PRINT February 2013


IN 1956, the artist Jirō Yoshihara created a work that made use of a dinghy floating on the water in a disused oil tank, for the “Ruins Exhibition” at an old refinery in Amagasaki, Japan. So there was a direct precedent when I, along with other members of the Gutai group, was asked to participate in the 1966 event “Zero on Sea,” a group exhibition to be held on both land and water at Scheveningen Pier, The Hague, with artists contributing environmental works conceived for the site. If “Zero on Sea” had been realized, it would surely have extended across the land, sea, and air as a fusion of Gutai’s previous outdoor, aerial, and marine exhibitions.

I was personally attracted to the plan because the exhibition was going to be held, literally, at sea. When I joined Gutai, I thought I’d have a chance to take part in the nonmuseum-style activities for which the group had come to be known. But by the time I became a member, in the mid-1960s, there was less of that going on—which only increased my desire to do that type of project. The work I proposed for “Zero on Sea” was inspired by rafts and tents. In my notes, I described it like this: “The vinyl fins of a jellyfish monster slowly sway with the movement of the waves.” It was extremely stimulating and exciting to imagine a group of my creations drifting and rocking back and forth on the sea in a way they never could have on a wall. The fact that the project never materialized and only existed as a plan is still a great disappointment to me.

In 2011, I finally had a chance to meet Otto Piene, a key member of Zero, at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art during an exhibition that focused on Zero and Gutai. There I saw a work in which Piene had made use of an entire room for a light installation. This was a piece that could not have been conveyed through a medium like photography; it was something that had to be experienced by physically entering that space. In a way it seems obvious—this is the quintessential point about artwork, but in today’s media society it tends to be overlooked. Because Zero and Gutai shared this artistic sensibility and an interest in physical experience and its mediation, it made sense that the two groups formed a close relationship after we were invited to take part in the “Nul 1965” exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

The same year as “Zero on Sea,” I had a solo show at the Gutai Pinacotheca in Osaka. In previous solo exhibitions by other members of Gutai, the galleries had been hung with such huge paintings that the walls nearly disappeared, but I decided to use variously sized and shaped canvases, some of which were undulating white rectangles and some of which had indeterminate forms. I was interested in creating an entire space by installing the canvases at random points in the upper and lower portions of the wall, and I also wanted to incorporate the shadows of the undulations in the paintings by projecting lights on them. To me, the entire space in a solo exhibition is the work. Nineteen sixty-six was also the year of “From Space to Environment,” a Tokyo exhibition in which I also took part; that show crystallized the trend toward interactive, participatory environments.

I wasn’t merely interested in the works as material objects. I also wanted to create light and shadows. In fact, this is what may have led me to make plastic and cloth reliefs with white undulations, such as the “White Ceremony” series, 1966–2012. This concern also influenced my film experiments. In 1967, I made a movie called EN = Circle, for which I punched a single hole in each frame of a roll of 16-mm film. The work, which I showed at the first Sogetsu Experimental Film Festival in 1967, was a major undertaking, because although the film was only four minutes long, each second equaled twenty-four frames.

Just after I’d started making art in the mid-’60s, works that utilized new materials, such as plastic and stainless steel, and new technology, which could be utilized in illuminated and kinetic art, had begun to emerge. I took part in these developments; my illuminated “Tankurō” spheres, 1966, for example, are made of the same kind of plastic used for the noses of the Shinkansen bullet trains that were just starting to run around that time, and for the benches on station platforms. But when technology became the main focus and people began vying to develop new technical approaches, I started to have my doubts.

Meanwhile, contemporary art was suddenly everywhere, and Expo ’70, the world’s fair in Osaka, devoted a great deal of space to it. Many young artists viewed the inclusion of contemporary art in a positive light, believing that it would facilitate new encounters between art and its audiences. But unlike a show in a museum or gallery, the expo was a huge national undertaking. There was an unmistakable sense that visitors, rather than being able to view the works freely, were in an extremely controlled environment. In other words, instead of audiences “seeing” the work in an autonomous manner, the work was being “shown” to them. The individual discoveries that would normally have been prompted by a free encounter with the works were forcibly assimilated and embedded in a newfangled pavilion. In an essay on Expo ’70 that I wrote at the time, I said the show lacked “a refreshing encounter between things (objects, or ‘nature’ in a new sense) and humans.” In the excessively artificial environment the expo created, even the trees seemed to have imitation trunks, despite ostensibly being natural organisms.

Norio Imai, 12,462-mm Trajectory, 1970, stone, concrete. Installation view, Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan.

Personally, I was making work in a state of mind that was more similar to the 1955 Gutai show “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Sun,” held, significantly, in Ashiya Park rather than in a museum. As it was before my time—I showed my first work in a Gutai exhibition in 1964—I hadn’t actually seen it. But beginning in the late ’60s, Mono-ha and Conceptual art had grown increasingly dominant. Natural materials were no longer seen as remarkable in and of themselves, while technology-based techniques were no longer at the fore either. In essence, no attempt was made to privilege either type of material or technique. I thought that through my art, I would be able to express a new meaning of nature, “‘nature’ in a new sense.” I made three works for the expo that were based on this idea.

For the first work, I placed a huge, nearly three-ton natural stone in a green tract of land and put white paint on top of it. Half of the stone was covered with a painted, artificial membrane, and the other half retained its original bare skin. The second work was part of an exhibit by all of the members of Gutai; I made lumps of concrete that overflowed from a poured-concrete wall. And the third work was a display created by the Gutai group outside the Expo Museum of Fine Arts. In this collaborative exhibit, the artists who were involved in making three-dimensional pieces attached their works to a thirty-foot-long structure installed in the garden. I came up with the title 12,462-mm Trajectory and created a track we could use to move an armful or so of natural stone. This large-scale work, in which the stone slid upward in a straight line against gravity, was my favorite of those I made for the expo. I think this sort of oppositional attitude to the environment was probably triggered by the overly smooth and polished appearance of the expo venue.

For me, Expo ’70 marked a turning point in my work. In the summer of 1972, a few months after the group dissolved, I did a performance with two artist friends who were not connected to Gutai. We set up three huge speakers on a rooftop to broadcast the sound of our heartbeats to passersby in a busy shopping district. I saw this type of collaborative, nonmuseum concept as a kind of homework assignment I had received from Gutai. The encounter between art and people begins with a direct confrontation.

Norio Imai is an artist who lives in Osaka.

Translated from Japanese by Christopher Stephens.