Fotograf Magazine

nobuyoshi araki: tokyo flowers

/Langhans Gallery, 16 November 2005 – 19 February 2006/

The huge boom in Japanese photography that has been filling galleries all over the world since the 1980s has for the most part missed Prague. The first larger presentation of a prominent contemporary photographer from the land of the rising sun is Nobuyoshi Araki’s exhibit presented by Prague’s Langhans Gallery as its last project of the year. The exhibit is accompanied by a catalogue which is Araki’s very first publication in Czech.

Araki is one of those living artists whose fame has reached such a point that they leave many of their exhibits in the hands of others. Experienced curator Zdenek Felix, working in collaboration with the Zurich gallery of Bob van Orsouw, has put together a retrospective which is boldly introduced by an early series of photographs of children from the early 1960s influenced by the New York school. These are – perhaps a little surprisingly, considering the time of their making – followed by Araki’s famous bondage images and the Flowers series in which he playfully multiplies the meanings of natural still lives by adding a dead lizard to the arrangements, something which can be understood as a metaphor for the artist’s relationship to photography. (”To make what is dynamic static is a kind of death. The camera itself, the photograph itself, calls up death. Also, I think about death when I photograph, which comes out in the print,“ Felix quotes Araki in the catalogue.) The series that has the most difficulty standing on its own is the Private Diary series (1996), which captures images of urban life using a cheap camera with a date code; the small size of the series makes a somewhat unconvincing impression. Here Araki’s more recent works come closest to the later works of Nan Goldin, both in terms of themes as well as the two artists’ age and personality. In the same way, his works are based on the accumulation of images and personal experiences. All in all, the question whether Araki’s development has been captured sufficiently by this retrospective and whether the exhibit illustrates the artist’s inner and cultural motivation is ultimately difficult to answer without familiarity with the resources that were available for the exhibit’s production and without considering the gallery’s size, which limits the exhibit to less than seventy works.

Czech audiences, already familiar with boisterous artists such as Jan Saudek, here encounter a similar personality who is gradually outgrowing his own work. Araki, however, is a slightly younger provocateur with a different background who skilfully mixes strikingly erotic arrangements with melancholic themes while downplaying their controversial character and thus enhancing their intensity. Araki’s images of natural motifs artfully combine erotic allusions of Western Modernism (Weston) and post-modernism (Mapplethorpe) with traditional Japanese art. What is more, the traditional Japanese props pose European viewers with the question as to what impact the artist’s work has in his home country, where they lack the otherwise unavoidable layer of exoticism. From here it is not far to asking to what degree Araki himself does (or does not) take into account the expectations of “Western” audiences. This cultural gap is probably best bridged by the impressive slideshow installed in the basement. Here, to a stream of almost irritatingly calm music, Araki’s enchantment with beauty and decay comes fully to the fore.

The accompanying catalogue – in the format of a small monograph with good print and graphic quality – is a welcome achievement. However, for an artist who became famous primarily through books in whose making he had a large hand, we must take into account that here the selection and ordering of the photographs is more the result of the curator’s decisions. This does not alter the fact that, despite any reservations, Araki’s Prague exhibit is further proof of the admirable and bold course taken by the (private and non-commercial) Langhans Gallery on Prague’s cultural scene – one with which it attempts to maintain an internationally attractive programme.

pavel vančát