Tokyo

“Mono-ha”

Kamakura Gallery

Mono-ha (the French translation, Ecole des Choses, always sounds better than something like the “Things group”) flourished as a loosely unified movement from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s and, with the possible exception of the Gutai group, was the most important postwar art movement in Japan. This three-part miniretrospective of Mono-ha featured nine of its leading artists.

What was it? Well, for example: Lee U-Fan (a Korean) dropped a stone on a plate of glass, and the glass cracked. Nobuo Sekine laid a large plate of polished black stone on a huge column of white sponge, and the sponge half collapsed. Kishio Suga laid a number of wire grids atop one another and placed a few wooden pegs in some of the intersecting holes. Noriyuki Haraguchi arranged eight iron sawhorses in an overlapping formation and laid a plate of glass over five of them. Within a big paper “box,” Susumu Koshimizu placed a block of marble. Katsuhiko Narita lined up six big blocks of charcoal. Noboru Takayama created a sort of wooden wave by laying, standing, and leaning a number of long pieces of timber stained deep brown. Koji Enokura stretched a triangle of leather over a corner of a room and then sliced the center. And lastly, Katsuro Yoshida hung a rope from the ceiling, wrapped it around a huge piece of timber so that the bottom of the wood, standing precariously at an angle in the air, touched the floor, and then further wrapped the rope around a large stone that sat on the floor.

These works possessed a force of their own. They were unexpected, pure, and self-content. There was no quibbling about natural versus manmade, product versus found object, and even less the chicken-and-egg of object and idea. The intuitive impulse rose prominent here. As preciously formal as they sometimes seemed, the sense of being “just right” more often than not overrode any complaints.

As “pure” and forceful as these things were in themselves, they also led to a number of other issues. Simplicity almost became coyness when seemingly facile juxtapositions led one to compile endless lists of oppositions (heavy/light, hard/soft, etc.). The “fact” of Lee’s stone on glass seemed to disappear when one looked at the resultant cracks in the glass. Of course: they were only more of the same lines he pursues in his prints and paintings. And in many of his other pieces—combinations of stones and jaggedly cut iron plates, where everything seems to transpire along those edges, those lines—his primary concern seems to be with the intersection of the visible and invisible, with the present and absent.

But as phenomenological or conceptual as these many works may have been, they were also very much within traditions of Asian art practice. Narita’s charcoal, one is aware, is the stuff that results in ink sticks. When Koshimizu splits a stone in two, seizing a part of nature at the same time as he tries to reveal it to himself, he is also possessed of the same spirit of instantaneity—you only have one chance, so get it right—that governs the work of the calligrapher or the martial artist. Much of the work also seemed to draw on principles of Japanese gardening. The size, shape, selection, and placement of stones (a common material in Mono-ha) was, of course, carefully considered.

Much of Suga’s work involves infinitely interpretable situations that are always fresh and surprising. Their spontaneity and expansiveness gives them a serenity that one quickly finds comfort in. Lee, on the other hand, achieves (and leads us to) not so much serenity as wonder—a question wants to be asked. The perfect stillness and solidity of his work only magnifies our own precarious situations.

Together, Lee and Suga might be said to represent the two poles of Mono-ha, an art whose influence in Japan is still strong, and an art that seems a system of antinomies itself: as immediately and viscerally satisfying as these things are in themselves, they also point out and back to the rest of the world; as much as Mono-ha is part of an Asian tradition, so too does this tradition participate in a wider and more international esthetic conversation. Reconciliation between object and idea, garden and cosmos, becomes unnecessary because there was perhaps never any opposition to begin with—leading us back to the things themselves.

Arturo Silva