PRINT January/February 2021


Hippie Medium

Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver, Cinematic Illumination, 1968–69, eighteen slide projections (1,350 black-and-white slides, sound, 114 minutes 45 seconds), 108 color gels, disco ball. Installation view, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2020. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO THINK OF Andy Warhol when pondering Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s Cinematic Illumination, 1968–69, currently tucked away in the Museum of Modern Art’s new Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, albeit originally installed in the Ginza discotheque Killer Joe, where the ceilings, walls, and pistonlike pillars were covered with silver vinyl. During the brief period I served on the board of advisers to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh before its 1994 opening, a colleague who had been close to the artist suggested that the institution really should be configured as a discotheque (“Andy would have loved that!”). There was a silence while the staff held their breath, before the notion was deemed a joke and the board moved on to other things. The idea of the museum as a space for fun and games was then beyond outlandish; the Instagram-friendly process that critic Ben Davis has somewhat unfairly called Kusamafication was years in the future.

Based on a 2017 reconstruction at the Tokyo Photo-graphic Art Museum (and organized for MoMA by Sophie Cavoulacos), Cinematic Illumination consists of eighteen slide projectors clustered in a sort of overhead space station, each one beaming out seventy-five images onto screens arranged in a cycloramic, 360-degree circle. Geometric forms whirl past, as well as cars, manga pages, blurry street scenes, the face of Marilyn Monroe, and various bodies, sometimes in silhouette, sometimes seemingly pressed against the wall by centrifugal force.

The images, many taken from 16-mm movie footage, variously skitter past or hang around. Occasionally, the carousel creates the disorienting impression of going in both directions simultaneously. A disco ball produces moving dots on the floor. Color filters add variety. The whole thing is fueled by a soundtrack of late-1960s rock—the Leaves, the Human Beinz, Jim Morrison crooning “Five to One,” Japanese bands that sound like the MC5, and, of course, the Velvet Underground. The cinematic illusion, not uncommon in the High Sixties, is that you—dancing—are in the movie.

Cinematic Illumination was designed for love, play, and delirium.

In the catalogue for his 2015 exhibition “Hippie Modernism” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, curator Andrew Blauvelt invoked Herbert Marcuse as the epoch’s echt theorist in maintaining that art was less a weapon for than a consequence of emancipation. Live as though the day were here! In his 1969 Essay on Liberation, Marcuse envisions a possible “free society” as the conflation of “the barricade and the dance floor, love play and heroism.” Cinematic Illumination was designed for love, play, and delirium. The “Killer Joe Manifesto,” a 1968 paean to intoxication written by a number of Gulliver’s colleagues, is saturated in booze, ending with the ringing declaration that “in the true Killer Joe spirit, we declare that this life of love and liquor is a gallant and magnificent one.”

Still, Cinematic Illumination is more disciplined than Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable or the roughly similar multimedia extravaganzas of Gerd Stern et al.’s USCO collective. (Programmatically anarchic, USCO’s pioneer hippie modernists were too freewheeling for Timothy Leary, disrupting a psychedelic spectacle they’d contrived for him by drowning out his soothing lysergic exhortations with one of Antonin Artaud’s mad harangues.) A component of the Intermedia Arts Festival, a quasi-Fluxus event in which Gulliver and other Japanese artists performed pieces by George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and John Cage, Cinematic Illumination was pure zeitgeist. A rival happening, the tech-heavy Cross Talk Intermedia event, was held at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium. Inta-media spectacles, as well as student uprisings, were big in Japan in 1968 and 1969, as was Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), the first feature by mixed-media artist Toshio Matsumoto. A hippie-modernist extravaganza that transposes Oedipus to Tokyo’s geiboi subculture, Funeral Parade incorporates street performances, cinema verité, and zany underground shenanigans and really should have been released in the US as a midnight movie.

Because I came early on one of the first days MoMA reopened after its pandemic-induced hiatus, I mostly had “Cinematic Illumination” to myself. Seen in Covidian solitude alone on the barricades, the installation felt as alien as the Temple of Dendur or the haunted remnants of Krell civilization in the movie Forbidden Planet. After a while, my partner came to check on me and, inspired by the sound of Jefferson Airplane blasting from the speakers, spontaneously broke into a free-form arm-waving dance, briefly animating the gallery with the spirit of 1969. Marcuse concluded An Essay on Liberation by proposing that “the social expression of the liberated work instinct [would be] cooperation.” Ensconced in a MoMA gallery, Cinematic Illumination suggests not the transcendence of self but the triumph of the selfie. In the era of Kusamafication, it feels less like a place to have fun than like a place to document oneself in the act, appearing to have fun. Go with the flow is gone with the wind.

“Cinematic Illumination” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through February.

J. Hoberman was a village voice film critic for thirty years and has been contributing to Artforum for even longer. He has completed a monograph on the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.