Sex, Life, and Death in the works of Nobuyoshi Araki
“Tokyo is my mother. It is my womb.”
On ViewMuseum Of Sex
February 8, 2018 – August 31, 2018
The opening of Nobuyoshi Araki’s latest exhibition, The Incomplete Araki, in February of 2018, welcomed a diverse mix of admirers, bondage enthusiasts, and blushing academics, decorated here and there by a column of kimono. Unable to see the art in such a swarm, I enjoyed watching visitors’ eyes—especially those of the more staid—dilate between lust and analysis.
Such slippage is the crux and controversy of Araki, an artist who has been conflating art and pornography since the sixties. His immense oeuvre captures everything scandalous and sweet about his life in Tokyo—from rope bondage to the red-light districts, Yōko to Chiro, his doleful wife and cat. Tellingly, The Incomplete Araki is the largest-ever exhibition held in New York of Japan’s most famous artist and, despite its cheeky venue, the most introspective to date. Considering objectification alongside obsession, sentiment in stride with sexual fetish, this exhibition thoughtfully surveys Araki’s prismatic identity as an artist.
Curators Maggie Mustard and Mark Snyder boldly open the exhibition with Tokyo Comedy (1997)—a woman in disheveled geisha garb, trussed up and suspended from the ceiling in a classic demonstration of kinbaku-bi (“the beauty of tight binding”). She looks towards the viewer with mild disinterest, bordering on disdain, as does the flower censoring (or accenting) her genitalia. In an extended conversation with Dr. Mustard, she related how “the Tokyo Comedy photograph encapsulates so much about what the exhibition attempts to tackle right off the bat … sexually explicit imagery, narratives about objectification, critiques of contemporary Orientalism and fetishization. It’s also such a fundamentally ‘Araki’ image. This single photograph prepares you for many of the varying themes and conversations that the exhibition explores.”
In the next room, a schoolgirl from Tokyo Comedy (1997)—asleep, bound and spot lit as she floats in space—confronts the viewer with an unsettling triangle of panty. Exploring the schoolgirl as both superhero and sex object (think Naoko Takeuchi’s shōjo manga, Sailor Moon, 1991-1997), the curators flesh out the context between Eastern and Western perspectives. “While the schoolgirl character did absolutely become an icon of female empowerment in Japanese pop culture, it’s impossible to ignore the way in which she also was inevitably, or perhaps even inherently, sexualized. Araki’s not inventing this image—but he is amplifying it, and demanding that it not be relegated to the porno racks in a convenience store.”
I recall those Japanese konbini porn mags, tightly bound, full of heavily censored, pixelated flesh. What does it mean for Araki to liberate such images, and for curators of a Museum of Sex to elevate them to the museum wall? Many of Araki’s kinbaku-bi models—often referred to as consensual collaborators—seem to find the practice cathartic, empowering, even purifying.1 Yet as the show was being organized, the curators were in contact with a former model that had recently accused Araki of sexual assault. Though she chose to remain anonymous, another model, Kaori—featured in three of this exhibition’s photographs—voiced her own accusations in a blog post, later expanded upon in a New York Times feature.2 While Kaori hesitated to claim sexual assault, she alleged Araki often personally and professionally humiliated her, refusing her privacy and even payment. “The allegations provided an opportunity,” Dr. Mustard explained, “to expand the conversation from ‘reception’ (i.e. are these photographs misogynist or not) into a much more complex and urgent conversation about the way that Araki’s celebrity may have worked to create a power dynamic where this particular woman felt she could not speak out…”
While all of Hollywood is being reckoned with in the American media, speaking about sex crimes remains largely taboo in Japan—within the courts, Kabukichō and NHK alike. Last year, a rape charge pressed against high-profile journalist, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, went miserably underreported in Japan, only gaining substantial exposure through western outlets like the BBC. This exhibition, in light of the #MeToo movement no less, has provided a unique platform for women like Kaori, opening a crucial discussion around power dynamics in the Japanese art world and the country more broadly.
And though context doesn’t direct this conversation, it does thoroughly inform it. Video and text interviews with Araki’s models introduce us to their experiences working with him, while academic consideration is given to the male, as well as Western, gaze. These frame starkly contrasting photographs—from a model’s vapid stare in 1989’s Kinbaku (Bondage) to the commanding gaze of Shino (2000), Araki’s favorite model—that skillfully illustrate how composition can subjugate or empower its subject. Dr. Mustard emphasizes that “the issue of objectification can—and should—be interrogated at any and all of these points: from creation, to reception, to contextualization.” Whether admiring or admonishing, fresh perspectives from these women complicate the one-dimensional relationship between “genius” and “muse,” lending reality to the fantasy.
The exhibition takes a biographical turn around the death of Yōko, Araki’s cherished wife, in 1990. “It was thanks to Yōko that he became a photographer.” Dr. Mustard stressed. “This can be interpreted in the sense that documenting the intimacy—from the mundane to the explicit—of their relationship really did solidify Araki’s particular photographic vision—the confessional, the autobiographical, the unashamed directness.” Three years after her death, Araki made 101 Works for Robert Frank (Private Diary), a series of photographs of, mostly, bound women and his cat. The small, black-and-white photos, intimate in size and intention, parallel the candid nature of Frank’s own work. Notably, this clash of private and public exemplifies a major theme in Araki’s practice: the tension between memoir and fiction. Originally inspired by the Japanese “I-novel,” this friction is amplified in the series Marvelous Tales of Black Ink (Bokujū Kitan) (2007)and Pola Eros (2003-2006),and even High School Girl’s Fake Diary—a 1981 pink film in which Araki seemingly plays himself, the lecherous photographer. However, Araki also deeply dislikes the latter film, whose promotional obi advertised him as the “horny genius.” Mustard reminds us that “the parts that might be an ‘authentic’ self-portrait and those that might be a construction are essentially impossible to distinguish from one another.”
Moving from rope burns to flash burns, the exhibition shifts rather suddenly in a segment featuring Araki’s work about post-war Japan. In Endscapes (Shukei) (1995),Araki corrosively treats the skin of his photographs, mirroring the bomb’s horror. Freckled orchids and portraits of girls fracture and fade between moments of ceremony, sex or death. I asked Dr. Mustard how she negotiated these images within the museum: “We wanted to feature a section that situated Araki’s work within a historical context of postwar Japan… He’s called Shukei a kind of ‘emotional landscape’ for himself—it primes the viewer, hopefully, for the expanded themes of sex, love, and death that get explored on the second floor of the exhibition.”
Indeed, elements introduced piecemeal below—sex, life and death—intermingle on the second floor, where a massive installation of Araki’s photo books dominates the room. Encircling the display are selections from notable series, including Sentimental Journey 1971-2017—Araki’s loving meditation on his life with Yōko. Among these is the emblematic photograph of her asleep in a boat as they cross a river; curled up on her side, feet peeking from under a gingham skirt, Yōko is sweetly childlike. “It was our honeymoon, so she was exhausted from all the sex.” Araki quips, though he also finds the photograph deeply prophetic: “In Japan we say that you cross the Sanzu River when you depart to the ‘other world.’”
Dr. Mustard finds this image, at once a “mid-afternoon sex nap, a fetal portrait, an image of mortality… even burial,” to be a stirring summation of Araki’s life work. Similarly, Winter Journey (1989-90/2005) finds Yōko in her funeral casket, enveloped in flowers and grieving hands. Beside her is a copy of Itoshi no Chiro (Lovely Chiro)(1990), Araki’s photobook dedicated to the wily cat they both adored. Below, a time-stamp marks it like a signature. “Yōko has become this deeply symbolic node where death enters the photograph, and never truly leaves. She haunts so much of his work after 1990…Araki often seems like he’s striving to reanimate something that is ‘killed’ in the act of taking a photograph.”
In the wake of Sentimental Journey, Araki’s tightly cropped photography of suggestive flowers and rotting fruit, the vaginal sweep of a half-closed eye or parted lips, smack of decomposition. On the next wall, highly stylized images, such as the ripe watermelon flesh of Colourscapes (1991),revive the mood in deep cadmium flush. We’re also introduced to the erotic Shunga prints that clearly inspire the artist; Araki’s Komari from “L’Amant d’août” (“Suicide in Tokyo”) (2002), for example, directly echoes the woman’s splayed, obi-nipped pose in Eizan’s Abandonment After Sake, Woman of Mercantile House (1815). Nearby, Tokyo Lucky Hole—a mid-eighties series of obscene, though often comical, photographs documenting the red-lit corners of Shinjuku—suggests that Floating World of Edo Japan endures. Full of explicit scenes shot in soaplands and sex clubs, these pictures are so raunchy that one was withheld by Japanese customs on its way to the exhibition. (Thankfully, Dr. Mustard found another copy).
Araki is at his best in the less salacious work, as in the Diptych series—a coupling of nudes with Tokyo’s sky and cityscapes. A few employ the typical Arakian pun—the pairing of a street’s と of tomari (“stop”) with a woman’s behind—but I found most to be a tender expression of tokoro, a conception of space that relates site and context at once. “He’s remarked that it’s not just any city he feels drawn to,” Dr. Mustard enthused, “it’s not the concept of the cityscape in general, but just Tokyo that he has that particular relationship with.” This is most evident in Blind Love (1999), wherein the soft gaze of a model mirrors the hazy horizon of the city. The woman seems polluted, even humid, as she leans into a couch; next to her, the sky has bedroom eyes.
Towards the end of The Incomplete Araki, my thoughts on this artist’s expansive work merged with Tokyo itself—saccharine and sinful, mercurial yet much too easy to love. A mammoth of a city bound up in its old power lines, ever difficult to secure, define or much less parse.
- “Every time he presses the shutter, I feel purified. The more photographs he takes, the emptier I feel.” Shino, exhibition wall text.
- Motoko Rich, “When an Erotic Photographer’s Muse Becomes His Critic,” The New York Times, May 5, 2018,