The aim of this essay is to suggest a way to see and discuss a body of Araki Nobuyoshi's later photographic work that centers on images of bound and naked women. Araki has prolifically exhibited and published provocative photographs for over thirty years in Japan and for some years in the West. While it seems difficult to differentiate his images from crude exploitation and general degradation of women, his photographs attract many female fans. I argue that we are invited and directed to see his photographs in ways that “engender” the viewer. I focus on the “Araki industry,” which has made orchestrated efforts to produce hundreds of publications and a self-promoting discourse. I also examine how a personal cult is promoted through the sale of these images, and the indispensable role this self-promoting discourse plays in sustaining this industry, while more challenging and serious critiques are downplayed and sometimes do not make their way into print.
Araki's recent exhibitions were enthusiastically received in the West. A series of photographs of bound naked women in kimonos dazzles Western eyes. I proceed to analyze orientalist contradictions based on the Western reviewers' double standard. To discuss sexual images such as Araki's work in a dualist perspective, Japan versus the West, only leads to exoticization of the cultural other. But their orientalist bias does not interrupt the photographer's project. Instead, any kind of Western attention is welcomed as proof of the photographer's success in the West.
Araki's work has been reviewed not only as sexually excessive but also as desolately asexual. Araki's photographs are open to both readings, while other readings are not encouraged. In fact sexual excess and sexual desolation, as defined from a male point of view and supported by big sale, are not very different from each other for women.
There is a magnetic field around Araki's work, where smooth and profitable distribution on the art market is powerfully promoted. Any interference with this process is driven back, and any supportive element, including orientalist fantasy, is appropriated. The photographs for exhibition and publication are carefully selected.
If our sexuality is formulated through exposure to sexual images, analyzing photographic work such as Araki's requires that we focus on the whole process from production to distribution and consumption.