Sex, Life, and Death: The Controversial Work of Nobuyoshi Araki Comes to 798

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Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s aesthetic is instantly recognizable. Pictures of submissive rope-bound women and eroticized flowers are two of his best-known photography subjects – and sex, in general, has emerged as the most frequently addressed theme behind his camera lens – creating a distinctive iconic Araki imagery and flair that have earned him a legion of followers, as well as a constant source of controversy.

However, to depict Araki as a photographer with a singular focus on sex would be doing him a huge disservice – there’s much more than just carnal urge flowing through his work, as his current solo exhibition at 798 Bridge Art Space proves.

Strategically steering clear of Araki’s contentious series of bound and compromised naked women (if you’re here for those, you’re in for a disappointment), the exhibition exclusively features his floral compositions – over 500 in total – which stretch his five-decades-long career in three distinct sections: Flowers · Life, Flowers · Metaphors, and Beauty of Flowers with a focus of Japanese mono no aware aesthetics.

Upon entering the gallery, we’re greeted by a wall Araki’s photography as well as some of his simple-colored works. The first section also takes a brief look at the influence of his wife and essayist Yoko Aoki, whose death in 1990 was one of the pivotal events in Araki’s career and one that had a lasting impact on his creativity thereon.

The second section is dedicated to Araki’s photography props: dried flowers and plants, dolls, and dinosaur figurines evoking his studio setup. Hundreds of Polaroid shots of flowers also line the room along with a collection of flowers which are dyed with brightly-colored oil paint, which has the effect of fooling you into thinking that they’re paintings rather than photographs.

Another wonderfully bizarre prop that Araki often utilizes are dried, brittle lizards. These form a striking contrast to the lush flowers upon which they are placed and can be interpreted in so many different ways within the cruel but beautiful sphere of life. They are also a quintessential illustration of his mono no aware aesthetic, loosely defined as the wistful acknowledgment of the transience of things.

The final section gathers Araki’s photographs in which he ingeniously uses dolls and other figurines along with scattered flowers and plants to form lively, if not slightly macabre scenes. The dolls especially have the effect of adding a level of innocence or creepiness, depending on your view. There’s also a short film which documents Araki’s relentless passion for photography.

The exhibition beautifully demonstrates the coexistence of tenderness and lust hidden in Araki’s work, and a reminder of Japan’s long and storied history with sexual expression. We left with the image of Araki’s flowers in our head, their wilted edges a reminder that everything dies; all beauty fades.

Nobuyoshi Araki’s “花幽” is on exhibition at 798 Bridge Art Space until Sep 9. Tickets are RMB 68.

READ: More ongoing great exhibitions in Beijing

Photos courtesy of Bridge Art Space, Huang Chenkuang

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