Kamakura, Japan

Jikken Kōbō, L’Ève Future, 1955. Performance view, Haiyuza Theatre, Tokyo, 1955. Photo: Kiyoji Ōtsuji.

Jikken Kōbō, L’Ève Future, 1955. Performance view, Haiyuza Theatre, Tokyo, 1955. Photo: Kiyoji Ōtsuji.

“Jikken Kōbō—Experimental Workshop”

The Museum of Modern Art Kamakura & Hayama

Jikken Kōbō, L’Ève Future, 1955. Performance view, Haiyuza Theatre, Tokyo, 1955. Photo: Kiyoji Ōtsuji.

Jikken Kōbō, or Experimental Workshop, was a renowned Japanese art-and-performance collective of exceptional diversity. The group consisted of five visual artists, five composers (some of whom, including Toru Takemitsu, would later achieve international fame), a pianist, a lighting designer, an engineer, and a music critic/poet—all of whom gathered around the well-known art critic Shuzo Takiguchi, who gave the group its name. From 1951 until their disbanding in 1957, they produced and presented experimental stage performances and concerts of avant-garde music, playing pieces composed by the members and also presenting works by Béla Bartók, Norman Dello Joio, and Oliver Messiaen, among others, for the first time in Japan. Experimental Workshop also created sound-synched automatic slide shows combining abstract images, concrete-music pieces, and poetic texts in annual performance events, in addition to making abstract paintings, sculpture, photographs, and films. Curated by Harumi Nishizawa and Yuka Asaki, the exhibition (which will travel to four museums in Japan through January 2014) is the first major retrospective of this remarkable movement. Supported by expert scholarship and with a substantial body of 450 items, including original and reconstructed works and photographic and journalistic documentation of others, the exhibition (and catalogue) gave an organic overview of the group’s multifaceted activities.

Although the absence of film documentation of stage performances and the destruction of many collaborative works posed a challenge, the group’s passion for intermedia expression was effectively captured by the fragmented materials for four automatic slide shows created in 1953, together with a reenactment of Joji Yuasa’s concrete-music piece Lespugue, also 1953, in which a flute and piano performance was taped and played backward. The photographed images for the 1953 slide shows, with such titles as Another World and Making Foam, were highly reminiscent of a science-fiction film, showing geometrical models of future cities (anticipating the image of space colonies that prevailed in the enormously popular Japanese sci-fi films of the 1960s), strange bionic figures, and visions of an explosion and accumulation of particles. To imagine these images being accompanied by the concrete- music pieces of Yuasa or Kazuo Fukushima, as was originally the case, helped one to understand the members’ shared goal of presenting a new vision of the future.

Underlying Jikken Kōbō’s intermedia performance events was their invention of open-ended musical forms and visual styles. These projected deliberately fragmented or fluid visions of the world, which deviated from the rationalistically constructed viewpoint prevailing in classical Western art and music while also sketching a technologyinspired vision of a progressive future. For example, a vitalist and atomist view of the universe was clearly conveyed by Katsuhiro Yamaguchi’s series of “Vitrines,” begun in 1952: wooden boxes containing paintings covered in frosted glass, which create the illusion that the original image is blurring and flickering, causing a rudimentary 3-D effect. A similar sensibility informed Hideko Fukushima’s abstractions created by pressing objects dipped in paint onto canvas and hand-smearing paint to convey a dynamic explosion of energy. Shozo Kitadai’s drawings for (and photographic documentation of) a masked play based on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, produced in collaboration with Tetsuji Takechi in 1955, demonstrate an imaginative combination of machineage cyborgs with Stone Age rituals.

The exhibition vividly evoked Jikken Kōbō’s aspirations to find creative inspiration in places outside the alcoves of modern Western civilization, even as they responded to the possibilities of the new era of technological progress driving Japan’s postwar recovery. The show also succeeded in connecting Jikken Kōbō to wider contexts, not only by reevaluating its role as a successor to the aborted intermedia efforts of the Bauhaus-inspired prewar Japanese avant-gardes and as a precursor of the Fluxus events in Tokyo in the 1960s, but also by emphasizing its connections with contemporary innovations in graphic design and documentary film. This experimental art group played a positive role in the renewal of hope and the reconstruction of cultural foundations in the postwar years.

Midori Matsui