MuseumsWeekend

In 1970s Japan, a New Art of Experiments, Edgy Photos, and Big Ideas

Daidō Moriyama, “Lips” (1970), gelatin silver print, 7 1/16 x 10 3/4 inches (©Daidō Moriyama, photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

There are certain exhibitions in which some or many of the works on display are so interesting, provocative, or well-made that they somehow manage to surmount whatever restrictive or overwrought critical-theoretical trappings their organizers have erected around them, defying the analytical filters through which they are meant to be considered and understood.

For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 19681979, a two-venue exhibition with photography at its core, is one of them. To be sure, there are many intriguing, well-thought-out, well-executed works on view in this big presentation, the first part of which has opened at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. Part two will open at Japan Society on October 9.

However, the ponderousness of some aspects of the critical-theoretical apparatus this exhibition puts forth as the critical/art-historical context in which the works on view should be appreciated appears to be a burden even the strongest artistic expressions must heave out of their way in order to be presented on their own terms. It’s a challenge, but the most compelling works on view here overcome it. Among them: photographs by Takuma Nakahira, Daidō Moriyama and Kōji Taki, and clever mixed-media works by Nobuo Yamanaka and Tsunehisa Kimura.

To be precise, it is the catalogue accompanying this otherwise substantive and illuminating exhibition that is pedantic and disappointing, not the more concise explanatory wall texts, labels and other sources of information that appear in its display spaces.

Keiji Uematsu, “Horizontal Position” (1973/2003), gelatin silver print, 57 1/8 x 35 7/16 inches (©Keiji Uematsu, photo courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates)

Its catalogue, though, purports to be an integral part of the exhibition, not merely a 256-page, three-pound souvenir, but it lands with a thud. If it were not such a significant component of this well-researched exhibition, it would not command much attention. However, it does and it should, if for no other reason than the fact that, long after this show has been packed up and sent home, for better or worse, the catalogue and its pronouncements about the artwork and themes now under examination will serve as a touchstone reference about them.

In essays by more than a dozen contributors, this volume dips deeply into a postmodernist grab bag of exhausted jargon and received notions to identify theoretical “sites” or “spaces” in which assorted Japanese artists of the 1970s, employing various “strategies,” pursued their “projects” (meaning their respective bodies of work or specific works or series, along with the elaboration of the ideas that informed them).

The book serves up numerous awkward neologisms and other labels, including some from Japan (“on-site-ism,” “concept photo,” “international contemporaneity,” “dark conceptualism”), whose banality or unremarkable obviousness often trumps their would-be taxonomic value. This salad of mind-numbing nomenclature is tossed around within the book’s individual essays, as well as volleyed between them, with annoying frequency.

That some of this book’s Japanese contributors mechanically recycle and parrot imported pomo doctrine from the West without developing more original points of view is embarrassing. Is there a rule in academia and the exhibition-curating world stipulating that catalogue texts must be written in a manner that is graceless, perfunctory and lacking engaging literary style?

To take this kind of approach in 2015 is intellectually lazy, and at this point, the joke is on pomo-crit’s still-devoted practitioners, who either cannot or do not understand that their theory’s supposedly subversive attitude (or analytical approach or investigative “strategy”) which once defiantly challenged the presumptions of art history’s established canon, has devolved into a cliché-ridden “project” in its own right. Could it be that the time has come to return to examining artworks for what they have to say for themselves, by themselves? There was a time when such an approach would have been referred to as “formalist.” Nowadays, it might be regarded as refreshing.

Kōji Enokura, “Two Stains” (1972), silkscreened photographic image on fabric, 56 5/16 x 68 1/2 inches (©Kōji Enokura, photo courtesy of M+, Hong Kong)

For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 19681979 was organized by Yasufumi Nakamori, the associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the exhibition was first presented earlier this year. It takes as its starting point a period in the late 1960s when Japan was deep in the throes of fast-paced reconstruction following World War II, which in time would become known as its postwar “economic miracle.” As left-wing critics and student protesters in the 1960s observed, however, mass production’s material rewards, an emerging consumer culture and what the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami decades later, in the mid-2000s, would refer to as his country’s “infantilizing” relationship with the United States, all came at a price.

Japanese society, in which long-held traditions had nurtured countless generations, and individuals and communities had long derived a sense of identity from its group-oriented structure, found itself challenged by the swift growth of big cities in the postwar period. For many Japanese, a confluence of economic, political and social forces spelled rapid, unstoppable change. The late 1960s saw protests in Japan against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Vietnam War. Against such a backdrop, this exhibition points out, some Japanese artists sought new ways of communicating through art. For a New World to Come examines how such innovators merged art and photography, and through their efforts paved the way for the mixed-media art forms Japanese artists would create in later decades.

In a telephone interview, Nakamori observed, “In Japan and elsewhere, as far as art history is concerned, the period of the 1970s has been something of a lacuna. With regard to Japan, people seem to think the late 1970s, in particular, was a period when not a lot was going on. In fact, the 1970s was a period in which, around the world, photography became the lexicon of much contemporary-art practice.” As Nakamori observes in the show’s catalogue, in the realm of photography in Japan, starting in the late 1960s, discussion unfolded in part around the character of “modern” photography, “in which ‘expressions’ and ‘truth’ were the two most important values,” and around “contemporary” photography, “in which new methodologies and realities were being pursued in the emerging media culture, and ‘painters’ were beginning to incorporate photography into their interdisciplinary works.”

In his interview, Nakamori added that, after the fading, or suppression, of the Japanese protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, some artists, including literary artists, were seen to have turned inward, toward a more personal, less activist or confrontational art. As the current exhibition illustrates, some Japanese artists of the 1970s questioned art’s purposes and established forms. In developing new modes of art-making, they sometimes took the nature and purposes of art themselves as their subjects.

Jirō Takamatsu, “Photograph of a Photograph (No. D-2401)” (1972), gelatin silver print, 21 5/8 x 26 3/16 inches (©The Estate of Jirō Takamatsu, photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Yumiko Chiba Associates) (click to enlarge)

With some 350 works of different kinds on view, For a New World to Come examines, in part, such pivotal events as the 1968 Tokyo exhibition Photography 100 Years: A History of Photographic Expressions of the Japanese, two of whose organizers, the photographers Takuma Nakahira (who died earlier this month) and Kōji Taki, would go on to create the magazine Provoke. While that landmark exhibition looked back at how modern photography had developed in Japan, Provoke would shake up modernist photo aesthetics with radical ideas about what contemporary photography could be and which subjects it could explore. For a New World to Come also looks at the impact of the 10th Tokyo Biennale: Between Man and Matter of 1970, an exhibition in which artists like Hitoshi Nomura and Jirō Takamatsu used photography in ways that would now be seen as “conceptual.”

At Japan Society, numerous photobooks or photography magazines will be on view, albeit in protective vitrines, so that only their covers or sample page spreads will be visible. Among these publications, viewers will find all three issues of Provoke (1968-1969), which featured images by such artists as Nakahira, Taki, Moriyama, Takahiko Okada and Yutaka Takanashi; Shōmei Tōmatsu’s Oh! Shinjuku (1969); Nakahira’s still rebellious-feeling For a Language to Come (1970); and Moriyama’s Farewell Photography (1972). Many of these books feature the are, bure, boke (“grainy, blurry, out of focus”) style of image-making that became the hallmark of such photographers as Moriyama and Taki. Often dark in tone and high in contrast, these photos of nighttime streets, cars, fish tanks, buildings and passers-by (whose faces and bodies appeared hallucinatory and abstracted) alluded to or actually depicted the harder, darker side of Japan’s urban jungles in the postwar period.

Photograph by Daidō Moriyama from the book “Farewell Photography” (1970), gelatin silver print, 19 15/16 x 12 1/8 inches (©Daidō Moriyama, photo courtesy Tokyo Polytechnic University, Shadai Gallery and Taka Ishii Gallery)

The sheer edginess of such images seemed to question the supposedly stable, democratic, prosperous Japan that was being erected upon the ashes of wartime destruction and discredited political-economic ideas. Nakahira’s photobook, For a Language to Come, from which the current exhibition derives its title, is a riveting, proto-punk, utopian-dystopian phantasmagoria of dizzy-fuzzy images in the are, bure, boke mode. At Japan Society, the entire content of the book will be projected on a wall-mounted screen so that visitors will be able to enjoy the sensation of paging through it, spread by spread, and savoring its creator’s intended image-sequence rhythm and impact. (If only all of the photobooks in the show could be similarly projected or displayed on touch screens, but such an installation would cost a fortune.)

Untitled photograph (1968-1973, printed 2014) by Takuma Nakahira from the book “For a Language to Come” (1970), gelatin silver print, 19 7/8 x 16 1/16 inches (©Takuma Nakahira, photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Japan Society’s portion of the exhibition will also feature a series of black-and-white photos documenting Hitoshi Nomura’s Tardiology (1968-1969), a tall structure of stacked cardboard boxes, which the artist allowed to self-destruct, subject to gravity’s pull and the weather, as well as Jirō Takamatsu’s photographs of found photographs and his Shadow (Double Shadow of a Baby) (acrylic on canvas, 1969; reproduced in 1997). That work was part of Takamatsu’s Shadow Paintings series. As the contemporary Japanese critic Yuri Mitsuda writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, quoting this influential artist, who died in 1998, works like this one “were not paintings as such but [rather] apparatuses to create a ‘state of happening’ wherein ‘merely shadows exist without the presence of [the] objects that cast them.’” Thus, Mitsuda explains, “[T]he picture was emphatically linked to real space, that is, its exterior.”

Hitoshi Nomura, one of eight photographs from the “Tardiology” series (1968-1969), each image 19 11/16 x 23 5/8 inches (©Hitoshi Nomura; courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey)

Apparently, that kind of “emphatic” connection to the so-called real world of postwar Japan was an alienating one for Kōji Enokura, whose ontological ruminations took the form of such works as the black-and-white photos P.W. No. 50 Symptom Floor, Water (1974) and P.W. No. 51 Symptom Floor, Hand (1974), and a silkscreened-on-fabric photo image, Two Stains (1972). As catalogue contributor Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard University, points out, in the second of these works, a human hand is seen hovering over a linoleum floor in a typical, modern building of the kind that was fast replacing older structures in postwar Japan. For Enokura, Kelsey writes, that floor, and the building of which it was a part, “constituted a disorienting new cultural form.”

At NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and at Japan Society, visitors will find works by Keiji Uematsu. In his photo series Standing Frame (1976), this sculptor created visual puns by holding up what looks like an empty, rectangular picture frame and photographing various configurations of the shadow that was cast on the ground by his body-turned-sculptural-object. In other photos, Uematsu placed his body inside a door frame, effectively becoming part of the sculptural-architectural form he was examining.

Kōji Enokura, “P.W. No. 51 Symptom — Floor, Hand” (1974), gelatin silver print, 9 7/8 x 8 inches (©Michiyo Enokura, photo by Paul Hester, Hester + Hardaway Photography, courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The show also calls attention to Shunji Dodo’s photos of an American in a Japanese town where a U.S. military base was located, and of a campus protest in 1969; and works by the graphic designer and critic Tsunehisa Kimura, who made photo-collages that critiqued postwar Japan’s urban ethos and ambitions. His Commercialism (1970) depicts big billboards covered with corporate logos sprouting faster than houses across a swath of war-ravaged Tokyo. (That work is reproduced in the exhibition’s catalogue.) In Central Park 3 (photo emulsion and acrylic on canvas, 1971), Kunié Sugiura, one of the few women artists represented in the exhibition, recorded the textured surface of a rock in New York’s famous park.

A few years ago, Hitoshi Nomura, one of the most original thinkers in (and now a respected doyen of) the conceptual-art field examined by For a New World to Come, noted that, in the 1970s, he sought ways in which to “represent the characteristics of time and space in equal prominence” through his art.

Hitoshi Nomura, “‘moon’ score, December 19, 1975” (1975), gelatin silver print, printed circa 1995, 37 7/8 x 39 3/8 inches (photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) (click to enlarge)

In the action-performance-event works he photographed, like Dryice (1969) and Iodine (1970), the decomposition or gradual disappearance of observed materials became metaphorical devices for measuring passing time. At NYU, photos of phases of the Earth’s moon in his moon score (1975) serve a similar function, one he once called “sculpting time.” A fine selection of Nomura’s recent sound and photo-based works is now on view at Fergus McCaffrey in Chelsea. There, last week, Nomura told me, “I’m interested in the forces of nature. My art gives my observations of those forces visible form. The Earth itself is the greatest timepiece; it is its own best timekeeper.”

Japanese artist Hitoshi Nomura at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, last week with his photo-based, mixed-media work “The Sun on Latitude 35N: Toyonaka” (1968-2010), 50 1/4 x 123 3/8 x 31 1/2 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nobuo Yamanaka, who died young, in 1982, is another artist whose work is marked by resonant subtleties. In 1971, this experimenter with pinhole photography famously projected a film of Tokyo’s flowing Tama River onto the surface of the waterway itself. In the current exhibition, Fixed River (1972), a more static version of that work, is on display. In this form, Yamanaka’s image of a river is slide-projected through a row of hanging, transparent screens.

Inherent in Nomura’s and Yamanaka’s art, and in the best of the other works on view, is rewarding evidence of a poetic sensibility this big, theory-laden exhibition regrettably mostly ignores. Nevertheless, that spirit, which inspired the collective voice of the Japanese artists of the 1970s who dared to imagine a new language of art-making, never mind a new, postwar, better world to come, is one that remains engaging and indomitable in ways that, fortunately, no pomo theoretician has yet been able to capture, codify, banalize or tame.

Part one of For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 continues at New York Universitys Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East) through December 5. Part two will be presented at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street) from October 9, 2015 through January 10, 2016.

Hitoshi Nomura continues at Fergus McCaffrey (514 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.

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