Learning from History: The Discourse of (L)imitation in 1960s Japan

To complement AAA's presentation of Whose History?, a panel discussion during Backroom Conversations at ART HK 12 that will consider parallel global artistic developments under the concept of contemporaneity, AAA reprints here the transcript from Reiko Tomii’s presentation entitled 'Learning from History: The Discourse of (L)imitation in 1960s Japan' from Open Platform at ART HK 11.


My talk today is ‘Learning from History: The Discourse of (L)imitation in ‘60s Japan.’ This is a historical study focusing on 1960s Japan to examine the issue of ‘originality and imitation’ in contemporary art through the lens of ‘international contemporaneity.’ Hearing this description, you may wonder: Why a historical study for contemporary art? Why ‘60s Japan? Why imitation? And what is ‘international contemporaneity’?

A short answer is that ‘60s Japan is a paradigmatic site of world art history. Above all, a phenomenal body of its experimental and innovative works makes it a vital contribution to the global ‘60s. Its radicalism can be sampled by looking at just a few works, such as the outdoor exhibitions of Gutai in Osaka, dating from ‘55 and ’56; Ushio Shinohara’s Boxing Painting in the early ‘60s; Zero Dimension’s naked rituals from the mid-60s; and The Play’s voyage into landscape in the late ‘60s. For a very simplified overview, I have codified these experimental tendencies as Anti-Art and Non-Art, which take place over two decades from ‘54 to ‘74, which make the expanded ‘60s of Japanese art.

In Japan, these radical practices came to be understood as gendai bijutsu or contemporary art toward the end of the ‘60s, and it became the third distinct practice of art, after nihonga, or Japanese-style painting, and yōga, or Western-style painting, which represent two major forms of modern art in Japan dating back to the late 19th century.

The discursive contribution of ‘60s Japan is as important, because the artistic developments prompted sophisticated discourses that elucidated the implications of gestural abstraction, Anti-Art, and Non-Art. Most importantly, the idea of gendai, or the contemporary, was explicitly articulated first by the critic Miyakawa Atsushi to replace that of kindai, or the modern, and a few others followed his suit.

With the formation of gendai bijutsu as practice and the discursive articulation of gendai as theory, ‘60s Japan prefigured today’s contemporary art. The shift to gendai bijutsu as practice and gendai as theory was underscored by the awareness of kokusaiteki dōjisei, or international contemporaneity. A curious thing about international contemporaneity is that there is international contemporaneity as phenomenon and international contemporaneity as perception. More often than not, they are not the same.

In the global ‘60s, the phenomenon of international contemporaneity is observed in many Japanese vanguard practices, which emerged contemporaneously, or sometimes prior to, their counterparts in Euro-America and other parts of the world. For example, there was a direct connection between Pollock’s drip painting and the Gutai member Shiraga Kazuo’s mud painting. Resonance can be observed between Matsuzawa Yutaka’s text-based work and Joseph Kosuth’s language work, although neither knew what the other was doing. Resonance can also be observed in the use of remote and vast landscape by Dennis Oppenheim and the group GUN, both making huge drawings on the earth.

These comparisons indicate that international contemporaneity as a phenomenon is a simple but effective tool to organize world art history as a series of transnational and contemporaneous comparisons. It should be remembered, however, that such a transnational viewpoint is predicated upon the omniscience of history. As we internalize the historical perspective, we tend to forget what it was like to experience or perceive international contemporaneity at that time.

Also important to remember, is that the perception of international contemporaneity varied from locale to locale as it reflected the place in history a given locale was situated. For example, if Tokyo saw the international tendency of gestural abstraction as a shared phenomenon of many regions of the world, New York saw it as a sign of American triumph.

The study of international contemporaneity as perception in ‘60s Japan brings up a set of important modernist issues, including: originality vs. imitation, centre vs. periphery, and belatedness. No better instance can be found than the imitation discourse to illuminate the accelerating yet fragile sense of internationalization in ‘60s Japan.

'Degeneration of Contemporary Art', Geijutsu Shinchō (November 1968)
'Degeneration of Contemporary Art', Geijutsu Shinchō (November 1968)

My discussion begins with the article, ‘Japan’s Glory Upheld by Imitators.’ This sensational feature opened the August ‘69 issue of the monthly art magazine Geijutsu Shinchō, which categorically accused Japanese works of being imitations. A look at the title page is enough to understand its message: placing Pollock’s drip painting above Gutai member Kanayama Akira’s automatic painting by a toy car, it unambiguously declares that Kanayama imitated Pollock. This was followed by 19 pages of colour and monochrome illustrations, with a list of sinners who supposedly plagiarized mostly Euro-American works. The visual indictments were accompanied by unsigned annotations that sometimes ridiculed Japanese imitators in a nakedly hostile tone. Section headlines alone were very negative, as in ‘Warhol and His Japanese Followers’ and ‘Magritte Is Their Source Book.’ Widely casting its net, Geijutsu Shinchō captured imitations of works as recent as Minimalism and Earthworks.

For Japan, a non-Western latecomer to modernism, the reckoning of ‘We are now contemporaneous with them’ in the ‘60s formed a breakthrough moment in its formation of modernity. However, when manifested through similarity, international contemporaneity inevitably became suspect, due to the ingrained view that equated the paradigm of centre vs. periphery with that of original vs. imitation.

Like it or not, geography matters in the perception of international contemporaneity. Japan was historically situated at the periphery of modernism, both spatially and temporally away from its centre, Euro-America. In a positive light, a primary thrust of international contemporaneity can be condensed to a sense of ‘We are now (finally) contemporaneous with them (the centre),’ and it is affirmative in spirit. In a negative light, the imitation discourse represented an undercurrent of unease that plagued the periphery, which can be boiled down to: ‘Are we truly authentic and legitimately contemporaneous with them?’

The obsession of catching up and the accompanying fear of imitation ran deep in the modern history of Japanese art. Among the avant-garde artists whose prerogative was to defy the status quo, Yoshihara Jirō, the leader of Gutai, firmly upheld the principle of originality. His constant command was 'Never imitate others!' Yoshihara had a well-stocked library of Euro-American art: whenever the younger Gutai members came to him with their ‘new’ ideas, he would pull out certain pertinent publications and declare, ‘That’s already been done!’ In other words, that’s an imitation.

A novel approach was taken by the Neo Dada artist Shinohara Ushio, who was also an avid student of Euro-American art, albeit for a completely different goal. In fact, he devised a philosophy of ‘Imitation Art’. Rather than struggling to create something original that would end up looking like Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, or Warhol any way, why not imitate them outright?

If Yoshihara’s absolute rejection of imitation presupposes the efficacy of formalism in examining similarity, Shinohara’s Imitation Art points to the limitation of the imitation discourse based on formalism and the need for different ways of reading—the need to look at the concept and context behind the surface of similarly-looking works.

We have to remember, however, that the modernist myth of originality was still operative in the ‘60s. Geijutsu Shinchō may be excused as being under the spell of this myth. Yet the curse of the periphery was such that Geijutsu Shinchō was determined to condemn Japanese artists at any cost.

Yoshihara, Please Write Here, 1956
Yoshihara, Please Write Here, 1956

This is most vividly demonstrated on the pages devoted to the ‘Future of Earthworks,’ in which two instances of hole-diggings are compared. One is Claes Oldenburg’s Hole (Placid Civic Monument) of 1967 and the other is Sekine Nobuo’s Phase—Mother Earth of ‘68. Each work was a landmark in its locale: While Oldenburg’s Hole was a pioneering example of American Earthworks, Sekine’s Phase: Mother Earth jumpstarted the movement of Mono-ha, or ‘Things School.’

Geijutsu Shinchō’s editorial comment reads:

'There are many kinds of Earthworks, but Oldenburg is the originator of hole-digging…  [Sekine] dug a round hole, instead of a square one, piled the dirt in the same shape above the ground, and calling it a “negative-positive.“ Certainly, it’s interesting, but should this qualify for "internationality and contemporaneity?" I think not.'


Geijutsu Shinchō named Oldenburg the originator of hole-digging, while expressing its doubt about international contemporaneity.

In terms of local art history, this constitutes a stunning oversight, as post-war Japan produced at least three precedents of hole-digging prior to Oldenburg, with the foray into the outdoors being a vital part of vanguard tradition. In 1956, Yoshihara Michio, a member of Gutai, dug this small hole, 30 centimetres deep, and put a light at its bottom for 'Outdoor Gutai Exhibition'. In ‘62, Miyazaki Junnnosuke, a member of Kyūshu-ha dug not one but six or seven square holes, each about six feet deep, on the beach of Fukuoka on the occasion of Kyūshū-ha’s overnight programme entitled Grand Gathering of Heroes. In ‘65, Group I of Kobe participated in the Gifu Independent Art Festival held in central Japan with Hole. For 11 days, under the scorching summer sun, the nine members silently dug a hole ten meters in diameter and filled it back in. Unlike the works of Michio and Miyazaki, which remained rather obscure, this one received a good amount of journalistic and critical attention.

Oldenburg, Hole (Placid Civic Monument), 1967
Oldenburg, Hole (Placid Civic Monument), 1967

Staged in New York’s Central Park, Oldenburg’s hole-digging, too, was occasioned by an outdoor exhibition, ‘Sculpture in Environment’, organised by the city of New York in October 1967. Sekine’s hole was created for the first outdoor sculpture biennale at the Suma Detached Palace Garden in Kōbe in 1968. Overwhelming other conventional modernist sculptures on the site, Sekine’s hole and accompanying cylinder tower received favourable attention - although he reportedly missed the grand prize because a sculpture made of dirt cannot be purchased!

Sculpture in Environment (catalogue cover)
Sculpture in Environment (catalogue cover)

In this context, the three instances of hole-digging, Group I in ‘65, Oldenburg in ‘67, and Sekine in ‘68, make an interesting chronology. However, Geijutsu Shinchō compared Sekene’s hole-digging with Oldenburg’s hole-digging. Especially in the eyes of Geijutsu Shinchō, Oldenburg’s hole-digging served as a potent symbol of contemporary art that became increasingly incomprehensible, as this feature demonstrates.

Group I members
Group I members

I have never asked Sekine himself whether or not he imitated Oldenburg. But art-historically speaking, Sekine’s knowledge of Oldenburg could be safely assumed in light of the work by Fukuoka Michio, which shared the page with Sekine and Oldenburg. Fukuoka’s work, too, was created for the first outdoor exhibition at Suma in ‘68. Most significantly, it was entitled: A Gift from Claes Oldenburg. A soil-filled crate in the exact measurements of Oldenburg’s hole, it was a clever appropriation of the American artist’s hole, demonstrating the knowledge of Oldenburg’s work among the internationally conscious Japanese artists.

Should we start with an assumption that Sekine was aware of the hole-digging precedents of both Group I and Oldenburg, the similarity among the three examples stopping at the mere fact of hole-digging? Indeed, the three are very different works.

While Group I toiled for the sake of rewardlessness, Sekine worked on the idea of mathematical morphology. His sculpture was a token representation of a thought experiment of topological nature. He hypothetically asked: What would happen if we keep digging the soil out of the earth and put the displaced dirt next to the hole? The answer would be: The earth will become a hollow shell, holding up the displaced dirt on it.

Unlike Oldenburg’s politically fraught reference to the grave and the Vietnam War, Sekine’s reference was traditional, learning from the famous mound at the temple Ginkakuji in Kyoto and the age-old gardening technique of digging a hole to make a pond and using the displaced dirt to create a mound.

Oldenburg hired a professional gravedigger to enhance his political intension and built upon the prevailing idea of fabrication by American Minimalists. In contrast, the artist’s physical labour figured large in both Group I and Sekine, although Sekine’s labour was hidden from the audience’s eye.

And like Group I’s collaborative collectivism, Sekine’s hole-digging was a collective act, as Sekine worked with his friends in arduous physical labour. He also received unexpected assistance from professional contractors who pitied his inexperience with moving earth.

Sekine, Phase—Mother Earth, 1968 at the 1st Biennale of Kōbe at the 'Suma Detached Palace Garden: Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition'
Sekine, Phase—Mother Earth, 1968 at the 1st Biennale of Kōbe at the 'Suma Detached Palace Garden: Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition'

Finally, the sheer physicality of dirt compacted into a 270-centimeter-high tower impressed even the artist himself who had conceived it. The work ignited the Mono-ha movement, with the theoretical reinforcement of Lee U-fan.

With these contextualized comparisons, Geijutsu Shinchō would hopefully have comprehended that Oldenburg’s and Sekine’s hole-digging are two different works, thus shaking off the curse of the catching-up mentality at the periphery. Still, to be fair, Geijutsu Shinchō is not the only one who needs a historical corrective.

The ‘60s was a contentious decade because of its highly transformational nature. Artists in the 1960s lived in a watershed moment of contemporary art. During this decade, the competition for being the first was real for many artists who lived through it. The persistent Eurocentricism and the emerging reality of Americanization of international art often undermined artists of non-Western origins as much as woman artists and artists of colour.

Ultimately, the competition of ‘who’s the first’—and a narration of history based on this competition—is futile, because it is likely that we can find a prior instance somewhere in this vast world, with international contemporaneity at work. In the case of hole-digging, before Group I’s performance, Walter De Maria published an untitled concept of ‘digging a hole and covering it’ in a text entitled ‘Meaningless Work’ in 1960.


Although the New York artist did not perform this act, his idea of digging a hole and filling back in as a meaningless work echoes Group I’s rewardless act across the Pacific Ocean in ‘65. Yet, again, it is dangerous to focus exclusively on the similarity. Those two hole-diggings were informed by the fundamentally different contexts in which these artists lived. Whereas De Maria took an oppositional stance toward commercialization of art in reaction to the growing domination of the art market in New York, what moved Group I was not the commercialization of contemporary art, because there was practically no market for contemporary art in ‘60s Japan, but the desire to exploit an outdoor venue to their best advantage.

The issue of originality vs. imitation is a vexing issue of modernism. True, the race to originality—governed by the questions of ‘what’s new?’ and ‘who’s the first?’—has become almost obsolete in postmodernity. Yet the discourse of imitation quietly lurks in our thinking, raising its insidious head when the paradigm of centre vs. periphery enters the equation in various forms. The imitation discourse is woefully limited and it limits our understanding of not only modernism, but also today’s globalizing practices of contemporary art, both of which are marked by varying degrees of multiplicity, diversity, and contemporaneity.

As much as I question the modernist construct of originality, I also believe that this historically relevant idea was less immutable and more locally contextualized than we were once made to believe. What is needed is a nuanced re-reading of those modernist ideas in such a way to re-inscribe locally inflected differences. Perhaps, this last point may not require pounding here in Asia, where copying has long been regarded a virtue not a vice. However, as exemplified by the imitation discourse of ‘60s Japan, modernity and contemporary art play a trick on our thinking.

In the age of contemporaneity, be it the ‘60s or the ‘90s or the 21st century, one way to look at the problem of originality vs. imitation is to recast it as that of similar yet dissimilar, because the phenomenon of contemporaneity most typically manifests itself in similarity, which should not be confused with derivation, imitation, and other forms of influence.

In this respect, the imitation discourse of ‘60s Japan can be reframed today: ‘What is similar and what is dissimilar between Oldenburg’s and Sekine’s works?’ Simply put, we need to go beyond the simple fact of ‘hole-digging.’

If you want to know further details of my discussion, please refer to my essay, ‘The Discourse of (L)imitation: A Case Study with Hole-Digging in 60s Japan,’ in Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris (Boston: Blackwell, 2011).



Reiko Tomii is a US based independent scholar and Co-Founder of PoNJA-GenKon.



Reiko TOMII, 富井玲子

Sun, 1 Apr 2012
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