View of “Mitsutoshi Hanaga,” 2017. Photo: Takahashi Fujikawa.

View of “Mitsutoshi Hanaga,” 2017. Photo: Takahashi Fujikawa.

Mitsutoshi Hanaga

Nadiff Gallery

View of “Mitsutoshi Hanaga,” 2017. Photo: Takahashi Fujikawa.

This exhibition, “Mitsutoshi Hanaga: 1000,” was modest yet calculated in its presentation, giving a small glimpse into the vast archive that artist and journalist Hanaga created—and the history he helped forge as well as document, as he examined the role of performance and theater, so intertwined with activism and resistance, in postwar Japanese society. 

The selected black-and-white images (hung in the gallery like contact prints) revealed Hanaga’s choreographic sense: He not only took photos, he also orchestrated them. In semijournalistic style, often using a Minolta CLE camera, he cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the subversive side of what has been called the “war-experienced generations”—a uniquely generative strain of defiance that evolved in response to widespread military, political, economic, and social reforms implemented by the United States between 1945 and 1952.

This chronology of Japanese performance, rebellion, and resistance—in more than 150 images gridlocked together in rows—hardly represents the activities of artists alone. Yes, Hanaga did document important art happenings, such as Hi Red Center’s Dropping Event, 1964, and the work of artists such as Ushio Shinohara, a founding member of the Japanese Neo Dadaism Organizers Group, and Jiro Takamatsu, a founding member of Hi Red Center, among others. But Hanaga keenly observed, as well, the work of radical movements, from feminism to environmentalism. One series of photographs, “The Handicapped Protesting the Mona Lisa Exhibition in Front of the National Museum, Tokyo, April 1974,” highlights the multidirectional fronts that activism took in the 1970s. That year, anticipating the very large crowds that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa would attract upon its first-ever appearance in Japan, the National Museum announced that it would have to deny access to those who might need assistance, including the elderly, the disabled (which included Hanaga himself, whose severe arthritis eventually led to the removal of his kneecap), and those with infants. The news sparked protests by many groups outraged by the museum’s decision, including feminist coalitions. Quickly escalating, the demonstrations climaxed when activist Tomoko Yonezu took spray paint to the legendary painting, its subject’s famous smile protected only by a thin layer of display glass. 

Another series of photographs, “Kogai Kigyoshu Jusatsu Kito Sodan” (Collective of Monks Praying to Kill Owners of Corporations Responsible for Environmental Pollution), 1970, reveals the serious consequences of US-imposed economic reforms on local communities and the environment in general. In September 1970, various priests, students, and lay followers of Buddhism’s Nichiren and Shingon sects, led by Buddhist scholar Umehara Masaki, chanted the mantra of jusatsu, or “deadly curse,” and the Avalokiteśvara Sutra in front of factories known to have polluted the air in Yokkaichi and the water in Kamioka, among other places. Furious with the lack of government regulation on these companies, the Buddhists were unexpectedly the ones who led the community to act. Rather than maintaining journalistic neutrality, Hanaga’s lens aligns itself with the diverse groups taking action by documenting the radical energies arising in the face of adversity. 

Influential for its portrayal of a subject that is outside the gaze of mainstream media but that nonetheless eventually came to symbolize the Japanese postwar experience, Hanaga’s work crosses the borders, which might have seemed more distinct at the time than they do today, between photography, performance documentation, and activism. In revealing the shared origins of postwar Japanese performance art and public activism, it clarified their ongoing connection while showing how even the most subversive practices may eventually become mainstream. 

––Victor Wang