Last week, the opening of Nobuyoshi Araki’s exhibition “Impossible Love” took place at C/O Berlin. Just this spring, one of his long-time models accused him of exploitation in the course of the #metoo debate. How would this influence the exhibition and its perception?
In autumn 2017, I was in Tokyo where I also visited the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. I have been to the Japanese capital a few times before, but the museum had been closed due to renovation for several years. Although it was open this time, I still felt betrayed: Nobuyoshi Araki’s exhibition “Sentimental Journey: 1971 – 2017” had literally just ended. Disappointed, I bought a postcard showing a seventies street scene that I sent to a friend in Berlin who put it on his kitchen wall. Back home, I could see it hanging there every time I stopped by, and the postcard led me to my own sentimental journey, imagining myself being a visitor of the Tokyo exhibition. I wasn’t interested in Araki’s sex related work he had become so famous for, also outside of Japan. I rather wanted to get impressions of the past. I wanted to lose myself in intimate portraits of a Japanese society that I didn’t yet know.
This was before I learned that Kaori, one of Araki’s long time models, accused him of exploiting and bullying her for 16 years. Thanks to the #metoo movement, she had finally found the courage to speak up. An action even more difficult in a male-dominated country such as Japan, where men often resign after they have been accused of harassment, but deny the allegations and barely suffer any consequences.
This spring, after the opening of an Araki exhibition in New York, Kaori had come forward with a blog post, in which she accused the photographer of exploitation and power-harassment. Although she was – like he said – his muse, they didn’t work together. Instead, he used her and forced her into things that weren’t normal for her at all and treated her like an object. Furthermore, she had neither rights nor a contract, and she was not even always paid.
Araki is now an old man, living his whole life in a very patriarchal world, where many male artists did not and still do not respect their female models. But this is not an excuse at all.
So even though stories of models exploited by artists are not new – on the contrary, they have been around for centuries – this could be the time to hear them from the models themselves, empowering other women to speak up, to change the system. This could be the time for a worldwide debate about model’s rights – in the art scene and beyond.
Therefore, the co-curator of the New York exhibition implemented Kaori’s statements into the programming materials.
As I don’t want to separate an artist from his art, I had mixed feelings when I read the announcement of the Araki exhibition at C/O Berlin. I could not finish my sentimental journey – or could I? After some weeks of ambivalent thoughts, I decided to give it a try, hoping that the local curators would follow their predecessors in New York. I was curious how exactly they would handle it.
On their website, they published a short note about Araki’s all time controversy and announced not to show any pictures of Kaori. Beyond that, they invited visitors to write their opinion on the debate into the guestbook and to take part in an online discussion by using a hashtag, #arakidebate. But last Friday, when I had the chance to participate in the press opening, I could only see the guestbook – more of a one way road than a debate – and nobody talked about the topic at all.
I went there with the friend to whom I sent the postcard last year and we sneaked upstairs, before the official part, the speeches and the crowd. We were all alone, surrounded mostly by black and white vintage pictures, and I must confess, this was the most peaceful moment I have ever experienced in a museum. Naturally, we headed back to participate in the opening. But after the introduction, we both did not cope following the visitors, collectively exploring the other exhibition on the ground floor “Das letzte Bild – Fotografie und Tod” (“The Last picture – photography and death”). To me, seeing death in such an explicit way, is more difficult to handle than any weird sex stuff. So we headed back upstairs where transience was treated with more subtlety most of the time – or at least very metaphorically.
The vintage photography sets are part of different collections – brought together to tell the story of Araki’s relationship to his wife Yoko. It starts with an ode (“Yoko My Love”) and moves on with their honeymoon (“Sentimental Journey”), already anticipating the loss to come. After some pictures torn apart as if there would have been a fight (“The Days We Were Happy”), the narrative leads to their last common life stage (“Winter Journey”). Yoko was diagnosed with cancer and Araki accompanied her hospital stays, showing the dreariness in the form of street scenes, interiors, the cat, flowers he had brought her, Yoko’s hands holding them. And in the end: her funeral. His way of saying goodbye to her.
Although I wanted to, I couldn’t keep my distance. I lost my grudge against the artists’ persona who created this work and quickly moved on to the next room, where social contradictions were confronted with the help of vintage diptychs. Pictures of everyday people, probably waiting at traffic lights, brought together with sex scenes, that could have been their secret phantasies, their well hidden desires. A bit cliché sometimes, but sure enough provocative at its time and an interesting depiction of society. If I weren’t so bored of female nudes taken by male artists.
My distancing process went on when I reached the 2018 part of the exhibition, showing more than 1000 polaroids. Especially of blossoms (not very subtle, sometimes even directly faced with half naked women), sex scenes (boring), food (yummy), rubber gloves (not from sex scenes but medical examinations) and blue skies with clouds (calming). Daily impressions of Araki, the cancer patient. The peculiarity of the pictures arises at best from repetition and the form of representation in huge thematic bundles. But they also reminded me of overwhelming collections on Instagram. Merely the sky compilation attracted me on account of its soothing effect.
And then, in the end, there were some huge images I could not relate to at all: overloaded arrangements of sometimes already slightly withered flowers (yeah, vanitas!), dolls, doll heads (yeah, creepy!), dragons and other figurines. I had the feeling that I had seen something like that on the internet many times before – but at least this work is a bright and colorful farewell.
As the crowd downstairs was obviously still busy with the other exhibition, my friend and I went back to the first room and sat down on the bench. We showed each other our favorite cat pictures – mine was the one in the snow – and talked about other things than the exhibition. I don’t like discussing art or movies in detail, while watching it or shortly after that, and I enjoyed this exclusive situation.
“I have to leave now!” he said after a while and stood up. At this moment, a police woman entered the room. “Like being part of an agent movie!” I whispered my farewell and stayed there, worshipping Yoko, as it was her room, after all.
This made the visit of the exhibition very valuable for me. But I can not go beyond that. I want to live in a society full of respect and open exchange. I appreciate people’s ability to learn and admit mistakes – and their indispensable will to change for the better.