Gutai in Japan

GUTAI 1950-1960

PERFORMANCE ART IN JAPAN

Gutai Art does not alter the material. Gutai Art imparts life to the material. Gutai Art does not distort the material. In Gutai Art, the human spirit and the material shake hands with each other, but keep their distance. The material never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the material. When the material remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story, and even cries out. To make the fullest use of the material is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, the material is brought to the height of the spirit.

After the Second World War, Japan, as a defeated culture, could not go backward to its own past and had to go forward into its uncertain future. For the first time in history in August of 1945, atomic bombs had been dropped, unleashing an inconceivable horror upon targets that were largely civilian and were completely untouched by Allied bombing. Because of their pristine condition, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were carefully selected so that the effects of atomic bombing could be fully viewed. The pika don, or blast of light, killed at least two hundred thousand human beings in the two cities, either outright or over time from radiation poisoning and cancers related to the effects of the bomb. Defeat, the Japanese people had been taught was so shameful it could not be bourn. Some individuals escaped disgrace through ritual suicide but the vast majority of the Japanese lived on to experience the Post-War period.

The nation had not just lost a war; it had lost control over its territory and of its culture. The Americans occupied Japan with General Douglas MacArthur becoming a military “Shogun,” presiding over a Westernization of the nation. Artists were faced with stark choices: Westernize and enter an international art world and risk losing an entire history or remain true to indigenous culture, hold firm to tradition, but risk becoming marginalized. Japanese art makers had been conversant with Western art from the turn of the century, but the artists, like most artists in totalitarian societies, were urged to be nationalistic and make “Japanese art.”

Author Bert Winther-Tamaki pointed out that, in isolation, these artists became well known in Japan, but, after the war, they found themselves out of step with international art. In his book, Art in the Encounter of Nations, Japanese and America Artists in the Post War Years, he describes the “Imaizumi storm,” begun when Imaizumi Atsuo returned from the Salon de Mai exhibition in Paris where he saw Japanese art hanging alongside European art. Imaizumi reported the deplorable results to the Japanese in 1952. Winther-Tamaki quoted artist, Kurabara Sumio as saying, “Japanese art faced American art for the first time.”

The Japanese were occupied for seven years, years in which there was a genuine back and forth between the cultures—returning military personnel brought Japanese culture to America and after the War, the artists were suddenly inundated with art from alien cultures, both American and European. The exhibition catalogue, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, quotes artist Ushio Shinohara as saying, “…the colorful wrappers of candy handed out by the American GIs were like a magic carpet to another world, the only color of his childhood.” In the early 1950s, against all art world expectations, a Japanese artist, Kenzo Okada (Okada Kenzo), working in the Abstract Expressionist style, achieve some acclaim in Europe. But trying to catch up would not help Japanese artists achieve international status.

Just as the American artists struggled against their European precursors, Japanese artists had to find their own interpretations of modernist art. They looked to the most prominent post-war style, the new American extension of Modernism called Abstract Expressionism. In the end, it was not so much the idea of Abstract Expressionism as painting that was impactful but the concept of Art as Act or Abstract Expressionism as Performance that proved compelling to the avant-garde artists. Information about Jackson Pollock’s kinetic method of painting—walking around a canvas on the floor, flinging paint through the air, pausing to observe the effect, and moving to the next gesture. The idea of Art as Act came to American-occupied Japan from French artist, Georges Mathieu, who, in 1957, dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono and demonstrated “action painting” at the Daimaru Department Store. A newly formed group of Japanese avant-garde artists, already interested in public art works, was ready for the new and radical idea of performance.

The Japanese Group, Gutai Art Association Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai literally, “Concrete Art Association,” was founded in 1954 by the painter, Yoshihara Jiro (Jiro Yoshihara), who had lived through the Second World War and the atomic bomb. In its 1955 manifesto, the group stated that “Gutai” means “Spirit” (seishin) plus material (busshitsu) or “Matter.” All things of this world are composed of matter and all things of this world have a unique inner spirit. It is the task of the Japanese artist to find and free this spirit from the material. The idea of the artist as an actor was not unknown in Japan. Sumi ink painting had traditionally been an act of expression and liberation on the part the artist. Yoshihara remained committed to painting through the process of Japanese style calligraphy and Japanese painting became performative, improvisational, and process-orientated.

In 1955, the group of twenty artists held a thirteen day, twenty-four hours a day open-air exhibition in a pine forest in Osaka. The legendary “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun” exposed paintings and sculptures to the weather. This combination of the use of nature in relation to painting and sculpture and installation was a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions. In the end some forty-nine artists joined Gutai.

After the war, the traditional artistic language of Japan was liberated from Japanese history and updated to respond to Western Modernism. The question was: how to be Japanese and how to join the international art scene at the same time? Yoshihara who had lived with a ban on abstract Western art, urged his followers to “create what has never existed before.” Liberated from a militaristic regime, he thought of art as an act of freedom. The Other painters included Shozo Shimamoto who made holes in his paintings and reenacted his painting/performances for Life Magazine in 1956 and performed “The First Gutai on Stage Art Show” in 1957.

Shimamoto did not know of Lucio Fontana’s slashing of his canvases with a knife instead of a paintbrush, but the Japanese artist’s works were gestures or records of an encounter between his body and a work of art. Okamoto Taro said, “Gutai art puts the greatest importance on all daring steps which lead to an undiscovered world.” For the leader, Yoshihara, “It is obvious to us that purely formalistic art has lost its charm.”

Kazuo Shiraga had originally belonged to the Zero Society (Zero-kai), which believed that every work of art came from nothing, a sort of ground zero ontology. Indeed, reading between the lines of Japanese post-war art, one comes across the feeling of starting over from scratch—a metaphor for the cities blasted into oblivion. Shiraga was trained in an art school, but in 1954, the artist began painting with his feet by working with mud using his entire body.

Reacting to the cultural void of the MacArthur Occupation of Japan, Saburo Murakami hurled himself through a series of paper screens at the “First Gutai Art Exhibition,” Tokyo, October 1955. Akira Kanayama created paintings objectively with mechanical intervention with a remote controlled toy car that carried paint to canvas. There were few women who participated as artists in either Fluxus or Gutai but among the best-known Gutai works was the electric dress by Atsuko Tanaka of 1956 that conflated the traditional Japanese kimono and industrial technology.

In his book, Radical and Realists in the Japanese Non-Verbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism, 2006, by Thomas R. H. Havens discussed how Gutai was not celebrated in its own time and was given its due only after the death of Yoshihara’s death in 1972. Havens stated that the movement was given a major retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1993. Being included in Western post-War art history was quite a feat for any art movement not located in New York City. Not until the 1980s, did art history begin to catch up with significant movements in Europe and Asia. Because both movements stressed performance and the temporary experimental aspects of art making and art viewing over the production of collectable objects, both Fluxus and Gutai were neglected by art historians. Art Historians of the post-war period were trained to discuss objects, not experiences, and often gave the performance art movements, at most, a passing mention.

Fluxus was better known from the objects left over from the Events or actions. The most famous Fluxus artists, Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik, transcended their Fluxus origins, with Beuys becoming a famous political activist and Paik becoming one of the founding members of the emergence of the video movement in the Sixties. Like the Fluxus artists, Gutai artists were not well known and are still obscure even today. American art historians routinely ignored European and Asian art of the post-war era, assuming that the hegemony of American art was supreme. Gutai was almost unknown to Americans until the 1995 exhibition Scream Against the Sky. However, both movements were important: they were part of the growing number of art movements that challenged the basic ideas and ideals of Modernism. Fluxus and Gutai challenged the primacy of the object and the permanence of art and, therefore, of the importance of the aesthetics of form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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