The third hell: consumerism
Another hell described by Genshin is the tāpana. This is the hell of utopia. The damned who live there, surrounded by fire, desperately yearn to find a cool place, and they hear a voice that promises them a lake surrounded by trees where they can rest. Excited by this voice, they run towards the lake, continuously falling into the flames. After much suffering, they arrive at the promised place, but find a huge fire that completely devours them. Then they are reborn and the story is endlessly repeated.
Today`s society of appearance and consumption promises us eternal beauty through cosmetics, fashion, gymnastics, surgery and many other devices and aesthetic operations. In this respect, Japan is the most aesthetic society in the world, and its numerous traditional aesthetic categories are an essential part of its national identity. Consumer capitalism has appropriated this immensely valuable heritage and transformed it into something vulgar and stupid. Only a few people, mostly old and provincial, really know what Makoto, Iki, Wabi-sabi, Yūgen, Shibui and so on, really are. From the `70s of the 20th century all this has been absorbed by a new model: kawaii (cuteness), which, through the spread of manga, anime and videogames, has accelerated the process of infantilization and puerilization of society to a greater degree than in the West. The consequence of this unbridled youth consumerism is the Rotita-complex. Little by little, the school-girl has emerged as the only object of sexual desire: from this arises occasional child prostitution, which is one of the biggest social problems in Japan.
These ideas came to my mind visiting the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, where, in fact, amusement park art, which in the West has a transgressive meaning, is cleansed of any scandalous connotation and gathered in its real essence, which is to relegate social and cultural life to the state of childishness. And here, Japanese reasoning is blameless: this type of art is good just for children, who have great fun in the museum. However, there is another, less edifying, interpretation: in 2004 the Japanese artist Murakami Takashi organized an exhibition entitled ”Little Boy: the Arts of Japan`s Exploding Subculture” at the Japan Society of New York. This was driven by the idea that Japanese infantilism was the consequence of the huge collective trauma caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Little Boy was the code name for the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima). In other words, it was the atomic hell that generated the hell of the consumerist superflat.
This whole issue is present in Arak`s book, Naked Faces (Tokyo, Heibonsha, 1996), which contains photos of so many beautiful girls` faces, some of which could be high fashion models, combined with ugly and deeply suffering faces according to a sensibility that conforms to the Pure Land sect, to which Genshin belonged.
Is there any way of getting out of this hell? How do you enter the world of the Pure Land (jōdo)? The answer is surprising: it takes an extraordinary effort to focus on an insignificant particular. According to the legend, Buddha had a tuft of white hair between his eyebrows. Concentrating all my imaginative force on this particular and remaining in that state for a certain period of time, it is possible to reach a peace of mind. This method was not invented by Genshin, as it had already been practiced by the Tendai sect (Tendai-shū), founded in Japan by the monk, Saichō D11yō Daishi (767-822) with its roots in Chinese Buddhism, and before that, in Hatha Yoga and the Upanishads, where it was called by the Sanskrit term, Trāṭaka.
From a photographic point of view it is the close-up frame which characterizes Araki`s poetics. For example, the book In Ruins (1996) focusses on different objects, from a pair of broken shoes to some magnificent flowers, from little prehistoric monsters to the clouds in the sky. It completely ignores the beauty or the importance of the figured object and enters into another type of experience that overcomes the distinction between organic and inorganic, between anthropology and technology. I described this type of feeling in my book The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (”Mukiteki na mono no sekkusu apīru,” Tokyo, Heibonsha, 2012). But this is not a new thing. The Chinese monk Zhìyǐ (in Japanese, Chigi) (538-597), who was a great thinker and influenced Genshin, argued that Buddha is present, not only in every living thing, but also in inanimate things right down to the tiniest particle of dust.