Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 2009
Charles Merewether and Rika Iezumi Hiro, eds. Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan, 1950–1970 Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007. 152 pp.; 28 color ills.; 39 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780892368662)
Exhibition schedule: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, March 6–June 3, 2007

How did the concept of “Anti-Art” arise in the context of postwar Japan, and what problems did it address in the postwar art world? The postwar period in Japan was a time of intense debate and speculation; this included a search for terms describing new art practices that stepped outside established genres such as painting and sculpture. Artists brought artworks out of private spaces and into everyday places such as city streets, trains, and parks. In a 1966 letter to the editor of the Dokusho Shinbun (Reading Newspaper), the artist Jirō Takamatsu identified a shift in the relationship between art and society when he expressed a lack of any “grand motif” in contemporary art, while at the same time suggesting a “lack of separation between art and life.” In 1960, the term Han-geijutsu, or “Anti-Art,” was born and began circulating somewhat widely in Japanese art discourse. Takamatsu’s questions challenged the position of art in society, and embody the dynamic spirit that is the focus of the exhibition Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan, 1950–1970 and its accompanying catalogue.

Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art presents a refreshing perspective on this period, integrating conceptual works with performances and records of happenings that have not been the focus of other postwar exhibitions to date. It advances a complex narrative of postwar artistic practice in Japan, emphasizing individuals and groups that staged ephemeral works; in the process, it provides various perspectives on the meaning of “Anti-Art.” Shūzō Takiguchi, a leader of the group Experimental Workshop, is quoted in the exhibition catalogue as declaring, “if art for the masses, a new art which appeals to a mass audience, is to be created, experimentation on a grand scale is called for” (4). The catalogue in particular provides a narrative of postwar Japanese artists who challenged the harmony and stability of Japan’s progress in the midst of its “economic miracle.” It focuses primarily on actions held in Tokyo and distinguishes itself from previous postwar art catalogues with its theoretical focus, outlining conceptual paradoxes articulated by artists and critics in the period.

Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art develops an alternative to the narrative presented in Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan, 1945–1965, which focused primarily on paintings (David Elliott, et al., Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan, 1945–1965, Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1985). Building on this groundbreaking work on postwar Japanese art, Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art grapples with challenging debates over how art should function in contemporary society. It also forges a tighter relationship between art theory and practice than Alexandra Munroe’s encyclopedic survey, Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky (New York: Abrams, 1994). The current catalogue does not replace the extensive chronology and translated essays in Munroe’s catalogue, but it does fill many of the gaps regarding performance and ephemeral works staged in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as with its particular emphasis on “Anti-Art” in theory and practice.

Charles Merewether’s introductory essay presents a broad overview of the 1950s and 1960s, drawing primarily upon artist groups that were critical of Japanese society. According to Merewether, artists’ activities in postwar Japan do not fit within a single narrative, and thus Japanese modernity is not a cohesive entity. Merewether uses the term “disjunctive modernity” to describe experimental practices that rejected the conventions of spectatorship and brought art into the realm of the everyday. Merewether also considers early postwar Reportage paintings that documented the horrors of the war and social instability in Japan. His essay brings a new perspective to avant-garde groups such as the cooperative photo agency Vivo and the collective Hi Red Center who staged actions that used “society as a material, not as a canvas,” according to Takamatsu, one of its members (19). Experiments in Art and Technology artists went so far as to create ephemeral works specifically for the public eye such as Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture (1970), staged for the Pepsi Pavilion at the Japan World Exposition in Osaka. The Expo set a new context for international display, one that highlighted emerging technologies for an international public. In this context Nakaya’s fog billowing around the spaceship-like pavilion foreshadowed a decade in which video and new media works would change the landscape of contemporary art practice.

Reiko Tomii’s contribution to the catalogue, “Geijutsu on Their Minds: Memorable Words on Anti-Art,” addresses the formation of “Anti-Art” and the significance of the term for both artists and art critics. Tomii provides a lucid background to the discourses of “Anti-Art” and distinguishes it from the later term “Non-Art” which came into use in the late 1960s. With the rise of the term “Non-Art” came a satirical rebuttal to the dominant narratives of contemporary art in the early postwar period. One artist who rode the waves of Anti-/Non-Art, Genpei Akasegawa, evoked the era’s polemical spirit in 1967: “This ‘thing’ that may be called geijutsu at one time or another does not require the name of geijutsu all the time. . . . By the way, what is ‘Anti-Art’ [Han-geijutsu]?” Tomii’s essay draws upon primary sources and brings clarity to an elusive topic by adroitly tracing the origin, theory, and debates over “Anti-Art.” It also outlines the expanding role of artists who engaged directly with the discourses of the period, including Natsuyuki Nakanishi’s thoughts on “Anti-Painting,” as well as Yoko Ono’s conceptual works that could be described as one thread of “Non-Art.”

The catalogue’s chronological approach presents a smooth overview of the period, but it also splits certain groups and events, such as its brief mention of Mono-ha (Things School) and the Osaka Expo without discussion of specific works and their impact. The timeline currently available on the Getty Center’s website serves as a useful addition to the catalogue, as it constructs a picture of how groups such as Neo Dada and Hi Red Center influenced their contemporaries. There is still a great need for scholarly attention directed to these groups and their ideology, creative practice, and impact on contemporary Japanese art since 1970. The eclectic works on display in the exhibition were drawn largely from the Getty’s collection of material from the period, with a heavy emphasis on posters and photographic documentation. Perhaps this is why the exhibition did not travel to other venues. The fact that it did not leave Los Angeles limited its influence. Nonetheless, the catalogue stands as a crucial resource that documents work in alternative media such as Fluxus objects, printed ephemera, maps, and unconventional books.

The socio-political context of the times is carefully reflected in the works included in the catalogue. This is particularly evident in the selection of photographic works, including a provocative example from Shomei Tomatsu’s Shashinshū: Okinawa Okinawa Okinawa (1969) that questions the presence of the U.S. military on Okinawa. Daido Moriyama’s Blind Man (1965) and Takuma Nakahira’s Untitled (1970) capture people in stark public spaces who were not part of Japan’s economic miracle. The catalogue also presents new perspectives on social conditions in the photographs of Nakahira, some of which were printed in the magazine Provoke, a publication started shortly after the Anpo protests staged by students in Tokyo in 1960 against a perceived unfair trade treaty signed with the United States. Other included works by Nakahira present raw urban spaces in grainy photographs, questioning the comforts and progress of Japan as a nation.

The dilemmas postwar artists confronted regarding the relationship between art and life are still being contested in contemporary Japanese art. The controversies over recent projects by young artists such as the collective Chim↑Pom’s display a clash between society and history. For example, their work Pika (Flash), staged in Hiroshima in late 2008, inscribed the word describing the explosion of the atomic bomb in a manga-like script using the smoke of an airplane directly above the Atomic Dome. Although other scholars have casually compared Chim↑Pom’s actions to those of Hi Red Center, the controversy surrounding the former as a result of Pika begs a deeper reflection on the relation between local people and artists in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the role of the social sphere in art remains more adaptable today, while the role of art in the social sphere has become more politicized. However unconsciously, the works of young Japanese artists are posing a similar question to what Takamatsu articulated in 1966: What is the relationship between society and art? Based on the current landscape of debate and criticism, it seems the most important questions in art are still unanswerable.

James Jack
MA candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Hawai’i–Manoa