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By David Frazier
/ published in tofu#2

In spangled tuxedo tails, he pranced around like a frolicking satyr. He was ebullient, which is more or less his constant disposition. From press conferences to Taipei's rapid transit, he lived the part of that now mythical creature, the flamboyant art star. His imported entourage followed him everywhere. He even got Japan's number one curator, Fumio Nanjo, to sing karaoke, and Mr. Nanjo doesn't even like karaoke.


As for the photographs, Araki's incessant and autobiographical reportage, they are the unglossed reflections of his personal extremes. On one hand they show his opening night persona, the uninhibited carnival. But there is also a hangover to his party; it is the world in which he lives, a desolate yet fascinating realm of sidewalks, streets, and endless cities.

Born in 1940, Araki is arguably the most important living photographer in Japan, where he is famous for television appearances and his eccentric showmanship. Recently, he has also won critical acclaimed in international art circles. His entrance into the pantheon of high art was confirmed a few years ago when he exhibited with Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, two of the hottest photographers in the end-all-be-all; art world of New York.

His current show at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Araki Alive (Sep. 5 - Nov. 28) is the second of four exhibitions which will continue to make the case for his eminence. Araki was allowed his first show at a public Japanese Museum, MOT, earlier this Spring. Major solo exhibitions in France and Italy will follow next year.

Though the current focus is on Araki the artist, he is also notorious as Japan's most famous sex photographer. Whether his work is art or obsenity has been the subject of much controversy. Throughout his 36 year career, the pornographic has been an almost continual theme, one which he has approached as both genre and critical subject matter. In the late 70s and early 80s, his work was featured in magazines like S&M Sniper and Japanese Playboy, and he fed some of Japan's more illicit fascinations with his first commercial film, Pseudo Diary: Highschool Girls. Later, in the 80s, he documented Tokyo's underground pornography scene in a series so brutally honest that its effects are more telltale than arousing.

As Araki's reputation increased, he pushed the limits even further - often too far for Japanese authorities, who still censor images of genitalia. In 1988, his contributions to the magazine Photo Age led Japan's police to recall an issue on grounds of obscenity. In 1992, he was fined 300,000 yen for an "obscene" gallery exhibition, and in 1993 police arrested gallery workers for selling his book Erotos.

The current Taipei exhibition, however, does not tangle too much with such questions of obscenity. Most of the photographs which could be seen as pornographic have been confined to books, where most gallery visitors will not notice them. The pictures on the walls, meanwhile, try to look at a more holistic Araki, one who documents his own life through a viewfinder.

The Araki of this exhibition is one who photographs everything he does and everything he sees. If the reality he shows is coarse, that is because his own experience is coarse. Araki's is a universe of cityscapes, street life, anonymous faces, and, yes, erotic moments. He shows both the beautiful and the banal, because they are part of a continuum which is something akin to his identity. Sometimes his pictures are even boring, but you have to remember they are part of a whole.

In a statement accompanying the exhibition, Araki says, "...to keep this thing going for a long time, you just have to carry on taking photographs. Photography is my teacher. The main thing is to keep on taking photographs - forever and ever."(sic) Embracing photography as a way of life also helped Araki cope with death of his wife, Yoko, in 1990. In the same statement, Araki avers that photography has given him the "impulse to carry on."

The pictures lining the walls of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, then, are about the living Araki has been doing lately. They have come from the photographer's recent tour of eight Asian metropolises. They also play to the home crowd and highlight Taipei. The Taiwan pictures offer a sidewalk view of the island, including shots from taxis, binglang girls, scooters, male burlesque dancers, traffic, Lee Teng-hui on TV, and naked women. But even though the place is new, the subjects are still the same old inhabitants of the Araki world. As such, there is a tremendous consistency to all the images.

In many ways, the exhibition displays a photographic stream of consciousness. That's why Araki and his curator, Akiko Miki, created special formats for arranging the pictures in groups and clusters. Photographs are displayed in several different ways: large wall-sized grids, horizontal bands, books, CD-ROM, and an eponymous slide show, Arakinema. No images are shown by themselves. The pretense that a photograph can objectively describe frozen moments has been discarded. Araki's photographs make their impression through juxtapositions and sheer volume.

To be blunt, seeing this show is like flipping through a pile of photos just brought home from the developer. The curatorial spin is about how people relate to multiple images, about how single images are losing power in an era of image inundation and one-hour processing. At the same time, however, the pile of photos also implies a darker question: how many pictures will it take to capture a life?

With over 100 books to his credit, Araki has still not succeeded in that Sisyphian quest. But one can suppose that there is always more living and more photographing to be done. For now, Araki has shown that he is still alive, with all that entails.

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