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Araki: Self*Life*Death

Barbican – Araki: Self•Life•Death

Vicky volunteered to put the girls to bed last night so I nipped in to the Barbican to see a major exhibition of Araki’s work.

Araki’s one of those photographers that one doesn’t “like”: his mix of porn, food-that-looks-like-genitalia, his haunting photos of Tokyo (curiously de-peopled) alongside very intimate (friendly and humourous) views of people, all however remain in the mind. One remembers Araki’s imagery long after the context (in one of his 400 books? a small exhibition?) and this exhibition at the Barbican was wonderful in showing the whole range of his work, sensibly themed.

The exhibition covers phases in his work I’d not known (eg the work around the death of his wife, the ‘invention’ of “i-photograpy”, matching the Japanese “i-novel” – a form of first-person literature, based on experience, and requiring a dedication to photographing everything that borders on obsessive).

Indeed, the impression I was left with (after hundreds of photos of flowers, food, women, genitalia, bondage, cloudscapes, cityscapes etc) was a weight of obsessive documentation and focus on the pleasures/engagements of life. I was surprised to find that the plentiful nakedness did not feel pornographic, but rather had an aspergic, quizzical and playful aspect to it. This surprised me. From the (excellent) notes, and the arrangement of the images, one felt that this was his life through a lens, rather than voyeurism.

There’s an interesting and informative overview, btw, of pornography in Japan – from middle ages to now – that gives some of the background to the formal allusions and structures that were otherwise lost on me.

As I left the exhibition I felt that I’d reconnected in a funny way with two other artistic influences: Bukowski and Atget. I can remember the impact that Bukowski’s work had on me: by turns foul and foul-mouthed, depraved and debasing, yet also self-aware, unafraid, open and uncompromising. Equally, Atget’s Paris is an encapsulation of a love affair with the city’s streets. I mean “streets” – there are barely any people in the 800 pages, except when they’re pulling a cart or somehow ‘part of the scenery’.

Araki’s work, seen in retrospect comprehensively, is a visual fusion of the obsessive but loving catalogue of the landscape of Tokyo, women, food, cats that’d do Atget proud; allied to the narrative impact (shock, revulsion and compulsion) in Bukowski’s work.

Not that I wish to pigeon-hole him – heaven forbid! – I’m just surprised at my own response to his work.

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