Nobuyoshi Araki's secret garden

Not everything in the garden is lovely. In fact, under the lens of the Japanese photographer Araki, most of it becomes downright pornographic, as his lubricious flower close-ups reveal a sinister kinship between beauty, sex and decay. By Boyd Tonkin
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ome literary joker once suggested that the best translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal would be "The Phlox of Pox". Gazing into the luridly tinted folds and clefts of Nobuyoshi Araki's botanical porn, we can see that Floral Decadence still flourishes (or rather, festers). Of course, Araki is far from the first photographer to treat blooms in close-up not as dainty decorations but sinister symbols of the kinship between beauty, desire and decay. Since the West Midlands police take such a close interest in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, someone should alert them to the maestro's X-rated flower studies. His lilies are positively obscene.

Araki, a photographer-superstar in his native Japan, has published 130 books since 1971. He first became known in the west for alleged obscenity of a less metaphorical kind. His photo-notebooks of the sex industry in the Tokyo red-light district of Shinjuku travelled fast, in the way that Oriental erotica always does. After all, plenty of Western viewers (voyeurs?) know the shunga woodcuts of the Edo period, with their improbably engorged genitalia, but not the many other genres that might occupy an artist of the floating world.

Araki's forays into louche night life (often accompanied by an admiring gang of fans and friends) form part of a massive project of self-documentation. He leaves no waking moment unobserved. Often shooting 80 rolls of film in two days, the photographer trawls through his beloved Tokyo (which he seldom leaves) to compose a rolling self-portrait that also chronicles the bizarre pile-ups of signs and symbols that typify the world's most unreadable city. For Araki, no space - physical or emotional - is ever off limits. His carefully staged, fetishistic scenes of bondage draw on Japanese tradition but still provoke Mapplethorpe-style controversies. And in 1991, the year that his wife Yoko died, his book Sentimental Journey/ Winter Journey recounted their 10-year marriage from the honeymoon to her final illness. Afterwards, he told an interviewer that "every time I pressed the shutter release it brought me near death again, because when we photograph, we stop time. Listen carefully, and I'll tell you something: taking photographs is murder."

To freeze life - even life as floridly abundant as these images contain - brings the artist into the shadow of death. Still-life art is always haunted by the certainty of disintegration. Western fruit-and-flower painting often underlines the point with a discreetly placed slug or caterpillar, or the odd curling leaf at the edge of the bowl.

Araki's blooms belong firmly to the hothouse rather than the cottage garden, but their strident ripeness presages decay as well as fertility. Those pollen-frosted innards may lure in passing insects with their come- and-get-me wiles, like some Shinjuku hostess. Yet the acts of propagation they invite must end (we know) in some wilting, shrivelling anti-climax. These orgasmic full blooms may be gone in a trice: a message from the East that the West also shares. "Everything that grows," writes Shakespeare in the Sonnets, which brood obsessively on the same idea, "holds in perfection but a little moment". Araki's camera captures that moment, but, simultaneously, summons up its loss

The exhibition 'Flowers and Portraits' by Nobuyoshi Araki takes place in the Print Sales Room at the Photographers' Gallery, London WC2, from 24 March to 22 May. Araki's book 'Fucking Flowers' is available from the Photographers' Gallery Bookshop, price pounds 105.

or emotional - is ever off limits. His carefully staged, fetishistic scenes of bondage draw on Japanese tradition but still provoke Mapplethorpe- style controversies. And in 1991, the year that his wife Yoko died, his book Sentimental Journey/ Winter Journey recounted their 10-year marriage from the honeymoon to her final illness. Afterwards, he told an interviewer that "every time I pressed the shutter release it brought me near death again, because when we photograph, we stop time. Listen carefully, and I'll tell you something: taking photographs is murder."

To freeze life - even life as floridly abundant as these images contain - brings the artist into the shadow of death. Still-life art is always haunted by the certainty of disintegration. Western fruit-and-flower painting often underlines the point with a discreetly placed slug or caterpillar, or the odd curling leaf at the edge of the bowl.

Araki's blooms belong firmly to the hothouse rather than the cottage garden, but their strident ripeness presages decay as well as fertility. Those pollen-frosted innards may lure in passing insects with their come- and-get-me wiles, like some Shinjuku hostess. Yet the acts of propagation they invite must end (we know) in some wilting, shrivelling anti-climax. These orgasmic full blooms may be gone in a trice: a message from the East that the West also shares. "Everything that grows," writes Shakespeare in the Sonnets, which brood obsessively on the same idea, "holds in perfection but a little moment". Araki's camera captures that moment, but, simultaneously, summons up its loss

The exhibition 'Flowers and Portraits' by Nobuyoshi Araki takes place in the Print Sales Room at the Photographers' Gallery, London WC2, from 24 March to 22 May. Araki's book 'Fucking Flowers' is available from the Photographers' Gallery Bookshop, price pounds 105.

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