Few artists have made a bigger impact on the world of photography and visual arts than Nobuyoshi Araki. The Japanese artist has been active for over 50 years and has published hundred of books. His photographs always challenge the norms of society and his images often tell a much greater story that what appears on the surface. When we first saw the announcement for the new exhibition "Impossible Love - Vintage Photographs” at C/O Berlin, we were immediately intrigued. Casual and die hard fans alike are no doubt familiar with Araki’s colorful and boundary pushing representations of Tokyo nightlife, BDSM and sexuality. However, few might have seen his earlier work from the 1960’s which now acts as a time capsule of imperial Japanese society.
I wanted to know more about the exhibition and I was fortunate enough to meet with Chief Curator, Felix Hoffmann. He walked me through the gallery space for a great talk and provided some insight into the photographs, books and more.
The first space includes photographs from a series called “Theater of Love”. These images go back as far as 1965 and Hoffmann explains these are some of Araki’s earliest works and he acts as more of a street photographer, documenting the scenes of Japan’s imperial society of the time. These are fascinating and you can quickly see how different life was back then. While they clearly depict everyday life, you can also see Araki’s interest in sexuality and love. His soon-to-be wife also appears in select images and Hoffmann further notes how these were taken before the “free love” movement of the time period making them truly innovative.
Next we move to the second gallery space which includes the series “Yoko, My Love”, “Sentimental Journey”, “The Days We Were Happy” and “Winter Journey” . Together, these act as a circle of life. Araki documents his honeymoon trip and the photos capture tender and intimate moments with his wife and their travels through Japan. Hoffmann and I discuss how incredible some of these are as Araki takes the time to capture essentially once in a lifetime moments during his honeymoon. As you move around the room, you are taken through their life together through the 1970’s and ultimately end at her death in the 1990’s. In true Araki fashion, he beautifully captures some of the couple’s last moments together and the final series depicts Yoko’s illness and ultimate passing. I was nearly brought to tears by some of these photographs.
The next room contains fascinating diptych polaroids. Each one has a typical working class or white collar scene from the Tokyo streets while being paired with more private, often sexual photos from the confines of a home. I couldn’t help but be reminded how universal Araki’s work is - highlighting the fact that society is much more than what is on the surface. Hoffmann and I discuss how the conservative, business class by day often becomes something more perverse and taboo at night.
The final area showcases newer works from Araki which includes a recent series titled “Flower/Doll”, which are larger scale photographs of delicate Japanese dolls paired with beautiful flowers. There are also several polaroid collages which you can easily get lost in. Once again we see Araki deconstructing and reconstructing polaroids, perfectly lining up florals with femininity and beyond. We also see some more “classic” Araki with shibari images and other forms of erotica. There is also a group of what appears to be images of medical gloves. Hoffmann notes these were taken after the artist’s cancer treatments and I quickly become a bit melancholy discovering he is seriously ill.
Just behind the polaroid walls are glass cases filled with rare Araki books. Hoffmann talks about how the artist has published hundreds of books throughout the years and C/O Berlin has been lucky enough to have some of the rarest ones in existence. So rare in fact that they cannot be opened and inside the glass there are video screens were you can watch and see what lies behind the covers.
The final piece of the exhibition is entitled “Sky/Wind”, which depicts just that, re-constructed images of the sky. Hoffmann explains how appropriate these are for Berlin specifically - pointing out that no matter how divided a country or place may be, we all live under the same sky and that itself cannot be divided. It is the perfect way to end the exhibition and drives me further into contemplation.
What makes Impossible Love so unique is that the exhibition contains some of Araki’s earliest and most recent works. This makes for a rare and powerful experience, journeying through decades of the icon’s output. From street photography, intimate moments, polaroids, books and more this is an astonishing exhibition put together by Hoffmann and C/O Berlin. It is also worth noting that the themes here also tie in nicely to C/O Berlin’s other current exhibition, The Last Image: Photography and Death. We would like to thank Mr. Hoffmann and C/O Berlin and Impossible Love is on view now through March 3, 2019. For more information, visit: https://www.co-berlin.org/