Barbican Arts Centre

Life quite obviously amuses Nobuyoshi Araki. It turns him on and excites him. The Barbican’s current show, Self.Life.Death. is the first British exhibition of the man who, to the Japanese at least, has long been known for documenting his relationship with the sensations and thrill of his beloved city, Tokyo. With his camera, he finds stimulus in every bowl of gyoza, every collapsing wooden temple, and in every den of every whore in the city. He is entirely democratic (some would say spoilt) in what he photographs, and therefore has proceeded to publish well over 300 of his own books. The vast collection the Barbican has displayed is just the very tiny tip of a very big iceberg, I fear. Nevertheless, its scope and array is large and varied enough to offer some perspective on a photographer who seems, on the whole, far too esoteric and whacky for the common man to understand at any level other than the purely aesthetic. Sense is not the thing one expects to unearth at a monographic show of a Japanese neo-Surrealist/pornographer/clown, but slowly sense emerges. What soon becomes apparent in this exhibition, not least because of its title, is that life is indeed Araki’s only muse. What fascinates him the most about life, though, is not bound geishas or noodles or plastic lizards, but the inevitable ending of it; its predictable decay and final destruction. Alongside almost every picture of something animated and vivaciously alive is the concurrent display of that which is dying.

The photographs have been arranged in sets (Flowers, Lovers, Tokyo &c.) and each category documents the process of change that time subjects them to, a kind of highbrow version of the Before and After projects in women’s magazines. Next to pictures of decaying funereal bouquets, for instance, are images of wonderfully alive orchids; likewise, in the sequence "Ararchy’s Portraits", mugshots of babies, their faces brimming with youthful volume, are placed on walls next to wizened one hundred year old women. Immediately one is made aware that Araki is compelled by change, by birth and rebirth, and seeks to chart this process in efficacious, microscopic detail. The city of Tokyo, and the vagina, become the metaphors he most regularly uses to exercise these concerns of his.

With his rigorously repetitive depictions of modern life, he displays his obsessive curiosity with the sequence of everything that lives and dies and, understandably, Tokyo itself is Araki’s most persistent muse. In the series "Tokyo Story" (1989) he captures paper lanterns clinging to the sides of apartment blocks, and wooden temples that have lost their supremacy on the landscape to concrete towers. Resonant in this set of works is a sad nostalgia, a sentimental desire to capture the emblems of traditional Japan that the Modern City is slowly and conscientiously ingesting. Just as engulfing, pictorially at least, is the infamous collection of pseudo-pornographic Polaroids, "Tokyo Lucky Hole". In this set, the vagina becomes the all-consuming receptacle that Modernity poses in "Tokyo Story". We see vaginas spread by fingertips, their owners grinning inanely at the camera: thus stripped of their sensuality and taking on quite terrifying guises, they appear only as alien black holes prepared to swallow anything. And most pertinent at representing the processes of time passing and matter changing is the tool Araki uses to capture these images, the camera. As Roland Barthes wrote, death is the eidos of the photograph; each snap of the shutter takes something as its victim.

Araki is well aware that the relationship between creation and destruction is reciprocal: the photograph does not kill its subject, only changes its form into something that, arguably, will last longer than its original prototype; likewise, what dies in the vagina manifests itself as something living nine months later. Every subject of his coils and uncoils with life, slipping soundly between states of action and destruction. One section of the exhibition depicts fresh plates of food next to images of chewed watermelon, with only the pips remaining on the plate after the exit of a sated consumer. Another room places images of bountiful geishas, sucking on fruits with all the turgid zeal of Eve alongside a photograph of one greying melancholic whore collapsed against a wall with a packet of cigarettes her only accessory. Existing in almost every one of these images is either the heightened tension of something promised–life in its fullest state–or the sated slump of a completed desire. As he says himself, "a prologue is also an epilogue". The division between the Before and After, or the pre or the post is very fine in the flux of living matter. Things are always on their way in, or their way out: Araki sets himself the simple mission of just catching them somewhere on this journey.