When viewing Araki’s vast new series, Tombeau Tokyo, it’s clear that his fertile imagination is squarely focused on the varying stages between life and death (the name itself, Tokyo Tomb in French, gives us clear indication). This monumental corpus is comprised by a vast series of still lifes, but perhaps the French term is more fitting—nature morte, or dead nature in literal translation. In the Oxford English Dictionary, a further extended figurative definition is given for the french term, which sums up the mood precisely: “sickly; lifeless.” While lifeless might be a step too far as Araki’s vitality is present, it’s clearly in a state of decay. Where once Araki worshipped at the altar of Eros—the Greek god of sexual desire—he now appears before Thanatos, the god of death.
Having undergone numerous treatments for cancer, and left without the use of his right eye due to a renal complication (his past series Love on the Left Eye addresses this particular trauma) 76 year old Araki is now left facing his own demise in clear terms. While his diaristic work has directly addressed the themes of mortality numerous times—most recognizably in both Sentimental Journey and Winter’s Journey, which detailed the life and death of both his wife Yoko and their beloved cat Chiro respectively—Araki now grapples with his own decline in a far more symbolistic manner.
With a large percentage of the work focussing on floral compositions with various objects arranged within—sex toys and dolls, mainly—the allusions with symbolism are clear. Viewed alongside the historical context of Vanitas paintings and even fecund historic Dutch flower still life paintings, Araki’s photographs here bear resemblance, but differ in that these blooms are no longer at their lush best, but in faded fetid form. Within this withering foliage lie toy monsters—serpents set to corrupt this garden of earthly delights. Amongst the settings of some of these images, Araki has placed images of his colonoscopy examinations, so as to propose that this wellspring of darkness may perhaps come from within.
Art historical parallels can also be drawn to surrealists such as Max Ernst and his retinue of fantastic beasts. Here, toy reptiles hover over wilting bouquets menacingly. While Araki’s playfulness is present, darkness encroaches. Dismembered dolls recall Goya’s Disasters of War, and miniature Japanese bondage figurines remind us of pornographic Hentai Manga—cartoons depicting alien creatures violating human fantasy. Araki, as attuned to this, seems to be suggesting that the sky is falling and the apocalypse is nigh.
In addition to this landmark work are a series of color photographs, Photo-Mad Old Man A 76th Birthday, of KaoRi—a noted dancer in her native Japan. Having collaborated since 2002, Araki has photographed his muse annually on her birthday, and to celebrate his own 76th birthday, shot the series using 6 x 7 positive film.