For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 offers an ambitious social and art history of a decade ignited by protest, shaped by global power dynamics, and visualized through new art forms. Photography in Japan lent itself to all of this, in turns participatory, critical, cynical, and introspective. We see a generation of artists, mostly men, forming networks through universities or newly-founded publications like Provoke and Bijutsu Techo, and pushing each other to create images as vibrant as the new realities around them.
The exhibition text suggests that “activism dissolved into apathy” during the course of the 1970s in Japan. But the strength of the individual photographers, many of them given mini-surveys within the exhibition, defy an either/or label. Organized by Yasufumi Nakamori at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Houston, the New York presentation of the exhibition is spread between the Grey Art Gallery and Japan Society Gallery (neither space could accommodate the full exhibition). Many of these works have never traveled to New York, or are rarely shown here.
Protesters during the late ’60s and early ’70s saw hypocrisy in the Japanese government’s rosy depiction of itself, exemplified by the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair. The fair seemed to divert attention away from the Vietnam War and the US-Japan Security Treaty, or Anpo. At Japan Society, Shomei Tomatsu’s “Protest 1” (1969) shows us a young person hurling something — his body seems to levitate with the force of the action, the background blurred. Protest here becomes performance, and the dynamism of the image suggests Tomatsu’s engagement in and sympathy with the upheavals.
Early works by Daido Moriyama from his Accident series, inspired by Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster images, don’t address the political upheavals directly, but point to the deep violence embedded in television footage and newspapers. He took photographs of mass media, adding to them another layer of frenetic graininess.
Kazuo Kita’s Barricade series, at the Grey Gallery, brings us behind the lines of the four-month student occupation of Nihon University. We see the expected moments, like students rallying on top of a truck with a megaphone, but also a quiet image of an umbrella resting on a wire in front of a graffiti-covered wall. Kitai placed himself at the center of the occupation, finding moments of peace and surrealism in between rallies and confrontations.
After these opening salvos, the exhibitions turn to photographs photographs engaged with conceptual ideas and material form. At Japan Society, Koji Enokura’s sublime, quiet works, informed by his involvement with the Mono-ha group, occupy a gallery. His photographs are experiments in time: a cube seems to hover in an empty hallway, the photographer’s body lays out on the beach echoed by the shape of an incoming wave. In “Two Stains,” he photographed a stain and silkscreened the image onto two parts of a large felt square, creating a deceptively simple image that draws upon multiple processes.
Similarly, Kazuyo Kinoshita, one of the few women in this history, used photography to confuse the eye, crumpling pieces of paper, coloring them, photographing them, and duplicating the colored marks on the final image. Sly, understated, and difficult to read, the photographs offer a powerful example of how to weather the visual storm of the digital era.
When we emerge back on the streets, it is from the ambivalent perspective of Shigeo Gocho, who lived with a vertebrae condition that limited his adult height to a little over four feet. His photographs from the series Familiar Street Scenes show us the intensely saturated, angled urban life. The subjects of his images look directly into the lens, bringing Gocho’s physical presence into the photograph; we watch curious passersby watch this diminutive cameraman.
The Grey’s downstairs space is given over to the gritty, experimental, and satirical. Keizo Kitajima captured disorienting, high-contrast scenes from Tokyos’s nightlife: bodies pressed up against the picture plane, wide-angle shots of faces. He would print the images on the day of the exhibition, projecting them onto big sheets of film, and from those created one large contact print. His works belong to a radically different camp of late ’70s photography than the poetic heliographs of Hiroshi Yamazaki, who traced the sun’s arc in the sky with a lens filter and super-long shutter releases.
Closing out the Grey exhibition are Tsunehisa Kimura’s prescient photocollages. “Glacier Discharge” imagines an apocalyptic, overheated, future Tokyo, with a cartoonish red sun poking out from above the horizon. In “Art Radical Tower,” the word ART juts out, several stories high, from the top of a pair of boxy, corporate towers. The work, from 1971, reminds us of how long artists have been concerned with the corporatization and commercialization of the artist’s career.
As Japan commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and thousands in the streets protest Prime Minister Abe’s push for militarism, the uprisings of 1968 offer a foreshadowing. At stake are similar questions: the promise of pacifism written into the post-War constitution, the ongoing competition and friendship with the US, and popular distrust towards the government. Photography helps us imagine the new world to come, but it is not always a bright one.
For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 continues at the Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square E, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through December 5 and at the Japan Society Gallery (333 E 47th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 10, 2016.