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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Post-Traumatic Art 2: Gutai at the Guggenheim

-- By Tom Phillips

Post-World War Two Japanese art was on display recently at the Museum of Modern Art, and the show “Tokyo Avant-Garde 1955-1970” was harrowing to contemplate.   Nearly every piece was shadowed by the mushroom clouds that ended the war, and images of atrocities, monstrosities, decapitation, torture, destruction, helplessness and sudden death were everywhere.   Reviewing it I wrote “Japan is sick to this day from the effects of the bomb, and Japanese art reflects it.” 
But that’s not all that post-war Japanese art reflects.  Hundreds of miles from Tokyo, in a small village near Osaka, another school of art was springing up, a polar opposite to the themes of victimization and despair.   The Gutai movement was another response to ruin – a search for goodness, wholeness and even joy in the rubble.  The artists of this avant-garde collective found it in the “new life of matter” – or “the scream of matter” in the words of Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro -- and also in the creative freedom of the artist, and in the freedom of people’s experience of art.    

Electric Dress (1956) by Atsuko Tanaka
By happy coincidence, the Tokyo Avant-Garde show at MOMA is followed up by a full-scale exhibit of Gutai works at the Guggenheim Museum.   “Gutai: Splendid Playground” fills Frank Lloyd Wright's uniquely playful space with playful, rebellious works of raw energy.   There isn’t a self-pitying note in the entire show.  Even 40 years after the Gutai movement dissolved in 1972, their work is daring and refreshing.   
Gutai means “concreteness,”   the thing itself rather than representation.   Jiro’s 1956 Gutai manifesto condemns the art of the past as nothing but hoaxes  – paint, cloth, clay and stone tricked out to look like something they are not.   Gutai art, he wrote, would not change the material but bring it to life.  “If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.”   

Thus the early works of Gutai celebrate cloth as cloth, paint as paint, mud as mud, gravel as gravel.   One can browse the first part of the exhibition without getting the usual museum headache, because one never has to ask the question “What is this about?”   The only question is “What is this?”   Paint and gravel on canvas.  Squares of yellow cloth, stitched together and hung on the wall.   A blob of Elmer’s Glue.   A dress made of light bulbs and wires.   A red plastic box, lit from inside, big enough to duck into and stand around in.   “How do I look in this color?” asked a saucy lady.   “Good,” said I, “and you’re the only thing in here.”   “So I’m the art?”  You got it.    

Lightning strikes twice in the best of Gutai art, first in the artist's honest confrontation with the  material.  (To fully appreciate Atsuko Tanaka's "Electric Dress" you need to see her wearing it, as she did in 1956.)  Second, in the observer's direct experience of both the artist and the material.   When you look at Tanaka's 1955 "Work" which is just plain yellow cloth, there is no sign of the artist's hand, no "aesthetic" value added.   That absence throws you into direct contact with the material, the actual yellowness and clothness of it, and the mind that saw it as art.   Hello!
Gutai presented itself as a total break with the past, but in fact it may have been a return to the distant past, to the roots of Japanese art and religion, which sees divinity not just in people but in things: rocks and trees, waves, wind and lightning.  This idea occurred to me while  watching “SANBASO, divine dance,” at the Guggenheim, presented by the museum and Japan Society in conjunction with the Gutai exhibit.    
Sanbaso is an ancient ritual from Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto.   It’s a prayer for bountiful harvests, with music and dance that invoke gods hidden in nature.   The performance began with music for flute and drums – elemental shrieks and whacks that evoked a howling wilderness, like a typhoon blowing through a forest.   Two male dancers then performed a ritual that called on instinctive movements –  fighting, fleeing, courting  -- from the animal kingdom.   It ended with the lead dancer ringing hand-chimes toward the four corners of the universe, invoking the gods who would mysteriously make the earth bloom.   This calling-up of spirits from nature has something in common with the Gutai reverence for matter, the idea that divinity dwells in things.  

As religions go, Shinto can be scary – a polytheistic, animistic faith that seems to worship elemental power, with little in the way of theology or morality.   State Shinto was used to serve Japanese imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, up to Japan’s defeat in World War 2.   Following the war, the Gutai movement could be seen as an attempt to restore the spirit of Sanbaso and the purity of Japan’s unique mysticism, honoring the essential goodness and wholeness of created things, and the mysterious spirits that are hidden, and revealed, in matter.  In the Gutai Manifesto: "the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other."  Hello again!

"Gutai: Splendid Playground" runs through May 8 at the Guggenheim. 

--   Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

"Electric Dress" photo by Ito Ryoji
SANBASO photo by Enid Alvarez