View of “Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting,” 2011. From left: Spring 1966; Work 1968; Work ’91A, 1991.

View of “Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting,” 2011. From left: Spring 1966; Work 1968; Work ’91A, 1991.

Atsuko Tanaka

View of “Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting,” 2011. From left: Spring 1966; Work 1968; Work ’91A, 1991.

STANDING BAREFOOT ON A BEACH, Atsuko Tanaka drags the handle of an ice ax in an arc through the sand, drawing a circle around her body and closing it with extraordinary precision. The artist then steps out of this loop, moving sinuously but purposefully across the beach to trace a vast network of circles connected, traversed, and lassoed by lines. Captured in grainy 16-mm film, these furrows appear like skeins of rope, soon to be dragged from the shore as the camera pulls back to show the tide rolling in. Playful yet calculated, organic yet contrived, the spooled lines roll the timeless cycles of nature into the incessant whirr of the camera’s apparatus.

The proliferating circles of this mesmerizing film, titled Round on Sand, 1968, were a central gesture throughout the sixty-plus works in the important and timely exhibition “Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting” at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. Tanaka’s first UK retrospective, it built on recent solo presentations in Japan, Austria, and the US to offer the most comprehensive survey of her work to date. The show’s extensive curatorial team included the leading Tanaka scholar Mizuho Kato and Ikon’s director, Jonathan Watkins, who featured the artist’s work in “Facts of Life: Contemporary Japanese Art” at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2001. As the title “Art of Connecting” suggests, Tanaka’s work is filled with intricate circuits and systems. These have certainly accrued new meaning in our networked age, yet they also capture the zeitgeist of Japan in the 1950s and ’60s—an exhilarating and occasionally terrifying congruence of increased political freedom, rapid economic expansion, and dazzling technological development.

Tanaka is best known for her participation in the Gutai group between 1955 and 1965, but the exhibition far exceeds this period, beginning with works from the early ’50s and ending with the monumental lacquer paintings produced just before her death in 2005. In a lecture to mark the exhibition’s opening, Kato relayed Tanaka’s wish to be regarded as an artist in her own right, whose activities were distinct from those of Gutai. But though Tanaka’s practice was indeed unique and remarkably consistent, it evolved in constant dialogue with that of other artists, including her husband, Akira Kanayama, Gutai impresario Jiro Yoshihara, and the photographer Hiroshi Fukuzawa, whose name she inscribes on the beach at the end of Round on Sand. These productive exchanges were inevitably repressed by the diachronic thrust of the retrospective format, which elided synchronic relationships and rendered certain parts of the exhibition frustratingly enigmatic.

The show’s first room featured two works from Tanaka’s “Calendar” series, 1952–54, which the artist made following an extended period in a hospital. Using fragile found materials, she constructed stratified supports evocative of a sedimentary accretion of time—an effect compounded by the calendars inscribed on their surfaces. Though they anticipate On Kawara’s date paintings (exhibited at Ikon a few years back), Tanaka’s Calendars evince a more subversive attitude toward time’s inexorable march, their unstable surfaces fracturing, obliterating, and deforming the orderly letters and numbers they support. The waybills used in Calendar, ca. 1954, were apparently provided by Kanayama, who was using them in his work at this time. Yet Tanaka also drew on her own distinctly gendered experience as an amateur seamstress, making Calendar, 1953, on linen, its numbers fractured by seams. These skills were also brought to bear on both Work, 1956, a many-seamed dress that hung forlornly on a mannequin in an adjacent corner, and the more dynamic performance Stage Clothes, 1956, a film of which shows Tanaka whipping off one outfit after another, to reveal a succession of elaborate costumes miraculously concealed within hems and sleeves. Gleeful and dexterous, she is more like a magician pulling scarves from a hat than a sultry striptease artiste (although Tanaka’s mother was reportedly shocked when one deft maneuver revealed a daring flesh-colored rubber suit).

Tanaka’s interest in fabric as both support and substance is clearest in three pieces from 1995 titled Work, which were quietly the most audacious offerings in the show. Displayed at the First Gutai Art Exhibition the year they were made, each consists of a sheet of factory-dyed cotton cut straight from the roll and tacked to the wall. The lower edges of the sheets hang free, rippling as the viewer walks past and casting shadows onto the network of creases, folds, and stains that already mark the fabric’s surface. For a Western audience, these pieces may seem to probe the limits of painting in a manner that repeats Robert Rauschenberg’s breakthrough monochromes or prefigures those of Blinky Palermo. But as Ming Tiampo has argued with regard to Gutai, even the term prefigures risks consigning Japanese art to a subsidiary role in the dominant, Eurocentric narrative of modernism. The Works might be better understood in the context of Gutai’s commitment to the concrete as opposed to the metaphysical, and the group’s desire to “impart life” to material without altering or distorting it. Luxuriating in the physical qualities of cotton, they show paintings to be made of the same humble stuff as tablecloths and dresses.

View of “Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting,” 2011. Background: Work, 1955; Work, 1955; Work, 1955. Foreground: Electric Dress, 1956/1986. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

For many visitors, the Works were probably overshadowed by the two best-known pieces in the exhibition: Work (Bell), 1955, and Electric Dress, 1956/1986. The former invited the viewer to press a switch, which triggered twenty electric bells lining the perimeter of the gallery to ring in quick succession. The effect was abrupt and startling, but after decades of facile participatory art, the work’s original frisson had diminished somewhat. Electric Dress, on the other hand, retained its charge, jolting to life as its timer kicked in, radiating light and heat with astonishing intensity. In an arresting photograph in the exhibition’s catalogue, Tanaka appears to recoil from the dress as she dons it for the camera, manifesting the fear of electrocution that caused her to compare the experience of wearing the garment to that of a “death-row inmate.” After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the incandescent body of Electric Dress’s wearer must have been equally troubling for the beholder; when two performers wearing versions of the dress emerge at the end of Stage Clothes, their bodies appear pulverized and wraithlike. But any invocation of technological disaster is complicated by the object’s tacky facture: the thick enamel paint smeared and cracked on the bulbs, the handwritten labels attached to each fixture, and the snarled train of electric wiring. Like Work (Bell), which Tanaka envisaged coating the walls of the gallery with sound, Electric Dress was conceived as a kind of “painting,” one primarily concerned with the articulation and obliteration of physical limits: of the canvas, of space, and of the body.

Tanaka claimed that Electric Dress was inspired by illuminated advertising signage, and it hung adjacent to the intriguing Plans for Advertising Towers, ca. 1956, a suite of three drawings. It is thought that they were solicited by Yoshihara, who asked the Gutai group to devise ad campaigns for his cooking-oil company. One of Tanaka’s designs incorporates the blazing lights of Electric Dress; another proposes a phallic tower of flaccid, inflatable yellow fabric; and the third depicts a collapsible and invertible yellow ziggurat. These drawings indicate the artist’s humorous engagement with the spaces and mechanisms of commerce, which remained too implicit in this exhibition. Her first group show took place in a department-store window, while an early version of Stage Clothes was performed at Yoshihara’s factory, for an audience of journalists and photographers from Life magazine. Given her history of co-opting these commercial and industrial contexts, Tanaka’s frenzied costume changes in Stage Clothes might be seen to critically engage the role of the female consumer in Japan’s burgeoning postwar economy.

Tanaka revisited the Electric Dress many times in the years that followed its production, diagramming the garment’s circuits, inductors, connections, and crossings gone pleasurably haywire. Previous critics have complained that this obsessive reworking shored up the Dress’s status as her singular achievement. But rather than simply returning to the dress, Tanaka’s drawings reconceptualize it in two dimensions, dismantling and reconfiguring its various components. This recursive, reflective process is distinct from Kawara’s chronological extension of a series or Yayoi Kusama’s adoption of dots as a signature motif. It has more in common with the studio practices of Eva Hesse or Al Taylor, who made drawings after sculptures once they were complete, meditating on and subtly skewing the three-dimensional work.

In 1957, Tanaka turned to large-scale paintings on canvas, a format she continued to utilize for the rest of her career. As one moved chronologically through the exhibition, cruciform arrangements reminiscent of the Electric Dress gradually dispersed into allover compositions of geometric circles, erratically connected by fluid skeins of paint. In Golden Work A, 1962, metallic powder and gleaming lacquer achieved iridescence without the need for electricity, and circular canvases, such as Spring 1966, were rendered dynamic by hidden motors that caused them to rotate at the touch of a button. Yet in spite of these flashy painterly devices and mechanical gadgets, the most striking aspect of Tanaka’s later paintings is the forceful tension between the precise, diagrammatic circles she inscribes and the expressionistic skeins that bind them. Early on in her career, she declared: “I want to make paintings that are like an equation where one has forgotten a zero.” This might not sound like the most radical proposition imaginable—and Tanaka’s works on canvas were not the most daring in the show. But the warped logic of that early statement captures the distinctive combination of the diligently calculated and the willfully off-kilter that runs throughout this fascinating body of work.

“Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting” travels to Espai D’Art Contemporani de Castelló, Spain, Oct. 7–Dec. 31; Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Feb. 4–May 6, 2012.

Anna Lovatt is a lecturer in art history at the University of Nottingham, UK.