New York

“Artists’ Books: Japan”

Franklin Furnace

Curated by Yoshiaki Tono, this show offered a fascinating look at Japanese conceptual art. Tono divided the exhibition into seven sections, including one of miscellanea. “The Book as Documentation and Memory Holder” included, for example, Tadanori Yokoo’s Shoot Diary, 1981, containing hundreds of photographs, from the period 1970–80, of the artist in different settings. “The Book as Unopenable Object” contained sculptural works like Tono’s own Self Portrait books, 1975, which do not open but spill out an odd sense of the “author’s” identity at the “reader” from their cover, and Kimiyo Mishima’s Ceramic Page-Plate, 1975. “The Book as Performance” ranged from Sakumi Hagiwara’s Wind, 1980, filled with blank gauze pages, to the same artist’s Fade Out, 1980, in which the words “Fade Out” fade out through repeated photocopying while the ground darkens and comes up to engulf them. Yoshio Nakae’s and Noriko Ueno’s Wait until M.S.T. finishes to peep into it, 1974, contains about a hundred identical photographic images of someone peeping into the eye-holes of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Michi Tanaka’s Question, 1977, contains one question per page, in Japanese on the left and in English on the right, such as, “Are worlds which [are] rubbed out by erasers mistaken worlds?” and, "Are there any books in your room that you have never opened?’ Lee U-Fan’s Hon (Book), 1984, contains a few pages of hand-drawn Japanese characters over-inked so that they bleed through the rice paper for several sheets. As one turns the pages each character takes shape through delicate stages, and as delicately loses shape again.

In “The Book as Concept,” as in much Western conceptual art, elementary strategies were given prominence over complex ones. Etsutomu Kashiwabara’s This is a book, 1970, is filled with such tautological statements and restatements of its identity as, “It is a book whose final end is just to be a book,” “Therefore the word ‘book’ is also a book,” and so on. One of the most fascinating objects was Jiro Takamatsu’s The Story of File I & II, 1975, which is divided into sections of one letter, two letters, three letters, and four letters. The one-letter section is simply the alphabet from A to Z. The two-letter section is longer, going from as through ab, ac, ad, and so on to zz. Three letters: aaa, aab, aac, . . . baa, bab, bac, bad, . . . to zzz. Four letters: aaaa, aaab prsa, prsb, prsc zzzw, zzzx, zzzy, zzzz. It is amazing how rarely words are formed yet how readable the book is in an incantatory way. “The Book as Picture” had, among other things, the funny manipulated photographs of Mad Amado in SOS, 1970; “The Book As Skin” included Takamatsu’s string-wrapped Green Box by Marcel Duchamp, 1984.

The close relationship between the work of Western and Japanese conceptual artists was strikingly highlighted here, yet the relation between our objects and theirs was at once clear and obscure. Makio Hasegawa’s A is a photostat of Andy Warhol’s A. Yet when one sees the documentation here of the performance and conceptual activities of the Gutai group in the mid ’50s—indeed, when one thinks of Japanese cultural history in general—one wonders how much of the native root is here disguised in Western forms.

Thomas McEvilley