Shusaku Arakawa, Tomio Miki, and Tetsumi Judo

various venues

When I returned to Tokyo in 1959 from my first trip through Europe and America, I was surprised to find a new, bizarre group of young artists, mostly in their twenties, called the Neo-Dada Organizers. They exhibited primarily in the Yomiuri Independent Show, the Japanese equivalent to France’s Salon de Refuses. The Neo-Dada Organizers could be considered an updated version of the older Gutai group, who produced its first Happenings in the ’50s. The younger artists were characterized by a disenchantment with the Abstract Expressionism which had so tremendously influenced the Japanese art world: for them, it was too esthetic. They desired an art which could respond more directly (though somewhat anarchistically) to the chaotic realities of the world they knew.

Their exhibits reflected the immense junk-yard of the teeming city of Tokyo. The junk which they first saw, which influenced their way of feeling objects, was the junk of the burned ruins of the city during the war. The blasted city had been their playground: their first toys had been bottles melted into distortion from fire bombs, pieces of roof-beams found in the ashes. Now, their shows were full of these junk-flowers, with their queer blossoms: broken whiskey or beer bottles, rusted drums, old sticks of bamboo, scraps of weather-beaten wood.

So we should consider the Neo-Dada Organizers exhibitions more as sociological than as artistic phenomena. Their demonstrations and Happenings on the streets were also more social (and sometimes political) than artistic. In political demonstrations, they would wrap themselves in bandages and weave through, or lie down in the streets of Tokyo. They participated actively in the famous demonstrations against the Japanese-American Security Treaty in 1960, mixing up slogans of “Down with AMPO!” (the Security Treaty) with “Down with AMFO!” (Informel painting). A persistent legend has it that it was one of their members, Arakawa, who threw the brick at the police trooper which triggered off the bloodiest of the riots.

The art activity of the group was thus somewhat compromised by the social heat of its members. Because of this, the group was like a bomb, bursting with great force, but lacking the force to sustain itself. Though it disbanded in 1962, I would, nevertheless, like to attempt to estimate the activities of this group as the first important turning-point of postwar Japanese art. The subject can best be approached, perhaps, by examining the work of three “phoenixes” who have arisen from the ashes of the movement––Shusaku Arakawa, Tomio Miki, and Tetsumi Kudo.

Arakawa signalled his primary concerns with an event which he staged in the spring of 1960, a kind of anti-Happening (because nothing happened). As a feature of the Art Festival in a Tokyo college, Arakawa situated a large audience in a balcony which could only be reached via stepladders. With the audience “trapped” in the balcony, Arakawa then removed the stepladders and lay prostrate in the middle of the lower floor, motionless and without a sound, in complete darkness. He lay there for over an hour while the audience (including me) waited for something to happen; we were left in a great void, with the empty feeling of fear of the dark in the pits of our stomachs. Something of Arakawa’s own fear of death and nothingness communicated itself to us. Finally, in desperation, in outrage, in fear, the audience began to jump down from the balcony, and found the “corpse” of Arakawa lying on the floor, which we began to kick and pummel. Arakawa withstood this treatment to the end, without a single reaction. For him, this “anti-Happening” was a laboratory experiment in which he was able to convert himself into a “thing,” confronted with his fear of nothingness and the void.

The series of Boxes that Arakawa was making at the same time can be regarded as incarnations of this same fear. These black boxes were like huge coffins which the viewer, like ancient tomb-robbers, had to open by himself. Inside were spread quilts of morbid colors on which congealed masses of cement and cotton matting lay interred, like masses of an expelled, dead foetus. Arakawa might have been a symbolic surgeon, cutting and extracting the hidden “cancers” proliferating beneath commonplace surfaces. In a sense, his obsession with death and nothingness distills the sensibility of the post-Hiroshima generation.

Arakawa has worked in New York since 1961; curiously, America gave him back the canvas to paint on. Since 1963, his various exhibitions in America and Europe have all been of the Diagrams, in which the silhouetted outlines of feathers, footprints, combs, tennis rackets, umbrellas, egg beaters, etc., have been transferred with an airbrush onto the canvas. We are thus allowed to confront only the “visible concept” of the objects, no more: on the white stage, the drama of metamorphosis enacts itself silently. In his January, 1966 exhibition (at the Dwan Gallery in New York), Arakawa pushed this concept of “conceptuality” to a logical limit, replacing the outlined silhouettes with a series of written words: BEDROOM, TUBE, AIR, SMELL. “I am attempting,” he has said, “to pictorialize the state before the imagination begins to work,” i.e., the pre-image state of painting. His work is a kind of “pregnant vacuum” out of which a number of possible pictures can spring into existence, a “pre-painting,” corresponding roughly to Maurice Blanchot’s observation, “Thought is the possibility of being in contact with things while withdrawing oneself from them to an infinite distance.”

Tomio Miki, another member of the Neo-Dada Organizers, exhibited his “destroyed paintings” in 1958 at the Yomiuri Independent Show. Here, he splashed gasoline over his abstract paintings and set a match to them; the audience attended the rite of destruction of Art Informel. In 1960 he showed huge junk-sculpture pieces, constructed of auto headlights, or reliefs of row upon row of whiskey bottles. Since 1962, however, his series of Ears is what has brought his work to the attention of a larger audience. The first was a huge Human Ear, cast in aluminum, which he exhibited in a show called Young Seven at the Minami Gallery. Afterwards, he gave himself over to a range of variations on the theme. Some are actual size, first shaped in clay, then molded in rubber, finally cast in gleaming aluminum. Sometimes the ear presents a lobe stretched like a stick or a phallus; others might have several spoons placed idiosyncratically in the body of the ear. Later, he printed the image of the ear (by silk-screen process) on transparent plastic boards, stacking them so that the viewer peers into an infinity of duplicated ears. This method is also employed in Miki’s sets for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s new film, Another’s Face.

Miki’s own remarks on his current preoccupation are interesting:

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Monsieur Roquentin suddenly vomits against the existence of the roots of a tree. I had a similar experience in a train, when, for no reason, I suddenly felt myself surrounded by hundreds of ears trying to assault me. This personal episode, however, wouldn’t be any precise answer to why I make ears. I can hardly say I chose the ear. More precisely, isn’t it that the ear chose me?

Tetsumi Kudo, who has been living in Paris since 1962, works with the themes of sex and impotence. His earlier work, around 1958, turned on heavily dripped paintings, teeming with biological scratches, like germ-microbes. Limitless Propagation is a typical title for the object-sculptures which followed this microbic painting series. In the Yomiuri Independent Show of 1962 he displayed for the first time the now-famous Philosophy of Impotence, lined up around an entire room. From the ceiling, cords hung down in great profusion, attached with electric bulbs and slices of bread, all painted a coal-tar black. Called “a morgue of phalluses,” the room caused a considerable scandal, on the heels of which Kudo left for Paris.

Curiously, as Arakawa left his boxes in Japan, Kudo began to build boxes in Paris. But Kudo’s boxes are not pseudo-religiously ritualistic like Arakawa’s, but are raucous, wildly blasting jukeboxes of sensual images. Closed, the boxes look like dice, with dots on the sides. Opened, sirens begin to wail, huge eyeballs peer out, open mouths gape, sets of injection needles, condoms, roulette-wheels, rest fitfully, or rows of rubber dolls, compressed hideously in jars, confront the viewer. All the boxes are entitled, Your Portrait. Another piece, called L’ Amour, confronts two monstrous heads, each on the seat of a chair, close enough for the two sets of rotten lips to touch; a telegraph key buried inside spells out Je vous aime in Morse code.

The strength of Kudo’s images turns on the fact that their violence and hatred is directed as well at himself as at the stagnant, petit-bourgeois Parisian society he inhabits. He does not purify or abstract his rage and fear, but displays it as much as an aspect of himself as of those to whom the vicious title, Your Portrait, is directed.

––Yoshiaki Tono