PRINT May 2013


View of “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde,” 2012–13, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Thomas Griesel

WHAT IS THE PROPER UNIT of measurement in exhibiting the history of a global art world? Is it the individual artist, shuttling between her place of origin and various metropolitan centers while participating in exhibitions throughout the world? Or are movements better building blocks? After all, mobility is built into the very term movement. Tendencies such as Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Fluxus, to name only a few modern examples, encompassed networks even as they affirmatively called those networks into being by putting philosophical positions and corollary aesthetic formats into wide circulation. Or are geographic locations the best organizational category, enabling the historian and the curator to capture a cosmopolitan nexus of artistic exchange?

Over the past year, three exhibitions of Japanese art, predominantly focused on the mid-twentieth century, have appeared in New York, each exemplifying one of the units of measure I have enumerated, and together highlighting the challenges of constructing a global art history. “Yayoi Kusama,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art (curated by Frances Morris of London’s Tate Modern, where the show originated, and organized in New York by the Whitney’s David Kiehl), offered a retrospective of one of the most familiar Japanese figures from the period, who, near the beginning of her career, made an influential, even explosive, sojourn in New York before returning to her native country. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “Gutai: Splendid Playground” is centered on the Gutai movement and was co-organized by Alexandra Munroe, who has probably done the most to present and interpret Japanese art for American audiences, and Ming Tiampo, who wrote an important history of Gutai. Finally, at the Museum of Modern Art, Doryun Chong organized “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde,” which corresponded with the release of an indispensable anthology of writings, From Postwar to Postmodern, Art in Japan 1945–1989: Primary Documents, edited by Chong, Michio Hayashi, Kenji Kajiya, and Fumihiko Sumitomo and published by MoMA’s International Council.

Taken together, these three shows address contemporary Japanese art to a degree unmatched in New York since Munroe’s 1994 “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky” at the Guggenheim. As a group, they demonstrate the dilemma that confronts any curator whose ambition is to expand histories of modern and contemporary art beyond the Euro-American canon. Exhibition organizers who undertake such initiatives face pressure to introduce “unfamiliar” material as comprehensively yet cogently as possible, which would seem to require resorting to one of the three schemata cited above. But if, as each of these exhibitions explicitly argues, Japanese art was deeply imbricated in global networks long before the emergence in the 1990s of Japan’s exemplar of globality, Takashi Murakami, then the categories I’ve named—artist, movement, and location—should not function simply as sealed “containers” for purely Japanese material. Any truly global methodology must rethink these units of measurement—and indeed, most of the essays in the three catalogues do just that. My purpose here is not to review these complex exhibitions, but rather to question their different strategies for telling a global story.

A definition of globality, particularly as it pertains to art, is in order. At the outset, we must challenge the nearly empty category of contemporaneousness—this is what I call the “Meanwhile in Japan (or India, or South Africa)” approach to the problem, so common in biennials and other big international exhibitions, as well as in much scholarly and critical writing. Here, representative artists from diverse regions are brought together to generate a mosaic or patchwork of activities occurring at the same moment in scattered locales. This method hedges the fundamental question posed by the effort to “globalize” art histories: namely, the question of how to describe or demonstrate connections—those encounters or relations that globalization establishes, which are characterized by uneven development, misunderstandings, and local transformations resulting from particular instances of global-local conditions. Economically, global encounters emerge from the worldwide distribution of labor that is globalization’s form and that may link, for example, a corporate headquarters in Tokyo, maquiladoras in Mexico, distribution centers in Canada, and so on. There is no single global story, but there are structures of connection between local conditions and global networks that generate certain kinds of pervasive and persistent formats. These formats have been described as “glocal,” and all of them share scale disjunctions between the conditions of a particular locale and vast dedifferentiated global networks.

View of “Gutai: Splendid Playground,” 2013, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Foreground: Sadamasa Motonaga, Work (Water), 1956/2013. Photo: David Heald.

When it comes to translating such connections into curatorial practice, an individual artist is perhaps the easiest “unit” to cope with, since biography may be readily synchronized with mobility. In the case of Kusama, her work responded palpably and powerfully to the conditions of New York through her various activist events and performances in resistance to the Vietnam War. And yet it is possible to trace a consistent aesthetic—the accumulation of abstract or found elements on canvases and, for a time, on the bodies of performers—through the geographic and conceptual stages of her career. These ruptures and continuities are part of how art moves. But it might also be important to ask a wider range of questions of a life than the chronology of its unfolding, since such narratives, no matter how faithfully they attend to peregrinations, will inevitably recapitulate the notion of the artist as a self-contained subject while de-emphasizing the intersubjectivity that produces art movements and shapes practices. It is worth pondering, for instance, why retrospectives conventionally, if not invariably, limit themselves to the work of the featured artist.

Of course, one response to the limits of the individual as a “unit” of museological presentation is the adoption of the two other units of measure I have mentioned: movement and geographic location. But these categories are just as likely as the individual artist to function as “containers,” as opposed to dynamic loci of connections. “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde” opted for coverage of a particular location. This choice had the significant virtue of demonstrating, for instance, how the late Surrealism of artists such as Hiroshi Nakamura and Chimei Hamada in the 1950s, which eloquently expressed Tokyo’s postwar trauma, would be transformed into the delirious psychedelic designs of Tadanori Yokoo by the end of the exhibition’s period. “Tokyo 1955–1970” was indisputably an exhibition of great discoveries for the nonspecialist. But the price paid for this breadth was the absence of a strong reading of how this work emerged out of the material conditions of Tokyo as a particular cosmopolitan site with its own distinctive format of domestic and international connectivity. Although virtually everything present in the show was produced or took place in Tokyo, the dizzying range of objects and documentation packed into a relatively small space felt like the sort of “one of this, one of that” survey often found in more geographically diverse exhibitions. I understand the temptation to show as many artists, events, and tendencies as possible when afforded the rare opportunity to introduce a corpus of Japanese art into one of the world’s most canonical modern museums of European and American modernism, but I was left wondering whether such a profusion might have been counterproductive.

Interestingly, each of the essays in the excellent “Tokyo” catalogue tells a nuanced story that might have generated stronger—though fewer—visual narratives in the exhibition itself. Over and over, the authors insist that this period in Tokyo was characterized by unprecedented development and infrastructural stress, as the country emerged from World War II’s horrifying legacy of destruction—both wrought by and wrought on the country—to become the world’s second-largest economy. And they emphasize that this era of increasing prosperity was also an era of unrest—protests erupted, catalyzed by the 1960 signing (and, later, the renewal) of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States but driven by a general discontent with the effects of rampant growth and, arguably, with Americanization. Reading about these events and thinking over what I had seen in the galleries made me wonder whether a more precise and pointed set of connections could have been made, for instance, among the superstructural proposals of Metabolist architects; Jirō Takamatsu's string projects, which, like infrastructure, are horizontally expansive and open-ended; and the photographers around the journal Provoke, who made searing documentary images of the underside of Tokyo’s development (catalogue authors Michio Hayashi and Mika Yoshitake clearly indicate such potential associations). Such conceptual links were available in the exhibition as it was, but its installation did not stage them explicitly—in part, I suppose, because of space constraints and an impulse to include as many artists as possible.

“Gutai: Splendid Playground” offers an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate that movement’s contribution to painting. The most famous example of Gutai’s painterly engagement with matter is Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenging Mud, performed in 1955 at the “First Gutai Art Exhibition” in Tokyo, where the artist “met” his material in a performative encounter with earth, writhing and rolling virtually nude on a muddy patch of ground. Gutai is largely known in the United States for this and other ephemeral actions (in which painting often served as the guiding model even in the absence of paint or canvas). It is particularly salutary that “Splendid Playground” makes it possible to study a wide range of paintings by Shiraga and others—many of which are quite strong as conventional paintings. Indeed, in her catalogue essay Munroe underscores the ways in which Gutai’s approach to the medium was deeply integrated into international Euro-American circuits and that its performative strategies predated the famous and canonical works of Allan Kaprow, inventor of Happenings. In other words, Gutai was global before globalization. And yet the Guggenheim exhibition includes works exclusively by Gutai artists. Wouldn’t it have been possible to juxtapose their production with that of their European colleagues in order to experience the movement through its connections rather than as an established and therefore recanonized entity?

View of “Yayoi Kusama,” 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Sheldan C. Collins.

In all three exhibitions there was a corollary challenge regarding the relative visual and historical balance between artworks and documentation. While not unique to the exigencies of exhibiting global contemporary art, the question of how to present artworks and documentation together, in close proximity, becomes especially acute when representing cultures that will be relatively unfamiliar to the target audience. This dilemma is compounded by the fact that artworks with physical presence, such as Gutai paintings, may end up dominating an exhibition even though they may be no more significant than works or actions conveyed through documentation. How, for instance, should a painting touch a photomural? The typical museological answer is “It shouldn’t!”—a response that engenders the “container effect” I’ve noted with respect to an exhibition’s unit of measurement. I am in favor of more experimentation and greater risk-taking in this regard. With growing frequency, artists are invited to assume the responsibility of activating exhibition installations, as in Philippe Parreno’s recent design for “Dancing Around the Bride” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which furnished performance stages in the midst of galleries populated by artworks. But relying primarily on artists to solve such problems is a cop-out, even when the artists do an excellent job. I see no reason why scholars, curators, conservators, and designers shouldn’t themselves seriously rethink the question of how to visually link work and document, since its stakes are as historical and philosophical as they are aesthetic. (Such efforts become even more urgent when you consider how, in recent years, commercial galleries have begun to package documentation as a kind of product, transforming it into salable commodities in ways that don’t always responsibly represent the art in question.) If globality means anything, it means crossing boundaries. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the line between documents and artworks (a line that probably matters most to those with financial interests in the latter) while simultaneously challenging the impermeability of the categories I’ve named—artist, movement, and location—which, in their naturalized forms, serve to contain the branching networks of connectivity that are globalization’s engine but also its greatest political potential.

Gutai: Splendid Playground” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through May 8.

David Joselit is Carnegie professor of the history of art at Yale University. His most recent book is After Art (Princeton, 2012).