I Like Everything: Nobuyoshi Araki

Abraham Cruzvillegas and Bree Zucker flew to Tokyo to meet Nobuyoshi Araki on the occasion of the Japanese photographer’s participation in the projects Sonora 128 and Cantina Ardalio organized by kurimanzutto earlier this autumn.


by Abraham Cruzvillegas & Bree Zucker


NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: I didn’t know it was an interview. Do you really have anything to ask?  

BREE ZUCKER: Of course I have questions to ask.

NA: People tend to ask me the same question and that puts me in a bad mood bit by bit. It makes my teeth hurt! They come as if I’d never had an interview before, so the questions overlap. Just so you know, I tend to lie a lot because of that.

BZ: Today we’ll try not to bore you, I promise.

NA: No, there’s always overlaps.

BZ: But you have not shown in Mexico before, right?

NA: It’s “Japan only” for me, I’m a nationalist! I’m going to make a wall and not let anyone in.

BZ: I always thought that photography was like dancing.

NA: There’s that element too.

BZ: Good to know you waltz.

Interpreter: He said he’s going to build “walls.”

BZ: Ah, he’s going to build walls! Not waltzing. Well, in Mexico we’re doing the same thing.

NA: Yes, that guy, the one who wants to make a wall and not let immigrants in, what’s his name? I’m referring to him.

BZ: Trump?

NA: Yes, I was talking about Trump, you’re a bit slow if you didn’t get that. I’m the Japanese Trump! I’m a joker! Joker has a tooth ache today…

BZ: So, this gallery we’re doing, Sonora 128, is a wall in the sky.

ELISA UEMATSU [from Taka Ishii, Araki’s gallery in Tokyo]: It’s a public art billboard, and you will be showing Paradise.

NA: It’s just a billboard right? But no one told me it’s going to be Paradise. I already have plans to show Paradise in Europe.

EU: But you shot Paradise after the disaster and…

NA: Yes, it’s paradise now!

EU: You said you wanted to use that for the billboard.

NA: I don’t want to do that. I want to look at the place, and then think about what would go well there and then take a photograph. I won’t do it any other way. I won’t even go! Showing a photograph that already exists somewhere public, that’s something I already did somewhere in the countryside. Was it Shikoku? On trains and stuff. In any case, that’s already been done. For me to do something similar would be using something of the past. That’s no good. I want it to be a new work.

BZ: So would we.

NA: Right? I don’t want to use past works just because they might fit well. It has to be a new work.

BZ: That would be nice. We would be very excited for something new. Aroused.

ABRAHAM CRUZVILLEGAS: I was just speaking recently with Bree about this beautiful book you made cancelling your images with a permanent marker, and then you print them. It’s half black. It’s very nice the way you keep experimenting and making new things all the time. That’s your spirit that I respect.

NA: Yes, that’s the way to go. If you like experimental things I’ll give you this, it’s entitled Kekkai. It’s about the border between life and death.

BZ: Like eros and thanatos.

NA: I guess so.

AC: It’s more eros than thanatos.

NA: I’m a photo-magician!

AC: That’s very sexy.

NA: You like it, don’t you?

AC: So beautiful. I can play this with my children.

NA: No you can’t, they’re Arakiri.

AC: I can wait for them to grow a bit.

NA: Hmm, I’m not so sure about that.

AC: They would like it. I think it’s like a deck of cards.

NA: I just thought you could put these at the counter in the bar. The customers would be able to look at them or even steal them. I want to show them like that.

AC: Oh yes, we can do that. This is the book with your cancelled images, here are some images of my daughter you took last time we came to Tokyo. I feel a little bit older now than in this photo you took of me. And there’s another one of my daughter with a hoodie. It was very nice. This is beautiful. Anyway, I brought this little book for you, along with some other gifts. Maybe you know her [points to book]. She’s an important photographer from Mexico, her name is Graciela Iturbide.

NA: Yes, I have seen this recently.

AC: And she has some images of women with iguanas.

NA: She’s very classic in her approach.

AC: She’s been working for a while and she was an assistant to Manuel Álvarez Bravo, but that was a long time ago. She’s still good… She’s the mother of friends of mine, so I know her for almost thirty years now.

NA: Yes, you still have such proper classic photographers.

AC: I have many things for you. So take your time. Elisa told me that you like Frida Kahlo. This book has only images of her; many portraits of Frida Kahlo by different photographers. This is from a show a friend of mine organized with all portraits taken of Frida Kahlo..

NA: I like monochrome, but I’d have preferred shooting in color.

AC: There are some color photographs too, I think. Anyway, this is another photographer, Armando Salas Portugal. This is a guy not many people know about. He’s more of a landscape photographer. He took lots of images of the landscape near the area where I was born in Mexico. It’s an area of volcanic rock. This is a book about the volcano.

NA: I’m going to the dentist after this, so I’ll take a look at them there.

AC: I can go with you. We can go together. I have a problem with a back tooth too. You can take me also.

NA: 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. That applies to volcanos too.

AC: I also find it very sexy in different ways.

NA: It’s not “nature” just in the sense of plants and trees, but it has a history, it has many layers in terms of what is not human. So artists struggle to move forward; 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.

AC: I have to say though that we also have very horrible things to see in Mexico. The landscape and nature are beautiful, but our society is a bit rotten. Mostly because of corruption, poverty, and unfair distribution of wealth. These also transform the landscape.

NA: Yes, the environment is dense.

AC: It’s the nature of human, and human with nature. We go both ways sometimes.

NA: It may be 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 photographs. You can’t find photos like these in Tokyo.

AC: But this is because of different weather and species. Mexico is in the north of the continent and we have very cold areas, deserts, but also jungles.

NA: That’s good, I can spend a nice summer there.

AC: Let’s go.

NA: I mean in the 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 the photographs.

AC: That’s nice… I have a very stupid thing for you. It’s a gift. It’s a silly thing but I hope you like it. It’s from a company called Ay Güey. “Ay Güey is an expression we use in Mexico to say something like “oh my god!” They sell silly objects, and this is a silver craft. It’s a jaguar warrior. I hope you like it. Does it fit in your finger?

NA: I might wear it when I take photographs. You’re giving me so many things.

AC: I don’t know if this fits you [reaching into a bag] but…

NA: That’s enough!

AC: This is something I wear a lot in Mexico, it’s called a guayabera. They say originally they used it to jump onto guava trees to pick guavas. It has four pockets so they could pick a lot of guavas and put them in the pockets. Guava is called guayaba, so the tree is guayabo. Guayabo also means having sex. To “jump onto the guava tree” means you’re having sex.

NA: I don’t have any lust these days.

AC: I hope it’s enough for you. I don’t have any more gifts.

NA: Oh, I see a Kinokuniya bag [an upscale super market chain]. You’re eating well.

AC: It’s one of my favorite places on earth. Last time I bought some traditional tools for carving wood, and blades and knives. But also silly stickers for my daughter’s room. They have beautiful toys. Traditional, hand-made craft toys.

Interpreter: I think he means Tokyu Hands.

NA: Everyone says they like Tokyu Hands.

AC: You are right, the place is called Tokyu Hands, not Kinokuniya… It’s nice. I can spend all day long there. The only thing that they don’t have is good food, so after that I go to Kinokuniya. Anyway, so your tooth is bad?

NA: Can you see this side is a bit swollen?

AC: A little bit . . . Can I take a picture of you? Do you mind? So you can see if it’s swollen.

NA: 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. [Araki opens one of his books to show to Abraham.] This is a balcony. It was very close to where I used to live, in Gotokuji, but the house was torn down and I moved to Umegaoka with my animals. It was paradise. This is my previous house. It’s the first house I lived in after I got married. This is my honeymoon trip. It starts with an empty house, and when we’re moving out . . . I took this when she was in critical conditions. This is the place where we spent a lot of time. And this is Chiro, my cat. I used to take photographs with Chiro but she died. My wife’s death, and then Chiro passed too. This is when she died. I used the same composition. These are early works.

AC: I think I know some of these.

NA: 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.

AC: One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about your work and in philosophy, is related to the idea that something never dies. I mean we experience death but we stay in different forms forever. I’m not talking about reincarnation, but more about animism. I’d like to hear your thoughts about animism.

NA: 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 for longer. Perhaps they capture a soul, I don’t know. But in my case, I’m photography and I’m photo-Buddha, so I don’t really think about it or study it. 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. Having seen you today, for example. Not that I met Lady Gaga the other day, but it’s about today, it’s about the things that are closest to me that I can touch. 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.

AC: Hearing this leads me to another question, which is about who we are and what we know about ourselves. That always leads me to think about what I come from. By this I mean not history, but my genealogy. It means more than where I come from or who I came from. I’d ask you, who or what or where is your genealogy?

NA: What are you talking about? I came from the womb. From between the legs.

AC: It’s a beautiful thing because that’s evident for all of us. But I’m talking more about language. The language we speak. You speak with the language of the image, and you talk about the “now” of the image that survives you and me and all of us. That has its own genealogy that is not necessarily your mother.

NA: Maybe, but I don’t have a deep intent to leave a trace of having lived through these times, or anything like that. When it’s over it’s over, even when you might be famous. The only issue is money.

AC: So honest! Some would say cynical but I’d say honest.

NA: But hey, no, it’s not just about the money.

AC: Neither for me. You mentioned briefly earlier that for you shooting a picture is learning. I still believe that the real work of an artist is learning. What do you think about this process? Instead of teaching, it’s learning.

NA: 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! [Takes a photograph] You don’t mind right? Can you move a bit to this side? Yes. Good! I just felt an earthquake. It must be the big one everyone’s talking about! I don’t remember when, but you’ve taken a photo of me right? See, it’s swollen. [Touches cheek] I don’t know why. I went to the dentist yesterday. I must go and complain. He might make it worse though if I do.  

AC: Are you in pain? Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

NA: Yes, I want to be here for a bit more. [A word play: the words for “it hurts” = itai, sounds the same as “I want to be here” = itai]

AC: In a way you like pain.

NA: I like everything.

AC: Okay, that’s good. I asked this because of the images. There’s some pain there, through an aesthetic and a special eye.

NA: More than pain, I’d say it’s heartache. To use another play on words, photography is not about the truth [shinjitsu, 真実] but about what’s compelling [setsujitsu, 切実]. It’s written as cutting [切] the truth [真実].

AC: Well, I don’t know, when I think of something painful, it is usually something that I learnt from. So it’s not an experience we just cancel, but one that enriches life. I’ve been trying to think about how not to disdain pain as part of life, and how to accept it as part of pleasure as well, as learning.

NA: 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.

AC: I think it’s something that I like about your work, and respect very much. Many artists talk about ideas and concepts and history and transcendence, but you speak about emotion, and this is something I love.

NA: Everyone talks about arty stuff but that’s misguided. You have to be a bit naughty in life and make mistakes; you wouldn’t be able to capture it properly otherwise. It’s all about that. In art, people tend to put importance on doing something a little different to express themselves. 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. My legs are beginning to fail me. Maybe I should ride a donkey or something. 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!

AC: Yes, you have to do it. Please don’t stop, use all your talents, ride a donkey!… You know, this project we want to do in Mexico City using some of your images, in a bar, which is maybe my favorite bar in Mexico City. It’s in my neighborhood. It’s an exhibition of your images. It’s a very low budget place for working class people. It’s kind of dirty, not as nice as this one where we are now. It’s for guards and construction workers, or bureaucrats. What I wanted to tell you is that in that bar there’s a group of musicians playing every day. They play and they sing very badly, and they only sing songs about sadness. About love and abandonment. This is a band I love very much and the name of the band is Los Insoportables. They sing traditional Mexican songs like Corridos, Boleros, Trova Yucateca, or Son Huasteco. These are all traditional rhythms, about love and death and so on. But I particularly like the name of the band, “The Unbearables.” I was thinking that you would like them but, on this topic, I’d like to ask what kind of music you listen to.

NA: If there’s a beautiful woman next to me, I don’t care what kind of music it is…

BZ: Just the sound of her voice, right?

NA: Yes, I’d feel the sound from her body. Sound is better down there than in the upper body.

BZ: So we have to fill the room with women!

NA: 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.

AC: That’s very hard to understand. And about not understanding, can I ask, what are you reading these days? What kind of books are you interested in?

NA: Oh, books. I don’t read books. Not that much, anyway. Let’s see, I read weekly magazines in bed because they help me fall asleep quickly.

AC: That’s good, that’s easy. I suffer a lot from sleeping. I can’t sleep easy.

NA: Me too. I wake up every hour.

AC: Me too, more or less. And it’s very hard for me to sleep again. So I have to think a lot. That’s worse.

NA: That’s true. You tend to think when you’re awake. I use sleeping pills, though not in such a strong dosage.

AC: Maybe I have to do that too. I have the problem that I like reading. If I can’t sleep, I read. Many times, as 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.

NA: They’re the best.

AC: That’s the next question. I wanted to ask you, where do you think is the best place for finding shunga here in Tokyo?

NA: 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.  

AC: Okay, because I want to take some with me for my non-sleeping in Mexico.

NA: You’d start doing something else if you look at shunga when you can’t sleep!

AC: I’ll try. Without disturbing someone else.

BZ:  I always wanted to know about the secret, hidden photos you kept just for yourself.

NA: I don’t have any. Photographs are meant to be shown. So I have this instinctive, unconscious urge to show them to people.

AC: I think it’s also nice when you go on experimenting as you do. What is the most experimental thing you have ever done in life?

NA: These days, when I look into the finder, I see paradise [yuen, 遊園]. That’s the state I reached. 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 [sagan, 左岸] right? Mine is about my left eye [sagan, 左眼].

BZ: What are you shooting a lot of these days?

NA: 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 11 [2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake], 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 photo[graphy] is great.

AC: How do people react when you take these pictures?

NA: They would kill me! That’s why it’s been published now, decades after I took the photos.

AC: So these are old.

NA: I took these walking down Ginza Dori. 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.

BZ: That’s interesting. Have you ever felt that to take a good photograph you sometimes need to not look into the camera?

NA: Not really, but that’s interesting. It’s the unconscious of the no-finder [a Japanese neologism referring to the method of taking photographs without looking into the 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 [points to image]. 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.

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.

AC: What about these images?

NA: This is my new rooftop. Roads are life routes, they host all the comings and goings of life. It wouldn’t be good to attain enlightenment; I want to keep on being a layman. But I thought I’d take one photograph of the road where a mikoshi [a portable shrine] passes. It’s a good photograph.

AC: Having this discipline of work 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?

NA: I don’t think about religion. Although people have told me I’m a Buddhist.

BZ: What does your name, and its Buddhist characters, mean?

NA: I’m going to deal with that question in a coming project. You can attach my name to the Heart Sutra [the Heart Sutra is known as hannya shingyo (般若心経) in Japanese, and its last character is the same as the nobu in Araki’s first name Nobuyoshi (経惟)]. But you should ask Jakucho Setouchi [a famous Buddhist nun] 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 [a branch of Buddhism]; they didn’t want to endure not being able to touch women. [Araki here refers to Jodo-shu, but he probably means Jodo Shinshu, another school of Pure Land Buddhism founded by Shinran. Shinran was the first monk to officially be married and have children.]  I guess people like it because they feel like they understand something. It’s just a feeling. The words work like marijuana. It’s strange but, when I have a cavity, it usually gets better when I get a kiss.

AC: Last year I broke my cheekbone because I fell from a ladder. A ladder kissed me here and I broke a bone. So I have to be careful. I still like drinking beer, but I’m more and more careful. When did you stop drinking?

NA: Quite a while ago. It must be ages. But it’s okay because I’m always drunk. This is a mojito but it doesn’t have any alcohol in it. It has no rum. I put love in it instead [another word play: rum (ラム) and love (ラブ) sound similar in Japanese]. It’s like a juice. A mojito without rum.

AC: Did you ever go to Cuba?

NA: I want to go to many places, not just Cuba. But my legs hurt, so it’s all too bothersome. I’m unlucky.

AC: Now it’s an interesting moment to go to Cuba. I’m not attracted so much to the mojito but more to the perception of Cubans about their own change. What will happen? What’s happening with the politics and economy? What do you think is changing in Japan now?

NA: 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.

AC: Well that’s good news, no? Having a woman as an overlord.

NA: All people at the top should be women from now on.

BZ: The future is female.

AC: Absolutely. It’s always been, I think. I love women also. 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.

NA: I might pass on that offer. I don’t know what you’d do to me at night.


Nobuyoshi Araki is a Tokyo-based photographer.

Abraham Cruzvillegas is a Mexican conceptual artist. 

Bree Zucker works on the program of Sonora 128. 

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