Art history doesn’t have to live in the past, as proved by the Flux Factory exhibition Ero Guro Nansensu, which closes today. The title translates to “erotic grotesque nonsense,” a phrase that was used by Japanese mass media to describe counter culture from the 1920s to the ’40s. Through the research of historian and curator Kara Jefts, the exhibition brings to life an avant-garde group of Japanese artists called Mavo. However, very little of the artists’ original work remains and their historical trace verges on erasure, forcing Jefts to redefine what it means to “research.” Unable to read the scant literature available on Mavo because it was largely published in Japanese, she decided to approach her research through lived experience.
Mavo was only active from 1923 to 1926, yet the movement’s artists were part of an important inter-war turning point in Japanese culture. A cataclysmic earthquake struck Japan in 1923, killing thousands and displacing many more. Social norms also shook when tax qualifications for voting were abolished and universal male suffrage was granted in 1925. Mavo sought new modes of expression that challenged conventions and upended rigid social hierarchies in the wake of these huge physical and political shifts. Critics, however, were often dismissive of the group and art historians have all but ignored them in favor of larger contemporaneous movements, like German Expressionism.
Jeft’s exploration of the group began while she was working on her Masters thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (Full disclosure: I met Jefts while also attending SAIC and partook in a practice run of “Dance of Death.”) She turned to the magazine Mavo, which the members of the art collective produced during their brief run. Focusing on the images instead of the articles, she sidestepped the language barrier and found a way into the group’s mysterious cultural moment. The magazine, much like the group, met with a lot of resistance due to its sensationalist content. Calls for social reform permeated its pages and the publication’s images leaned toward the salacious. But it also called for community building and creative collaboration, which Jefts seemingly took as her research-via-experience cue.
Working with other students and artists, Jefts has staged several re-enactments of Mavo’s “Dance of Death,” a performance she had only seen in a photo in Mavo magazine. The image is chaotic, with six men, many of them dressed as women, all of whom seem to be in suspended states of transcendent action. One man holds a hammer poised over the central figure’s head; unaware, the middle character balances on one foot over an orgasmic moment between three lovers in the foreground. A female figure languidly smokes a cigarette off to the side, while a man in heels swings above them all. You get the sense that everything is in perfect balance for one moment before it all goes terribly wrong.
Ero Guro Nansensu showcases the ongoing results of Jefts’s experiential research (she is still producing work and performances related to Mavo). The exhibition opened with a series of framed reproductions of the original Mavo image, each with one of the seven figures colored in. According to Jefts, the original image was poor in quality, so she began outlining and shading each performer to figure out their movements. She transformed these shapes into a life-sized backdrop, upon which she configured her own actors for the performances. But in the context of the gallery space, the backdrop, with its colorful yet featureless figures, seems a reminder of the absences that can permeate history. Photographs by Leonard Suryajaya capture Jefts’s “Dance of Death” productions as if through a time warp. The compositions are nearly identical to the original photo from 1924, yet purposefully include studio lights and surreptitious bystanders with iPhone cameras, revealing the present within the past.
While Jefts may have set out to discover a lost moment of history, she also revealed how easily it can be colored or constructed. She does not present this as a fault, but merely a nonsensical, perhaps even grotesque, fact.
Ero Guro Nansensu: Modern Japan and Erotic Grotesque Nonsense is on view through September 15 at Flux Factory (39-31 29th Street, Long Island City, Queens).