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Emi Anrakuji – ‘1800 millimetres. It’s the size of my bed’

Confined to a bed for the better part of a decade, Emi Anrakuji’s brain tumour caused irrevocable damage to her eyesight. Trapped in her own private hell she began to explore photography – by way of the intimate folds of her body. The result is an unorthodox series of self-portraits that seem both liberating and oppressive in equal measure.

The elusive Emi Anrakuji. Her work seems to have exploded onto the photography scene in early 2000, attracting the attention of Daido Moriyama in 2004. “He was very much impressed,” says Emi, whose body of work is a series of self-portraits in which she often focuses on the most intimate details of her anatomy while simultaneously concealing her identity. It’s this contradiction that obfuscates the viewer.

Legs splayed, crouched on a bed on all fours, a finger inserted into her vagina – the self-portraits in 1800 Millimètre, Emi’s latest body of work, “are not erotic at all,” she says. “1800 millimetres is just the size of my bed.” A bed to which she was confined, which came to represent her world – the very world from where her work originated. “It’s work that came out of my sickbed.”

In 1800 Millimètre, Anrakuji poses nude, in solitude, in close shadowy settings – the confines of her bedroom staged for the gaze of a lens. She describes herself as “an alchemist of images”, blurring the contrived and the authentic – taking a scissor to her flowing ebony hair, squatting over a mirror to see a reflection of her vagina, perched on the edge of a chest of drawers trimming her pubic hair. “I use a 10-second self-timer to take my pictures,” she says.

Emi was born and raised in Tokyo. She showed a talent for drawing at a very young age, and as a toddler needed little else but a sheet of white paper and a pencil to hold her attention. “Even now, I naturally see images when looking at a sheet of bright white paper.”

She says she was alone as a child, but never lonely. Aloneness seems to be a recurring theme in Emi’s life – the very thing that informs her work. She studied oil painting at Musashino Art University in Kodaira, in western Tokyo, and was diagnosed with a brain tumour soon after she graduated. And so began a decade-long fight for survival from the confines of a bed. “When I suffered from a brain tumor, I lost sight in one eye. The other eye, which was spared, has congenital amblyopia [a sight disorder that results when the eye and the brain don’t work together properly],” she says.

“One day, I tried to pick up a pencil, but I couldn’t see its tip. I was so shocked, I even thought of dying.”

For a long while Emi refused to pick up a pencil, or make any art at all. “A long time passed in my hospital bed before I finally saw a little ‘microcosmos’ within my range of vision. I started to make out the lace of the pillow and the stains on the sheets. So I photographed them. I couldn’t tell if the printed images were macro or micro, but I discovered the existence of a universe beyond my hospital bed. That was a pivotal moment – when the camera became my eyes and a part of my body.”

Emi made thousands of photographic prints while in recovery and started to create her own photobooks by hand – HMMT?, for example, which won a photobook competition judged by Daido Moriyama, who later edited Witness #2, a book he published with Nazraeli that featured some of Emi’s work alongside his own. “I love paper and books, so I made many photobooks by hand and titled them by subject. Without any specific purpose, I continued to create books as if I was reciting a prayer to Buddha. I often compare my practice to a Zen monk’s training – it’s called ‘shikantaza’, which means one must sit. Not meditate, but sit.”

The art of sitting – it’s an art that Emi perfected in her sightless, lonesome recovery, along with the mastery of image-making and book-making.

“Nazraeli Press learned of my work and expressed an interest in publishing one of my handmade books – just as it was. Anrakuji, my first book published by them, is based on the original cover and layout of the one I made by hand.”

For Emi, a decade of aloneness gave way to an exploration of her own body, and so, in the absence of a subject on whom to focus her gaze, she became her own muse. “I was alone. Always. Everywhere. I am the only subject in all my work; I’ve never used anyone else as a model. Although I am present in the photographs, I never reveal my face in the shots,” she says, without ever really explaining why.

“I live in two worlds,” she once said of her series A Decent Life, describing both her dual role as artist-subject, and her focus on the space where reality and fiction meet. “Both are chaotic, uncertain, pathetically painful and utterly decent.”

To Emi, life is one of considerable suffering. “I believe that 90 percent of our life is made up of negative feelings – frustration, sadness, pain, loneliness. And although the remaining 10 percent can be glorious, bliss is only a modest pleasure – looking up at a celestial sky, the beauty of light and shadow cast by the sun or moonlight, the scent of flowers as it’s carried by the wind. Like the collective consciousness inherent in these things, my work is not just about me – it’s also about ‘you’.

“And ‘you’ have probably noticed this,” she says.

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• Emi’s work will be on show in a solo exhibition titled Emi Anrakuji, at In Camera Gallerie in Paris, from 17 September to 31 October.

• 1800 Millimètre was recently on show in a solo exhibition at Miyako Yoshinaga gallery in New York.

• Emi Anrakuji’s hand-crafted photobooks are available from Nazraeli Press.

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