Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Hiroshima Bound: Placing Yoshiki Araki's Errant Art in an Atomic Era

Detail from Yoshiki Araki, Mother & Son (1985), oil and straw on canvas, photo by Bob Lee, edited by Jeremiah Kim

errant (adjective | er·rant): 1. erring or straying from the proper course or standards 2. traveling in search of something

“When the bomb fell in Hiroshima his grandfather was there. The next day his mother, then a young girl, went into what was left of the city to search through the devastation for him.

She never found him.”

Five years after the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb above a half-asleep port city on the southwestern tip of Japan’s main island, Yoshiki Araki was born in Hiroshima.

An itinerant artist who traversed multiple disciplines and continents, Araki spent the 50-year sum of his life searching for those elusive figures and landscapes whose sight and memory had been blotted out of existence on the morning of August 6, 1945, in the city of his childhood and early youth.

Starting his journey in the fishing village of Hokkaido as a young student of traditional Japanese watercolor techniques, Araki soon migrated to New York City at the age of 24, where he expanded his repertoire with the Art Students League. Throwing himself into creative profusion of New York’s vibrant communities and neighborhoods, he joined the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble and traveled with them to perform in Hiroshima in the mid-1980s.

Upon returning to Hiroshima 40 years after the bomb dropped, Araki no doubt witnessed the enduring devastation wrought by the sheer leveling force of the initial explosion and the horrific intergenerational effects of radiation poisoning. Coinciding with his homecoming, Araki’s art began to reflect an uncanny sensitivity to the bomb’s ghastly after-life as it haunted the city and his own psyche. Thematically, Araki assembled scenes that unmistakably expressed sensations and situations of alienation, disfigurement, flesh, death, war and torment—all visceral registers of experience billowing out of Araki’s status as a marked child of Hiroshima. At the same time, his practice developed towards multi-paneled oil paintings incorporating heterodox elements like wax, tar, tree branches, straw, bones, and cage wire. Assuming a Neo-expressionist style, Araki laid his brush thick and heavy on the canvas to produce streaks of irradiated color that imbued his figures and landscapes with a raw, burning energy.

Yoshiki Araki, Adam and Eve (1986), oil and straw on canvas, photo by Bob Lee

Into the 1990s, Araki continued to push the envelope of his experimentation with different mediums and deviant subject matter. Fragments of photographs began to enter his assemblages—most commonly he spliced disembodied nudes together, creating impossibly tangled figures held together by unbearably taut contortions of skin and sinew. This unfolding collision of haunted memory and erotic imagination was cut short, however, by tragedy: eking out a precarious existence as a relatively unknown artist in New York City’s unforgiving concrete climate, Araki was driven to the point of hospitalization under the pressure of repeated landlord harassment and shortly died from health complications in 2000.

Yoshiki Araki, Untitled (1996), mixed media, photo by Bob Lee

In 2006, six years after his death, the Asian American Arts Centre exhibited a career-spanning selection of Araki’s artworks in a solo exhibition titled Yoshiki Araki: Hiroshima Born. The opening passage describing the direct proximity of Araki’s family to Little Boy’s blast radius is an excerpt from the four-page postcard used to promote the exhibition and its panel discussion.

Araki’s posthumous solo exhibition at AAAC presented 35 works spanning his artistic output from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. In a 2007 review of the exhibition published in the magazine Art in America, art critic Elisa Decker grouped the curated selection into “three distinct bodies of work”: eight large-scale oil and mixed media paintings (1985-88), seven smaller panels combining painting with found objects (late 1980s-early 1990s), and 20 surrealist photo-collage paintings (1996-99).

In her review of Hiroshima Born, Decker devotes lengthy, detailed paragraphs to the exhibition’s standout pieces. In Araki’s 1985 painting Mother & Son, Decker finds “four figures set in a stormy landscape [who] have a story to tell,” and declares the work to be “one of Araki’s most powerful paintings.” Though her analysis goes deep—a hovering male nude with a diagonal patch of straw for a head in Mother & Son might be “a reference to T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men,’” she speculates—conspicuously absent from Decker’s reading of the exhibition is any acknowledgment of the most basic, foundational element driving Araki’s art: the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

Yoshiki Araki, Mother & Son (1985), oil and straw on canvas, photo by Bob Lee

As evidenced by the Art Centre’s postcard, the bomb and its aftermath were central themes to be confronted in both the art exhibition and panel (titled Hiroshima Legacy: The Art of Yoshiki Araki, the panel featured a collection of socially conscious artists and anti-war activists, along with a video on Hiroshima bomb survivors known in Japan as hibakusha). Writes AAAC Director Bob Lee in the postcard, introducing audiences to the significance of Araki’s work:

“We have been taught to tolerate violence, to look past its pain… The consequences of military action [are] ‘good’, the collateral damage to people is to be ‘tolerated’, at least until it can be put aside and forgotten… So many realities are not faced because of this kind of skillful practice. The bomb is one of these.

Araki chose a different path. His art and his life hold a logic contrary to so much of what is current and acceptable… Araki has made the undisclosed underbelly of society into an art transparent. He exposes social convention to its own undoing.”

Powerful as they might be when viewed from the formalist perspective of an educated critic like Elisa Decker, artworks like Mother & Son and Physical Memory gain a much deeper meaning when perceived through the prism of their creator’s mind-and-flesh experience as a victim of atomic warfare. The anguish writ plain on the faces of the two dominant figures in Mother & Son registers with an emotional clarity that is only enhanced by our awareness of Araki’s own dislocated family lineage. Likewise, the stomach-turning dread that arises from our apprehension of Physical Memory strikes us with an ever more piercing edge when we place its vulnerable figure, frozen mid-fall, alongside a mental silhouette of the Little Boy bomb making its silent, downward plunge towards Hiroshima.

Yoshiki Araki, Physical Memory (Hiroshima) (date unknown), oil and wood on canvas, photo by Bob Lee

We can ascribe a dual quality of errancy to Araki’s art: On one hand, his unsubdued eroticism and pained expressionism arrive as an affront to our euphemized sensibilities. On the other, his unerring orbit around and through Hiroshima points our hearts toward a more real plane where no trick of the light can obscure the toxic “scene of the crime”, or prevent us from gazing straight at our transgressions, face-to-face.

For we know that there are many kinds of violence, and many faces to war. As Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton once wrote, “The system, in fact, destroys us through neglect much more often than by the police revolver. The gun is only the coup de grâce, the enforcer. To wipe out the conditions leading up to the coup de grâce, that [is] our goal.” If the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a final death blow (and a patently unjustifiable one at that), they were also, paradoxically, the opening volley in a more massive assault that has persisted well into the new millennium. In this nuclear era, we must consider the afflicted zones encircling and outlasting the first blast crater as embattled fronts in a totalizing war that is being waged by the ruling classes of our own country.

Suffice to say that, surveying the tremendous distance between the kind of nuanced analysis developed by revolutionary thinkers like Newton versus our society’s pervading lack of awareness about its own endemic violences at-present, there are a number of harsh realities which remain to be confronted at the level of this country’s national consciousness. Most of us have not confronted, for instance, the reality that the United States has 6,800 nuclear warheads; or the reality that the United States maintains 800 military bases in 80 countries; or the reality that the United States military is the biggest polluter in the world; or the reality that the United States has sponsored fascists, drug lords, and terrorists in 35 countries, and executed at least 81 attempted regime changes since World War II.

In its quest for ruthless expansion, the United States has exported its conflicts abroad via limited proxy wars that fit right in between breaking news of Kanye West’s latest freakout and corporatized #Resistance ad campaigns on our social media feeds. The American system of indirect control over the resources and labor of less powerful nations has been implemented, more often than not, by shameless methods of war and debilitation—but we remain blissfully uninformed about the price of our domestic development, believing we live in a civil, free, and equal society.

We have yet to confront the reality that, at this moment, there are 18 wars taking place around the world, all of which bear the prolific mark of American empire in some shape or fashion. That Yemen is currently embroiled in a civil war because of U.S. intervention is an indisputable fact. That the U.S. government bankrolled a $1 billion CIA program to exacerbate the Syrian Civil War is another indisputable fact. That any one of the present or future U.S.-backed “foreign” conflicts could spill out into a world-engulfing nuclear war with mutual destruction guaranteed for all humankind is the reality we live in, whether we want to face it or not.

We have not confronted, lastly, the reality that Yoshiki Araki was one of millions to have been killed in the global war between people and private, profitable property—and this, only five decades after being born to a city destroyed under those disastrous pretenses of civilization, freedom, and equality.

To elide the troubling vision of artists like Yoshiki Araki is to ratify our society’s moral degradation and the inevitability of our collective ruin. To err on the side of the confrontation, however—to probe fearlessly, as Araki did, into the anatomy of America’s unspoken conventions—is to join the rest of humanity in its ongoing struggle towards building a new paradigm of peace that will last for generations to come.

– Written by Jeremiah Kim, AAAC Summer 2018 Intern


Disclaimer: “AAAC wants to give its interns the opportunity to express themselves. However, in doing so at times views are expressed that are very explicit and may be frowned upon coming from a community nfp organization. AAAC would like to make an exception in this case and not attach here any sort of disclaimer, remaining sensitive to any comments and feedback from those who chose to comment or disagree.  

The kind of humanity that permitted/acquiesced or stood by silently when the bomb was dropped, this kind of humanity I believe, is what Yoshiki Araki sought to make us aware. Moral and ethical limits that have yet to be discussed on a wide if not global scale, towards the day when such can be realized and adopted, this has yet to happen. May this article elevate our awareness of what peace may bring.”
– R. Lee for AAAC
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