Purple Art

[December 23 2016]

An exclusive interview with legendary Japanese photographer and contemporary artist Nobuyoshi Araki

NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I didn’t know it was an interview. People ask me the same questions all the time, so I tend to lie a lot because of that.

BREE ZUCKER — We´ll try not to bore you. Besides, your billboard for Sonora 128 earlier this year is the first time you showed your work in Mexico, right?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I’m a nationalist! It’s “Japan only” for me, I’m going to make a wall and not let anyone in. I’m the Japanese Trump! I’m a joker! Only Joker has a tooth ache today, so I’m going to the dentist after. I don’t know much about Mexico, but I have the impression that it has many stories, many layers, in its land. You could call it history. It’s not “nature” just in the sense of plants and trees, but layers in terms of what is not human. Artists there struggle to move forward but they can’t. The surroundings are too good and awe-inspiring. God already resides in nature, so you can’t do new stupid things. That results in proper photographs like these (Araki points to photography books by Graciela Iturbide, and Armando Salas Portugal, which are lying open on the table).

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Well, we also have very horrible things to see in Mexico. The landscape and nature is beautiful, but the society is a bit rotten. Mostly because of corruption, poverty, and unfair distribution of wealth, which also transforms the landscape.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Yes, the environment is dense. It may be the people, the sky, or the sea; regardless of the subject the style tends to be that you get down on your knees to take photographs. That’s why you get such classic, decent images. You can’t find photos like these in Tokyo. I could spend a nice summer in these photographs. Photographs are more familiar to me than nature. Nature doesn’t become true until you take a photograph of it. I’ll travel within these photographs.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Does your tooth still hurt? Should I take a picture of you, so you can see if it’s swollen? 
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Oh, I look healthy, full of energy! Just kidding. Everyday life becomes a lie too, when you turn it into a photograph. In Japan you start thinking in such narrow ways. But when you’re faced with such a vast wilderness, you take large landscape photographs. It’s the environment that determines it. And I include women in the environment. The “environment” that’s close to you are women, and the “environment” that’s far away is the sky. If I were to do a billboard in Mexico, I might take a photograph of a crocodile. Then it’d look like a crocodile is floating in the sky. You have to start thinking based on the place, you can’t start with photos that already exist.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — I’ve been thinking about how things never die. We experience death but we stay in different forms forever. What are your thoughts on animism?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I’ve never really thought about that, but it’s because I’m God, I’m photography, I’m Buddha. I’m photo-Buddha! But jokes aside, speaking of photography, when a photograph is printed on paper, the paper can perish, but photography can live longer. Perhaps it captures a soul. But since in my case, I’m photography and a photo-Buddha, I don’t think about it or study it. Instead, I get close to it by pressing on the shutter; I get close to the ultimate point of truth, or of lies. It’s not about what I shoot; it’s about the everyday. It’s about pressing the shutter. What’s important is always right next to us. Meeting you today, for example. These are the real “incidents” in one’s own life. And photographs are just the documentation of them. That’s why I keep taking photographs. They also help my hair grow.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — This leads me to another question, who, what or where, is your genealogy?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: What do you mean? I came from the womb, from between the legs.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — That’s a beautiful, self-evident thing. But I mean the genealogy of your language. You speak with the language of the image, and you talk about the “now” of the image that survives us all. That has its own genealogy, which is not necessarily your mother.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Maybe, but I don’t have the deep intent to leave a trace of having lived through these times. When it’s over, it’s over, even when you are famous. The only issue is money.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — You mentioned earlier that shooting is like learning. What do you think about this process?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Learning seems too big a word, but I do feel photography teaches me things. Today my tooth hurts, so the photos I’ll take will be nice and blurry!  You don’t mind right? (Araki takes a photograph) Can you move a bit to this side? Yes. Good! I just felt an earthquake. I don’t remember when, but you’ve taken a photo of me right? See, it’s still swollen. I went to the dentist yesterday so I must go and complain. He might make it worse though if I do.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Sorry to hear you are in pain.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Yes, but I want to be here a bit more.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — In a way you like pain. There’s pain in your images.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — More than pain, I’d say its heartache. To use another play on words, photography is not about the truth but about what’s compelling. It’s written as cutting the truth.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Well, pain is not an experience to cancel, but one that enriches life. I’ve been thinking about how not to disdain pain, but how to accept it as pleasure and as learning.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — That’s the only way. When all is said and done, life, or rather living, is a heartrending thing. That’s why the title of my first book is “Sentimental Journey”. Even my honeymoon is a sentimental journey.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Many artists talk about ideas, concepts, history, and transcendence, but I love that you speak about emotion.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — It’s misguided to talk about arty stuff. You have to be a bit naughty in life and make mistakes. You wouldn’t be able to capture it properly otherwise. In art, people tend to put importance on doing something a little different to express themselves. For example, going back to your project, my crocodile is going to fly in the sky! A crocodile on a billboard. I have to do something because I get frustrated otherwise. I have too much talent, so I have to make use of it. What I’m worried about is whether I can use up my talents before I die. God gave me too many talents. Time has passed and my legs are beginning to fail me. Maybe I should ride a donkey. Do you know the author Komimasa Tanaka? He once told me that Mexico suits me, particularly going about some highlands on a mule. Not a horse, a mule!

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — We made an exhibition of your images, in my favorite bar in Mexico City, a low budget place in my neighborhood for working class people. There was a group of musicians playing traditional Mexican songs like Corridos, Boleros, Trova Yucateca, or Son Huasteco, about love and death. They sang very badly but I like their name, The Unbearables. I’m curious what kind of music you listen to?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — If there’s a beautiful woman next to me, I don’t care what kind of music it is. I just feel the sound from her body. Sound is better down there than in the upper half.

BREE ZUCKER — So we should fill the room with women!
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — They have to be women that would like me! Would they understand my works? I photograph the sorrow of women. Men don’t understand it.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Speaking about not understanding, what are you reading these days?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I don’t read books that much. I read weekly magazines in bed because they help me fall asleep quickly. Now I wake up every hour, so I use sleeping pills, though not in such a strong dosage.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS —I have the problem that if I can’t sleep, I read. Many times, since I have some Japanese books at home, I believe I can read Japanese. Then I read them and I understand nothing. My favorite ones are shunga books.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI —They’re the best.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — What’s the best place for finding shunga in Tokyo?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — They’re not really sold openly; they still tend to be secretive. We have to make a secret deal, I’ll let you know later.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Okay, because I want to take some with me for my non-sleeping in Mexico.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — You’d start doing something else if you look at shunga!

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS —  I’ll try, without disturbing someone else. By the way, what is the most experimental thing you have ever done? You made a beautiful book, canceling your images with a permanent marker. It’s half black. I like how you keep experimenting and making new things all the time.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — These days, when I look into the finder, I see paradise. I could take anything and make it into a wonderful photograph. Everything is wonderful for me. It’s difficult to explain. I can photograph anything. People use words like “the decisive moment,” but for me every moment is good. As I keep taking photographs though, it becomes too much sometimes, so I sometimes wander into a side street. The way I deviate into a side street shows the way I’m made. For example, earlier you talked about the photographs that are half black in Love on the Left Eye. The reason I made one side black is because I lost sight in one eye. That’s not how I see the world, but I wanted to show it that way. I’m originally a literary man, you see. Also, there’s a book by Ed van der Elsken called “Love on the Left Bank”, and he’s a friend and I like him, so I wanted to dedicate the book to him. So it’s packed with such personal playfulness. It’s difficult. Elsken’s book is about the left bank right? Mine is about my left eye.

BREE ZUCKER — What are you shooting a lot of these days?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — These days I make sure to take photographs of what happens every day. It could be food or anything else. I’m not so well physically, so I mostly stay at home and take photos in my room. I’m playing, basically. This is the newspaper Robert Frank gave me and the sky. I’m taking these kinds of photos these days, I’m being playful. Also, there was a big earthquake on March 11th in 2011, so I’m trying to experience that sense of things crumbling. I tried smashing a lens and taking photographs with it. But there are different ways for experimenting, I used to take proper photos from people in the subway. Who’s that famous guy who used to take photographs in the subway? Walker Evans. He copied me ten years before me! In such scenes of everyday life, in these things that are so close to you, you find almost everything about life. These subway photographs are portraits of their lives. I still think these kinds of photographs are good. I’m old school, you know. So that’s why I think that Mexican photography is great.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — How do people react when you take these pictures?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — They would kill me! That’s why it’s been published now, decades after I took the photos. I’m actually working on a portrait series now. It’s a series of men’s portraits and the idea is to talk with them and include what comes out of the dialogues into the photographs. That’s completely different from taking snaps without the person knowing it. I still can’t decide which is the real portrait photography. And on top of it, this time it’s men I’m shooting.

BREE ZUCKER — Have you ever felt that to take a good photograph you sometimes need to not look into the camera?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Not really, but that’s interesting. It’s the unconscious of the no-finder. In that case, the god of photography takes it for you. This is dated on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I’ll do it again this year. It’s the day Hiroshima became just like this. Photographs are actually quicker to betray you than reality. And this is a series I’m working on now. I talk with the person I’m shooting, set the mood and take the portrait. It’s different from the subway photos where I was shooting people without their knowing, unconsciously. When I face a person, a man, everything shows in his face. The background has to be plain. If you take a photograph in a place like this, that creates a story; it influences the photo. When the background is plain, the man’s past, present, or future is felt depending on the person looking at it. I still can’t decide which method captures what’s true about human beings. But when I take photographs like this, our personal times flow into each other and that feels good. They all tend to die young though. These are men, so I try to capture them gallantly. Nowadays, with women too, I take photographs of faces they want others to see. I don’t take photographs that the other person doesn’t like.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Having this discipline and keeping an eye on everything is also maybe a spiritual discipline, although I wouldn’t call it religious. What do you think about religion?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I don’t think about religion. Although people have told me I’m a Buddhist.

BREE ZUCKER — What does your name, and its Buddhist characters, mean?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I’m going to deal with that question in a coming project. You can attach my name to the Heart Sutra. But you should ask Jakucho Setouchi about the meaning of the characters. In any case, the idea that you can go to the Pure Land just by chanting something that doesn’t make much sense, is complete bogus. That’s why they made something like Jodo-shu; they didn’t want to endure not being able to touch women.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Last year a ladder kissed me when I fell and broke my cheek bone. When did you stop drinking?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Quite a while ago. But it’s okay because I’m always drunk. This is a mojito but it has no rum. I put love in it instead  – rum (ラム) and love (ラブ) sound similar in Japanese – It’s like a juice. A mojito without rum.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — What do you think is changing in Japan now?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any way for Japan to change. Times are hard, actually. You know about that woman who became governor of Tokyo? I took a photograph with her once. I’m smoking a cigar in it, because we used to meet in cigar gatherings. It was around the time she was studying in Cairo or something.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Well that’s good news, no? Having a woman as an overlord.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — All people at the top should be women from now on.
BREE ZUCKER — The future is female.
ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS — Absolutely. It’s always been, I think. I love women. It’s the best happening on earth. Thank you very much. It’s been very nice to see you again. I’d really love to see you in Mexico. You can stay at my place.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I might pass on that offer. I don’t know what you’d do to me at night.

Interview Abraham Cruzvillegas and Bree Zucker and photo Bree Zucker

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