The exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery (2005) and a mammoth 720-page book, Self, Life, Death, published by Phaidon provide yet another opportunity to assess his work.
In some ways the many slight and uncertain responses to Araki are not surprising since the sheer volume of his photography from 1970 to the present is daunting enough, while his scattergun approach to subject matter and to grouping pictures seems – like the work of so many other new realists – to be pitted against any reasoned interpretation. But also, to approach this prolific Japanese photographer with any degree of seriousness is to risk sinking into the quicksand of a post-modern theatre of the absurd, into a sex pantomime of superficiality, excess and outrage – fuelled by the juice of media celebrity – that surrounds Araki and his work. And as we slowly go under, overwhelmed by the incessant stream of images and disturbed by his portrayal of women, we risk looking like a po-faced moralist from a bygone era, unfashionable and unable to read the complex cultural and sexual codes that he apparently plays with. For Araki’s stance is unfettered and unabashed; like some ageing photo-punk, revelling in his post-pc offensiveness, lasciviously indulging his own obsessions and fantasies without ever pausing to reflect, he is forever moving on, sucking at his country through his camera. He is, it is said, the quintessential post-modern artist, a post-history operator whose photographs most accurately mirror the often bizarre and kaleidoscopic face of contemporary Japan.
Trying to pin down what really endears Araki to his supporters has always been something of a no-brainer. He has been variously lauded for his artlessness, his sentimentality, his honesty; he’s a realist and a fantasist, he’s prolific, he is photography as an adrenalin rush, he breathes images; we see the world unmediated through his camera; he doesn’t think too much, he doesn’t do philosophy; he’s kitsch, he’s has this profound insight, he’s a self-proclaimed genius; he’s a crusader against censorship, he’s a liberating figure in a repressed Japanese culture hung up on tradition and etiquette; he allows women to give free rein to their sexuality; he’s a joker, a clown, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and anyway he’s a great artist…
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Published in Photoworks Issue 5, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks