and film photography according to Nobuyoshi Araki in this month’s Asahi Camera.