PRINT February 2013


Akasegawa Genpei, The Morphology of Revenge: Take a Close Look at the Opponent Before You Kill Him (Enlarged 1,000-Yen), 1963, gouache on paper mounted on panel, 35 1/2 x 70 7/8".

IN THE EARLY 1960s, Japanese citizens found themselves looking askance at the thousand-yen notes that, thanks to a resurgent economy, were increasingly abundant in their lives. The cause of their wariness was the Chi-37 forgery scandal, in which virtually undetectable counterfeit thousand-yen notes circulated throughout the country, identifiable only through ever-lengthening lists of suspect serial numbers printed in the papers—and prompting the government in 1963 to commence the bills’ replacement with a new, “C series” note.

Then, on January 27, 1964, the newspaper Asahi Shinbun broke the story that police were investigating a “young artist and self-styled avant-garde member,” Akasegawa Genpei,* in connection with the scandal, intimating that a solution to the conspiracy might be at hand. The artist had in fact been producing prints of the B-series thousand-yen note—though since the prints were single-sided, they were strangely inadequate counterfeits. The Asahi passed briskly over such contradictions and even added its own fraudulent details (most damningly, the paper erroneously reported that Akasegawa had duplicated both sides of the notes) to imply his centrality in the conspiracy: “Artist Forges Old-Series Thousand-Yen Notes; Gets Three Merchants to Make Them; Monochrome, Finely Detailed; Distributed at an Exhibition; ‘These Are Works’; Chi-37 Connection Pursued.” And while the police themselves would dismiss the notion of Akasegawa’s connection to the Chi-37 conspiracy, they nonetheless found his art troubling. A vaguely defined 1895 statute against money imitation would provide the legal means for acting against this artist’s blasphemous questioning of the status and effects of money. Like the Asahi’s article, the police and prosecutors would travesty Akasegawa’s intent as mere criminality, to silence a nascent politics and criticism arising from a newly radicalized art.

The skeptical quotation marks surrounding the headline’s phrase “These Are Works” in fact pointed to the premise of this insurgent politics: a refusal to present conventional artworks in ordinary exhibition spaces. Akasegawa’s prints had emerged from a broader movement among Japanese artists, often reductively termed anti-art, in which all artistic conventions and practices, from object to performance, were subject to scrutiny, experiment, and revision in the service of a critical investigation of daily life. With Takamatsu Jirō and Nakanishi Natsuyuki, Akasegawa formed the nucleus of the collective Hi-Red Center in May 1963, and the trio¹ embarked on a series of events called “mixers,” to be followed in 1964 with actions such as the Campaign for the Promotion of Sanitation and Order in the Capital, aka Ultra-cleaning Event—a public, hypermeticulous scrubbing of Tokyo thoroughfares that targeted the political hygiene imposed in preparation for that summer’s Olympics. In their works, performances, and statements, the group assiduously avoided invoking the concept of art and artworks, in an attempt to expand the reception of their actions and objects beyond a restrictive idea of art and to arrive at a potentially revolutionary form of direct action. Both the police and the Asahi response worked to foreclose such possibilities, in Akasegawa’s case by reducing his prints’ constitutive ambiguity to simple criminality.

Akasegawa’s legal difficulties would catalyze his writing of “Theses on ‘Capitalist Realism,” a watershed in the theory and aesthetics of postwar Japanese art that nevertheless remains little known. This essay would crystallize many of the concepts and impulses developed in the experiments of Akasegawa, Nakanishi, and Takamatsu and their surprisingly acute, sustained interrogation of consumption, exchange, and simulation—at almost the exact moment that their counterparts in Europe were formulating their own so-called Capitalist Realism. But unlike Gerhard Richter et al., whose pictures and presentations effectively but concertedly remained within the realm of the tableau, the image, the visual representation, Akasegawa would chart a move into a realm both more material and less tangible: a realm of circulation, of vertiginous semiotic slippages, of naturalized forms of appearance, and of hidden connections.

THE BROADER FERMENT of which Akasegawa, Nakanishi, and Takamatsu were a part could be traced to the late 1950s, when artists participating in the Yomiuri Indépendant—an annual Tokyo exhibition that served as a crucible for the Japanese avant-garde—had collaborated in a playful art of installations, performance works, and objets, often employing found materials from the detritus of Japan’s ongoing economic expansion. At the Yomiuri Indépendant, the term objet became shorthand not for something aestheticized but rather for an object that, first of all, was put under a kind of radical scrutiny. There was an expectation that the artist’s gesture of setting forth the object implied a kind of suspicion; whether it was a specially assembled art construction or an everyday item sitting there with little or no embellishment or reconfiguration, it was to be interrogated like a criminal for a yet unknown crime.

Hi-Red Center, Naiqua Gallery, Tokyo, 1963. From left: Takamatsu Jirō, Akasegawa Genpei, and Nakanishi Natsuyuki.

The artists’ competitive play had given rise to a critical artistic discourse addressing the everyday through both its imagery and its waste. This engagement had put many artists provocatively out of sync with their surroundings, where the memory of recent political conflict was being assuaged through promises of doubled incomes and creature comforts afforded by the high-growth economy. Months of protests in opposition to a revised Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, committing the latter to the continuing presence of US military bases on its soil and to supporting American cold and hot wars in Asia, had reached a crescendo in June 1960—and then suddenly vanished. The fact that popular resistance had failed to prevent ratification of the treaty, and the subsequent disappearance of protest itself from the public scene, led activists as well as politically engaged artists to question their assumptions and reconsider their tactics.

Artists responded to the newly quiescent atmosphere with energetic experiments. On October 18, 1962, after abandoning an unrealizable plan to install a giant glass guillotine in the Imperial Plaza, Nakanishi, Takamatsu, and others had instead invaded a commuting space, central Tokyo’s busy Yamanote train line, with what Nakanishi would term a new art of “agitation.” Nakanishi boarded the train with his “Portable Objets,” clear polyester ovoid shapes enclosing any number of cast-off or partially destroyed items, including hair, a broken watch, shoes, glasses, and the like—each object now augmented with a short chain and dowel to facilitate its handling or suspension from the straps on the train. Takamatsu arrived bearing Cord: a lumpy, meandering plastic rope, thirty feet long, bulging with encapsulated, obscured objects and painted black. Photos show a performance that was at once antic and grave, as the artists, after slathering one another’s faces with white greasepaint, engaged in unaccountable actions (licking the artworks or shining flashlights on them; sauntering down the train platform with the Cord trailing from a back pocket to the perplexity of bystanders) nonetheless intended to agitate the passengers within the null space of trains and train stations. This work was a benchmark in the development of an elusive notion of an artistic practice of direct action, engaging the intersection of art and the everyday in a new mode and politics adequate to the moment. As Nakanishi said later: “I had all of these destroyed constructions [i.e., “Portable Objets”]. The destruction of structurality is not a spatial category; when taken to its ultimate conclusion, it becomes revolution. Well, call it revolution, but there would be difficulties if it was to be directly linked to social revolution.”² Suggesting that “structurality” is a principle of ideological order and control that obtains across registers—spatial, political, semiotic—Nakanishi asserted the urgency and revolutionary potential of de- and restructuring daily life.

AKASEGAWA DID NOT TAKE PART in the Yamanote event, but he did join a roundtable discussion on direct action convened by an art magazine afterward, and there he found common ground with Nakanishi and Takamatsu. For the trio, the ensuing months were full of discussions and intense activity, yielding mutually provocative solo works, including Akasegawa’s thousand-yen projects and all three artists’ submissions to the Yomiuri Indépendant at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in March 1963. There Takamatsu again displayed Cord, which meandered from behind a white curtain into the next gallery—and then extended, via a thousand-meter string, all the way to a station on the Yamanote line. Nakanishi’s complex installation centered on six large canvases across and around which masses of metal clothespins coalesced into half-formed images, including something resembling a mushroom cloud; he himself appeared in the gallery with his face and body covered with clothespins, surreptitiously attaching pins to passersby. Akasegawa exhibited the first of his wrapped works: a pair of large canvases enveloped in craft paper and string. Attached to the wall within his portion of the exhibition space were a few life-size thousand-yen prints, their versos blank. The hand-drawn The Morphology of Revenge: Take a Close Look at the Opponent Before You Kill Him (aka Enlarged 1,000-Yen), not yet complete, was exhibited between the two canvases.

The wrapped works quickly evolved away from the apparent self-referentiality of canvases, with their problematization or outright refusal of artistic expression: Throughout the spring of 1963, Akasegawa exhibited numerous wrapped objects, some with recognizable silhouettes (a coat hanger, an armchair dangling from the ceiling), others remaining anonymous as bulging, bound packages. A few (in a group exhibition at the Kawasumi Gallery in March) were wrapped in uncut sheets of thousand-yen notes instead of craft paper. In a show at the Shinjuku Dai-ichi gallery in late April, he also exhibited a profusion of cardboard mailers and paper tubes, totems of administration that metastasized through the space—which, as in the Kawasumi show the preceding month, evoked a typical Tokyo apartment whose domestic objects had undergone strange transmogrifications.

Nakanishi Natsuyuki and Takamatsu Jirō with Cord, 1962, Yūrakuchō Station platform, Tokyo, October 18, 1962. Photo: Murai Tokuji.

By May, Akasegawa, Nakanishi, and Takamatsu had officially decided to come together as Hi-Red Center, and it was at their first collaborative exhibition, “Fifth Mixer Plan,” that the three artists refined their investigations into interior spaces, whether trains or apartments, and articulated them against the presumptions of art. (Hi-Red Center’s very name, an English translation of the first characters of each of the artist’s surname—Taka, high; Aka, red; Naka, center—avoided explicit references to artistic production and indeed hinted vaguely at leftist proclivities.) The show opened in early May at Shinjuku Dai-ichi, having been announced with an ambiguous invitation that requested the recipient’s attendance at the “Opening Reception” in the type of polite language associated with a wedding invitation. There was absolutely no reference to art.³

Visitors to the exhibition found another scene of pseudo-domestic derangement: In one area, a suit hung on a wall, connected by Takamatsu’s cords to a chair on the floor, then to a hanger, to another chair, to a series of stools, and so on across the space. Nakanishi installed clothespins—attacking swarms of metal clothespins that made forays throughout the gallery, encircling and attaching themselves to artworks. He also exhibited a machine press that guests who paid twenty yen could operate to stamp out another aluminum clothespin. The press was attached to a device that, simultaneously with the pressing of the clothespin, released a raw egg from overhead. Akasegawa, for his part, presented numerous wrapped works, including large packages and a chair. Hung from the ceiling were four strips of his thousand-yen prints, with cut-along-the-dotted-line marks; these had to be replenished during the exhibition, as people would cut off the notes and take them away. He also showed panels with pairs of bolts driven through individual notes, mounted in rows on a plywood backing. And he mounted his enlarged thousand-yen painting on a wall.

From Takamatsu’s entangled salaryman’s suit to Nakanishi’s absurdist industrialism to Akasegawa’s muffled, mummified commodities and “counterfeit” takeaways, these works shared a preoccupation with artifacts of economic and state control. Yet the conventional meanings of these things had been pressured to the point of breakdown—rhetorics of industrial production, of shipping, of art installation, even of interior decoration, had not been subjected to critique, but rather had been performed via a logic of excess. It was as if the space itself had somehow been driven mad by systems run amok, overrun by clothespins, cocoons of wrapping paper, and serpentine cords that instantiated invisible circuits. In its first exhibition, Hi-Red Center envisioned the destruction of structurality, of the institutional structures of everyday life, of order tout court. What it awaited was exegesis, the theory that would bring its nascent practice into critical focus. In early 1964, Akasegawa provided this conceptual armature.

THE COMBINATION of police inquiries and newspaper distortions with which he began the year did not subdue Akasegawa—quite the opposite. Less than a month after the January appearance of the Asahi Shinbun article, on February 24 he replied to his accusers in the newspaper Dokusho Shinbun.⁴ More than a mere riposte, the complex text, “Theses on ‘Capitalist Realism,’” represents a moment of systematic, synthetic theorization (albeit one that ventures into speculation and absurdism) following Akasegawa and his compatriots’ months of experimentation.

Akasegawa opens the essay by questioning the order of reality taken for granted in the Asahi article, namely, the distinction between real things (real money, original artworks) and imitations. Imitations, he writes, “have begun to peck at the flanks of real things.” He replaces the notion of an unproblematic ontological reality with that of a reality marked by a struggle between real things, which assert and defend their preeminent status, and imitations, which attack their claims. In scientific-sounding language whose reasonable tone asserts the facticity of his position, Akasegawa drily undertakes a consideration of the function of “real” money, suggesting that our familiarity with currency entails an intimate, even bodily connection not easily severed or examined. He observes:

Even if we know intellectually what the currency system is, the “perpetrator,” currency, constantly shadows our persons, clinging to our labor and deeds like eyelids do to our bodies, and right before our eyes sneaks into our pockets [futokoro] and, aided by the speed by which it circulates despite our wishes, without time to look straight at it, it wraps us in the long cord [himo] that it drags.

Accused by the Asahi and the police of criminality, Akasegawa identifies a rather different “perpetrator” and crime. Circulating through our futokoro (our wallets but also, literally, our bosoms, our very beings), currency moves too fast to be observed, enmeshing us within its cordlike, constricting connections and entanglements—but invisibly.

Takamatsu Jirō, Cord, 1962, fabric-wrapped objects, rope, paint. Installation view, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 1963. From the 15th Yomiuri Indépendant.

How might one address this insidious condition? Akasegawa proceeds to describe his own solution as a kind of forensic police procedure: He “arrested” a thousand-yen note, he tells readers, examined it with a magnifying glass, and “made a 200-times magnification copy of it on a panel. This painting, which I copied down utterly without adding sentiment of any sort, was shit realism, not Socialist Realism, but what we may call Capitalist Realism. The work is a kind of torture for this perpetrator we call money.” But Akasegawa’s “torture”—enlarging the bill into the painting The Morphology of Revenge: Take a Close Look at the Opponent Before You Kill Him—fails to make currency yield its secrets. Such “Capitalist Realism,” while torturously confronting money with its doubled status as a “real” reproduction, “was but a way of observing, and not enough to discover the refuge of the chief culprit.”

What sort of action might succeed in unmasking this culprit? Akasegawa proposes “the method of quarantine and suppression of the subject for viewing.” He offers the general strike as one example: The total absence, or “quarantine,” of all labor would paradoxically make visible the “world system” that depends on labor. Any other type of strike—any strike in which only some people cease to work—does not produce the condition of total absence in which the “system connected to labor” would achieve its counterintuitive visibility. Such a partial strike is instead “a model of a strike” (emphasis added). The model (mokei), a sort of miniature stand-in, is a partial act, a representation pointing to a possible full realization of direct action. The same principles apply to money: If all the currency in the world were locked in a giant vault, “then the resting place of the monetary system for currency . . . would be gone, and the system of private property that thrived on it would crawl out in confusion like a mole coming out to the surface.”

Akasegawa argues that “any species of object” so sequestered could allow one to “observe the world” by revealing hidden systemic operations. But labor and money have a special status, in that their quarantine may further expose the “chief culprit,” i.e., capitalism—the ultimate hidden form of domination, the structuring principle of reality itself. Thus the quarantine of money would be the “very best way to observe the world.” Elaborating his example of the quarantine of currency, Akasegawa further refines his concept of the model: “A cash box with a welded padlock is a model of quarantine, as a chair wrapped in craft paper and rope is a model for the quarantine of chairs.” In lieu of a vault vast enough to sequester all currency, one can substitute a model, a miniature metonym for the total procedure.

Akasegawa thus expounds on his contemporaries’ artistic practice to suggest a specific political program for the deployment of objets: objet as model, not merely an artifact for analysis but an active entity that can both encapsulate and disturb hidden, determinant systems, in an attempt to make their extent—and possible overcoming—thinkable. And he proposes an additional, contradictory procedure for observing the world: the concept of quarantine by ubiquity. This “injection of increased quantities” consists of overwhelming the limits of an object’s existential boundaries, revealing its principles not by the physical elimination of the object but by inundating the practices that ordinarily contain and define it. Conceptualized by means of the model, the objet’s critical potential expands: Now it might flood the system. Such a vast scale of reproduction could effect an even more powerful way of observing the world, one that inverts the method of the strike. The process is envisioned in a highly politically charged scenario: the overwhelming of the currency system by the private printing of huge quantities of notes. It doesn’t matter whether they’re real or fake: “Making counterfeits would work well, as would producing real notes. The point is to inject a large quantity into the world.” Pushing this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, he asks, in all innocence: “If we set aside one’s being a counterfeit and the other’s being a real thing, what then exactly is the difference between counterfeits and real things? . . . It is not that the real thing is an absolute, unconditional entity; it is that it is a dictatorial system that forcibly asserts itself as a real thing” (emphasis added).

Akasegawa explodes the unexamined basis for the conventional distinction between the counterfeit and the real, and thus the presumed ontological primacy of the latter. In the case of two apparently identical notes (a scenario posed by the currency involved in the Chi-37 incident, which only experts could distinguish from real currency), the distinction between “counterfeit” and “real” cannot operate at the phenomenal level; it must be systemic, socially determined, governed by consensus. His own printed thousand-yen notes, he says, are neither real nor fake. Because they foreground their simulacral status, their imperfect resemblance to money, and thereby disavow use potential and intent, they fall under the aegis of the third term he has introduced: They are models.

Akasegawa Genpei, “1,000-Yen-Note Trial” Impounded Objects: Works Wrapped in Model 1,000-Yen Notes (Hanger), 1963/1970, sheets of model thousand-yen notes, string, wire, paper tag, hanger, 5 7/8 x 17 x 1 1/8".

“The point where [the actual-size printed model note] differs from the 200-times magnification copy is that it is a model of quantitative increase.” The proliferation of life-size printed notes replaces a simple work of Capitalist Realism—The Morphology of Revenge . . . , a representation of the form of appearance of the capitalist present—with a work that interrogates the basis of that mode and appearance. The implication is that a more complex, critical form of Capitalist Realism may interrogate the capitalist real itself. A model on the order of the life-size bills “provides a knothole through which to observe in the world of actuality the thrust and parry of real things and counterfeits and the trembling of the monopoly enterprise of ‘real things’ and thus becomes a hint about how to observe.” Models exceed and expose the fate of other objects, which merely participate in the economy’s functions and its associated structures of authority, promulgating the systemic domination that is presented as naturalized reality—imperceptibly constituted and constricting us through our own unexamined habits.

Without reducing the artists’ production to a mere reflection of “Theses,” it might be argued that to examine Akasegawa’s and Hi-Red Center’s practices in 1963 is to follow an unfolding process that leads to an optics of Capitalist Realism. Certainly, Akasegawa’s concept of Capitalist Realism and his propositions regarding the investigative techniques of model and quarantine are prefigured by his own ongoing projects from 1963. The wrapped works picture a quarantine and suppression of artistic activity, of hangers, of chairs; the yen works model quarantine through their trespass into, and potential overwhelming of, money’s circuits. And clearly, Akasegawa’s concept of the model amplifies developments in his and his compatriots’ artistic practice from the Yamanote action onward. The objects used in their works from that point forward could be thought of as models, not only props in an object-aided action but also parts standing in for the whole procedure—the whole destruction of structurality—articulating the possibility of quotidian revolution.

Such a view could easily encompass both Nakanishi’s objects and Takamatsu’s Cord, with their provocative destruction, tethering, and recombination of banal items and their disorienting deployments. Whether or not Nakanishi or Takamatsu envisioned their intimations of a vaguely menacing and controlling systematicity—so evident in their installations at the first Hi-Red Center show—as being ultimately grounded in the practice and effects of capitalism itself, such a reading was certainly available to Akasegawa. The cord reference in “Theses” is surely an allusion to Takamatsu’s cords, suggesting that Akasegawa had come to read those works as being fundamentally about capital’s invisible, binding circulation through money and things, much as Marx spoke of the “invisible threads” with which individual consumption binds workers, through the very act of consumption, to return to the labor market. What Akasegawa grasped and articulated, then, are the radical undercurrents—undercurrents seldom acknowledged—to the supposedly playful, even uncritical, works of his own solo practice and of Hi-Red Center.

One could say that the “knothole” Akasegawa located is the aggressive potential of the simulacrum. The model—this third term, neither real nor fake—is the recognizable simulacrum, the imperfect copy, which raises expectations and excites desire only to disappoint, and thereby points to the constructedness of the “genuine” status of government-printed currency. Nakanishi spoke of “the destruction of structurality”; Akasegawa’s “Theses” seem to seek the collapse of semiotic structure itself, and the order of reality it supports, through an investigation departing from the safe parameters of “art” to bring heightened forms of attention and disruption to daily life. His imitations “peck at the flanks” of the real, cannibalizing their erstwhile referents. Intervening in this field of hyperreality are Akasegawa’s models of money, which trouble the ontological order promulgated by the state, by the newspaper, etc. Akasegawa saw the critical potential of an object-driven perceptual shift as the means to a new and more thoroughgoing revolutionary politics: A piece of “fake” money is more of a problem for power than a Molotov cocktail—and the implications of that fact are what Hi-Red Center went on to explore. Behind their seemingly blithe antics, their serious reflection and experimentation sought to move beyond presentation, and representation, to an intervention in appearance and perception itself as the necessary first step to transformation. Moving away from the framing operations that “represent” art as art, the collective was free to confront appearance as such, and the borders, divisions, and fraudulence of an apparently unproblematic reality. Their models move corrosively within systems; the gallery collapses into the train, the apartment, the street.

Akasegawa Genpei, ca. 1966.

Yet these works not only differed from the far better known Capitalist Realist imagery of Richter et al. but also radically extended the operations of other kinds of objects in circulation at the time, in other parts of the globe undergoing hyperbolic financial transformation: Oldenburg’s “Store” objects, or Fluxus multiples, both of which similarly purported to perturb the boundary between art object and commodity, real and counterfeit, and yet which remained very much within a circumscribed, even tiny, network of distribution. By contrast, Akasegawa’s notes flew farther than those things ever did—right into the police apparatus, the media apparatus, the contraptions of power. Akasegawa didn’t pine for the loss of some originary real amid the madness of hyperreality (as Baudrillard and perhaps even Richter and Oldenburg, Fluxus and Pop did). He posited a brave new world, one in which the duality of real and copy no longer exists and within which artists might make hitherto inconceivable interventions that would strike capital at the intersection of everyday life and state authority—its most vulnerable point.

William Marotti is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. His book Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Duke University Press), from which this essay is adapted, will be published in March.


1. Hi-Red Center’s status was purposefully ambiguous—the three principals, Akasegawa, Nakanishi, and Takamatsu, appeared overtly in front of a shifting cast of suspiciously anonymous collaborators. (These included an occasional fourth member, Izumi Tatsu, but also at times Kazakura Shō; assistants such as Nakahara Yusuke and Tone Yasunao; Kawani Hiroshi and Imaizumi Yoshihiko, the editors of the radical art journal Image; and numerous others.)

2. Nakanishi Natsuyuki, Takamatsu Jirō, Akasegawa Genpei, Kawani Hiroshi (as “Satsu Nitō”), Imaizumi Yoshihiko (as “Nakamatsu”), “Chokusetsu kōdōron no kizashi—Hitotsu no jikkenrei ni tuite,” Keishō 7 (February 1963), 19.

3. Akasegawa Genpei, Tōkyō mikisa¯ keikaku: Haireddo senta¯ chokusetsu no kiroku (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1994).

4. Reprinted as “‘Shihonshugi rearizumu’ ron,” in Obuje o motta musansha: Akasegawa Genpei no bunsho, Akasegawa Genpei (Tokyo: Gendai Shichōsha, 1970).