Araki and The Velvet Underground

Sunday Morning, the Musée Guimet opens and it’s in to the Araki exhibition. Bonus, it’s free because I’m an art student (I had my NUS card with me). The exhibition starts with what I can only believe is a small selection of his photo books, he’s prolific when it comes to producing them, his Wikipedia entry claims there were over 350 by 2005, there’s been more since then!

After that, large scale photographs of flowers. Large scale sensual photographs of flowers, some starting to decompose. Beautiful, strangely unsettling. This was followed by frames from his first book, and its sequel. “I-novels” were what he became known for (that and nudity and bondage), Sentimental Journey recounts Araki’s wedding and early life with Yoko, Winter Journey told of her death. Araki photographed - it’s what he does - pleasure and pain. Black and white images from their early life seem to show a young woman tired of being constantly photographed, rarely smiling, perhaps this is just a reserved Japanese thing though? As she neared death, there is more apparent joy and laughter, or at least smiles. Maybe this is also a spiritual Japanese thing - I’ve no idea if she was this way inclined though. There is also the emergence of the cat, and the dinosaurs. They keep on showing up in his work, in the weirdest ways. Something that really struck home with the Winter Journey was the inclusion of the date stamp on the images, burned on the negatives by the camera’s data back. Is this a serious “art” thing? Should he not have elected to turn the information off? I know it would have frustrated me back in those days. But no, this accentuates the diaristic impact of the images. It’s a clear reminder of when events happened, of chronology in a time when he may not have been thinking in such ways. It’s an important part of this document. It has to be there.

The next room was all ropes and women, bound by Araki himself I believe. These are again large scale images, shown this way to elevate them from pornography a cynic might argue. Whilst it might be expected to be shocked by these images, I didn’t find them to be such. Perhaps that’s the result of coming straight from the raw emotion that could be experienced from the prior images. I tend to think it’s because there were quirks about them. A woman tied and bound, elevated from the floor with a completely deadpan expression, with a plastic dinosaur on the floor below. It’s surreal, not shocking.

After this, seemingly hundreds of smaller images (although some of the numbers are an optical illusion from using mirrors). They’re random. A stream from the obsessive compulsive mind of a manic photographer. Yes, it would be easy to be shocked again, there are more nudes, sexual images, some might say pornography. But next to that is a cat. A photograph of Nan Goldin (it looked like her anyway...). Another dinosaur. A city street. A beer. Another nude. Strange juxtapositions. Everything falls subject to his camera.

Another room and you’re confronted by a wall of transparencies. This was, for my mind, a masterpiece for the purpose of surreptitious looking. The transparencies are, by their very nature, small. Behind them was not a blank wall, or better a light box, but the end of the exhibition with people and other background information. The images were not easy to see, so you move in closer. You get right next to the images and look at them intently, and then you realise what it is you are so close to - a cat, next to a nude, next to... the same random juxtapositions of subject matter. Knowing that the nudes are there, and they’re not “classy” or “artistic” nudes, you have a pang of guilt - am I a dirty old man like Araki? It was brilliant!

Another wall featured a selection of images of sky. Every day since his wife died, he has photographed the sky. Such a compulsive display of passion, I was quite moved by his dedication. And following this, his own series for his mausoleum, He knows he is approaching death (and with growing blindness), but he knows he will be a photographer in the afterlife too. I wanted to come back the day after too, but it was a bank holiday and everywhere was closed...

The Velvet Underground exhibition at the Philharmonie de Paris, a very different proposition, but equally enjoyable. Linked in to other exhibitions over the weekend - Ginsberg talked about drugs, Nan Goldin had photographs there. There were a couple of standouts there, the overwhelming stream of video and sound that confront you at the entrance and lying on the floor, watching video projected on the ceiling whilst listening to tracks from the “banana” album (The Velvet Underground and Nico)... Lots of other photos, info and music too...

Greatly influential in certain circles, and very enjoyable - and it will form a part of my next project.

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