Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 22, 2023
Ignacio A. Adriasola Muñoz Fragment, Image, and Absence in 1960s Japan University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2023. 262 pp.; 16 color ills.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth (9780271092904)

Ignacio A. Adriasola Muñoz’s Fragment, Image, and Absence in 1960s Japan is one of the latest contributions to the study of radical Japanese art in the 1960s—the era marked by rapid economic growth and tumultuous political events. The book provides a look at a wide range of radical artistic practices that challenged the social and cultural status quo of the period. The author’s focus is at once specific and broad as he couples detailed analyses of individual artists and artworks with discussions of general trends characterizing the art of the period. While the artists discussed in the book are more or less well-known figures in postwar Japanese art history, the author’s unique perspectives afforded by his extensive reading of primary sources and his application of psychoanalysis provide a fresh look at the subject.

Many of the artists discussed in the book emerged between the late 1950s and early 1960s as participants in the Yomiuri Indépendant Exhibition, an annual exhibition held in Tokyo between 1949 and 1963 to show artists unaffiliated with official salons. In the last several years of the exhibition, the young generation of artists turned attention to everyday objects in a subversive gesture to dismantle the barrier between art and life. Adriasola Muñoz suggests in the introduction that this heightened interest in objects resulted from a “massive shift in the relationship to things” (3) that took place amid the dramatic transformation of economy, society, culture, and environment after the war. To varying degrees, this point informs the following discussions in the book’s six chapters which are organized into three sections—“Fragment,” “Image,” and “Absence.”

In chapter one, which opens the book’s first section “Fragment” Adriasola Muñoz discusses the development of the concept of the Surrealist objet in Japan and its significance to the Indépendant generation. The author argues that, after Surrealism’s arrival in Japan, the concept of objet was adopted and developed to become something different from the French original. Adopting the Japanese transliteration of the term, the author calls this obuje and subsequently shows how it was explored by the artists of the period. For some artists such as Arakawa Shūsaku, Nakanishi Natsuyuki, and Takamatsu Jirō, obuje had radical potential as “initiators of action” (27). For others, however, its potential was suspect. In Kudо̄ Tetsumi’s Philosophy of Impotence—a work presented in various iterations from sculpture to installation to performance—the objects resembling castrated phalli signify the limit to art’s capacity to effect change in society. The author associates this with a sense of failure prevailing among the left following the failed mass protest in 1960 against the so-called Anpo Treaty (the US-Japan Security Treaty), which legitimized the US military’s permanent presence in Japan.

Contrary to the thematically driven discussion in the previous chapter, chapter two revolves around a single artist, Miki Tomio, who, until his untimely death in 1978, obsessionally kept making ear-shaped sculptures. While sharing an interest in a body part with his peers like Kudо̄, Miki refused iconographical interpretation of his works. Drawing on the artist’s absurd statement that he did not choose the ear but the ear chose him, Adriasola Muñoz focuses on the artist’s denial of the act of choosing as a gesture of self-effacement. Ultimately, the author sees in the artist’s avowed passivity as well as his practice of repetition and fragmentation his critique of the modernist trope of artistic subjectivity. It is possible to infer from this point, together with the author’s argument for the antihumanist stance expressed by postwar Japanese artists in chapter one, the relevance of this generation’s interest to the so-called “death of the author” in the Western art world around the same period. Yet, the more important implication of the chapters is that such a tendency in Japan reflected the sociopolitical context specific to the decade following the Anpo crisis through what the author calls politics and aesthetics of “undoing” based on “radical negativity” (73).

Adriasola Muñoz shifts his focus to photography in the next two chapters comprising the book’s second section “Image.” In chapter three, the author reflects on the ontology of the photographic image explored in the works by the photographer, Ōtsuji Kiyoji, and the critic, Takiguchi Shūzō. The chapter begins with a discussion of Ōtsuji’s photographs of objects from Takiguchi’s study taken after the critic’s death. The author sees these pictures as the photographer’s investigation of the relationship between objects and photography rather than a simple documentation of the late critic’s personal items. The author then moves on to examine Takiguchi’s writings on the medium. Pointing out Takiguchi’s emphasis on plasticity (zōkeisei), he argues that, for the critic, photography was not a mere image but equally an object. The author thus relates photography—a medium often reductively discussed in terms of mere visuality—to the rising interest in objects among radical Japanese artists.

Chapter four is entirely dedicated to a single work—Hosoe Eikoh’s photobook, Barakei. Translated as Ordeal by Roses, Barakei is a collection of eerie and sensual portraits of the Japanese novelist, Mishima Yukio. Drawing on psychoanalysis, especially theories on narcissism, and Mishima’s literary works, Adriasola Muñoz considers issues around the self and subjectivity implicit in the photobook. In turn, the author argues that Barakei disproves the general assumption about portraiture’s affirmation of the autonomous subject by revealing its incompatibility with the Cartesian notion of “a self-sufficient interiority” (121). In this way, the author proves the transgression of the photobook is at work not only at the formal level but also at the conceptual level. Together with the previous chapter, chapter four illustrates the generation’s deep reflections on the nature of photography itself.

The book’s last section “Absence” centers on two key terms that emerged in the critical discourse around the period: landscape and shadow. Chapter five features the most diverse array of artists in the book. Discussing artists from Tōmatsu Shōmei, Nakahira Takuma, and Takanashi Yutaka to Usami Keiji and Takamatsu, Adriasola Muñoz demonstrates that the notion of landscape emerged as a common issue addressed by a wide range of artists in the period. In particular, the subversion of the conventional mode of static and ordered landscape became a common project among artists in reaction to the late capitalism and conformism of 1960s Japan. Commonly known as landscape theory, this idea of challenging the (Western-based) landscape tradition was particularly central to photographers and filmmakers, but the author shows that it can be considered in relation to works in other mediums as well. By effectively drawing analogies among Nakahira’s unstructured street photography, the distorted perspective in Takamatsu’s drawings and sculptures, and the discontinuous grids in Usami’s paintings, the author presents landscape as a key concept in thinking through the relationship between art and politics in post-Anpo Japan. As landscape theory gains renewed interest in light of the exhibition After the Landscape Theory at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, the chapter provides new insights into this highly topical subject matter, prompting the reader to consider its broader associations with various practices of the period.

In the final chapter, Adriasola Muñoz hones in on works by Arakawa and Takamatsu. The author focuses on the shadows that appear in Arakawa’s esoteric diagrams and Takamatsu’s Shadow series—a group of paintings and installations featuring realistic shadows of humans and objects. Drawing on the critic Miyakawa Atsushi’s claim that the condition of contemporary art is defined as impossibility, the author suggests that the shadow—a sign of an absent object—manifests the artists’ reflections on this condition. This point is particularly relevant to Takamatsu’s Shadow series. Citing the artist’s own writing, the author emphasizes that the series represents the impossibility of the task that the artist assigned to himself—to actualize “purer absence” (165) that overcomes its reliance on presence. As acknowledged by the artist himself, this is an unattainable task, for absence is nothing but a negation of presence and therefore cannot exist independently. Ultimately, the shadow and the absence it signifies serve as a means to further expand on the points the author has been making throughout the book—the centrality of objects in art in the 1960s. Here, objects haunt artworks in the form of absence. 

Overall, the book facilitates a deeper understanding of both the individual practices and shared concerns of the generation. This is made possible by Adriasola Muñoz’s effort to bring together the artists who, unlike their predecessors in the Gutai Art Association or successors in Mono-ha, did not work under a movement formally established and unified. While touching on manifold aspects of the art of the period to convey a sense of variety, the author also suggests its coherence—however loose it may seem—by emphasizing, as he does in the conclusion, that the generation’s aesthetic concerns “arose as a response to the specific political and cultural conditions of post-Anpo Japan” (174–75) and many of the artists turned attention to the object, or obuje, as a gesture of antihumanism. While focusing on the specific generation and geography, the book can also inform studies of other subjects. One could, for instance, rethink the connection between this generation and Mono-ha by following the author’s prompt at the end of the book or consider parallels with contemporaneous practices in other parts of the world as suggested at the beginning. Drawing a complex picture of 1960 Japanese art, the book is full of implications that enrich our perspectives on postwar art history.

Yuya Kawata
Master’s student, Art History, Hunter College, CUNY