Reiko Tomii selects five books from AAA's Collection that help situate 1960s Japanese art in the broader history of modern and contemporary art.
This summer, I was asked to compile "Shortlist: Japan," a thematic reading guide to AAA’s holdings on Japan. If "Shortlist: Japan" serves as a survey course, the selection here serves as a seminar on the issues in the field of post-1945 Japanese art by way of an abbreviated review of the state of scholarship. One of the major issues that currently engages me most is how to situate 1960s Japanese art (and by extension twentieth- and twenty-first-century Japanese art) in the world history of modern and contemporary art. My work in the past two decades has taught me that it is not enough to merely disseminate new information about post-war Japanese art. Granted, the expansion of the knowledge base is crucial in any discipline. Yet, the challenge we face in an increasingly globalising world is how to globalise art history itself. The urgency of the challenge is felt not just among those working in Asian modern and contemporary art but in the entire discipline. Each time period has its own problematics. In ours, I envision our task to be finding ways to construct a set of multilateral comparative perspectives that capture the contemporaneity and multiplicity of modern and contemporary practices.
Of five volumes I have picked for this column, some have already been recognised as key literature, while some others were just recently published. However, all have made significant and substantial contributions by expanding our knowledge base. Rather than focusing on this aspect of their achievements, I would like to revisit them by considering the roles they have played in the evolution of our field and how they have stimulated my own study. While my observations are specific to post-war Japan, the critical and methodological issues raised here may be pertinent to other non-Western regions.
Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky
A foundational work of literature of the field, this volume remains the best survey available, covering the four decades following the end of World War II in a resourceful and expansive manner. Its contribution to scholarship was to establish the field as a legitimate area of study within art history, in which post-war Japanese art had been regarded either as an uneasy extension of traditional Japanese art history or a margin of modern and contemporary art history that was by nature Eurocentric. Within area studies, too, in which history and literature are dominant subjects, this book propelled vanguard art to the status of relevance. Author Alexandra Munroe’s methodology of weaving together Japan's political/economic/cultural histories and its history of vanguard art was a forcefully crafted work of contextualised art history. In doing so, she successfully carved out a space for post-war Japanese art, and its avant-garde art in particular, as an authentic movement.
When we today think about world art history, a question may arise: What is indeed this "avant-garde" of Japan? Or, put differently, what is this category of "avant-garde" that we have taken for granted in studying post-war art of different regions of the world? It is important to note that we can raise this question precisely because Munroe’s pioneering work has made us well prepared to ask it for further exploration. This is a tricky question to which the answer cannot be given in a black-and-white way. The idea of "avant-garde" was relevant in certain points of modern and contemporary Japanese art history, namely in the 1910s–20s and then the 1950s–60s. The concept of the avant-garde (zen’ei) was absorbed into the local discourse, in which it took an inflected meaning at once international and local. Personally, after my involvement with the volume as its editor and contributor, questions about the avant-garde have fueled my study of gendai bijutsu (literally "contemporary art"), which in the local discourse replaced zen’ei decisively toward the end of the 1960s. Yet, "contemporary art," which occupies a central place in my study is not less confounding than "avant-garde," for this is yet another widely shared terminology. A paired notion of "similar yet dissimilar," which I have worked with to decipher the "contemporaneity" of contemporary art, is informed by the appreciation of an impossibly complex task performed by my colleague.
Global Conceptualism is a pioneering multi-regional study of post-war art, which includes Japan, China, and Korea from East Asia. (I co-curated the Japanese section and authored the section essay.)
Conceptualism is not unlike "avant-garde." Phenomena characterised by the word can be observed worldwide. Yet, unlike "avant-garde" art, conceptualism emerged in a more limited timeframe of post-war art history. Key to the project is the methodological concept of "different clocks" of conceptualism that kept different times in different locales. This concept defied the conventional Eurocentric narrative that a new idea/movement arises in the center and spreads to the periphery, while embracing multiple localised narratives. The organisers (Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss) ostensibly eschewed the claim that conceptualism was an international style, which implicitly underscores the Eurocentricism of art history. The "different clocks" approach, put in practice through the region-by-region, country-by-country examinations, provides ample room of exploration to each area, encouraging investigations of local contexts and practices. Although this approach does not necessarily promote "national art histories," it nonetheless makes it less obvious to see connections and resonances among different areas. Yet, we also must acknowledge thematic approaches to the similar practices make it difficult to understand local developments, as deployed in the exhibition display of Cubism in Asia: Unbounded Dialogues (its catalogue has certain regional focuses). In this regard, Global Conceptualism points to a conundrum of human cognition, which seems to function in stages, making it difficult to comprehend in diachronic and synchronic manners at the same time. At least, this is one lesson I learned from this project, which compelled me to think both in terms of expanding the knowledge base and constructing a critical framework of global art history.
The author of this volume, Midori Yoshimoto, is among the first generation of scholars and curators inspired by Munroe’s Japanese Art After 1945 to focus on post-war Japanese art in their doctoral studies and professional careers. Though small in number, they forged forward by building upon a horizon opened up by their predecessors, myself included. Looking at performance art, one of the major battle grounds of 1960s art, in which Japanese artists made substantial contributions both internationally and domestically, Yoshimoto incorporated feminist art history and biographical studies to map ‘networks’ of international connections and cross-pollinations that informed the work of four Fluxus artists and Kusama Yayoi in an artistic diaspora of Japanese art in New York.
Although we usually study how "networks" worked in terms of the flow of information and the human connections, their failure—"disconnections" and "misconnections"—is also a historical factor, especially when we study individualised and localised decision-making. While the connection between Fluxus and Japan was significant, it should be remembered that Japan was no monolithic locale. Tokyo may be its centre, but the 1960s especially saw the proliferation of what was called the "regional avant-garde." For example, the pioneering conceptualist Matsuzawa Yutaka began his investigation of language as "discursive" material of art in 1961 and wholeheartedly affirmed his use of it as "immaterial" material in 1964; it is tempting to consider his connection with Yoko Ono, whose language-only work was first exhibited in a perfunctory manner at the Sōgetsu Art Center in Tokyo in 1962 and anthologised as Grapefruit in 1964. Yet, it is unlikely that Matsuzawa was aware of Ono’s practices, with his remote residency away from Tokyo and the networks he kept outside the Tokyo Fluxus circles. Even a single locale of Japan demands multiple perspectives.
The inter-national networks were as incomplete and disjointed as the intra-national networks. Information and ideas were not always transmitted and received in a predestined manner: misconception and mistranslation are inevitable parts of the equation. Furthermore, once transplanted, information and ideas may assume their own lives, generating "different vocabularies," if you will, that operate under "different clocks" at different locales. Understanding these differences is vital to world history of modern and contemporary art, as contemporaneity is not equal to homogeneity, or even universality.
Photography was introduced to Japan shortly after the invention of the medium in the mid-nineteenth century. No better example can be found than photography to study how a "different vocabulary" is generated in a different locale even when the "clock" was initially shared. The format of "photobooks," or shashinshū in Japanese, is a case in point. As carefully demonstrated in this volume by Kaneko Ryūichi, a respected photo historian, and Ivan Vartanian, a Tokyo-based art writer, shashinshū are ubiquitous in post-war Japanese photography as the favored medium of expression. In Japan, the print media (including magazines and newspapers) has long been considered the ultimate form of photography, in contrast to the Western attitude which privileges exhibitions over publications and vintage prints over modern prints. The situation began to change in the 1970s, but even today, younger photographers frequently debut by publishing shashinshū rather than having exhibitions.
The locally specific nature of shashinshū is made amply evident by the relatively short history of the term "photobook" in critical Western discourse on photography. A decade ago, when I researched 1960s Japanese photography, the most illuminating advice I received was Kaneko’s: "If you want to know about Japanese photography, you must study shashinshū." This knowledge has finally become widely accessible with this volume that bears Kaneko’s expertise and Vartanian’s passion. A fine example of "cultural translation," however, the book in English (which was preceded by a French edition and followed by a Japanese edition) curiously lacks the translation of one Japanese term that I believe key to understanding the publication culture of Japanese photography: shashin genkō. Meaning photographic prints prepared as "production art" for publication, the term incorporates genkō, the word in literature and publishing industries, which signifies "writer’s manuscripts" with a connotation that they will be edited by editors and brought to a publishable state. In this sense, Japanese shashin genkō represent a merely interim product of photography, not a final product. This is a markedly different conception of "production prints" in the West, where those made by, say, Robert Capa for magazine and newspaper publications came to be treasured as "original prints" or "vintage prints." A minor point, perhaps. Still, the language encapsulates the practice and the underlying logic. Furthermore, the disregard of "original prints" in photography intriguingly paralleled a certain disregard for the preservation of works in vanguard art. This parallel created a problematic relationship between 1960s performance art and its documentary photography—an issue I have been examining from a photographer's perspective.
Gutai is a touchstone of post-war Japanese art history. This characterisation may bring about some complaints: Gutai is not the sole vanguard movement of 1950s Japan. Certainly, Jikken Kōbō/Experimental Workshop left an innovative legacy that would be continued as intermedia art in the 1960s and the Reportage movement made a concerted effort to create a new democratic culture in the immediate post-war years. Yet, Gutai figures large because the collective in Osaka not only produced a phenomenal body of innovative and experimental work, but also had an unusually proactive and strategic international vision, thus making a fascinating case study in transnational art history. The word 'decenter' in the book's subtitle at once refers to the group's effort of decentering the playing field of modernist art and our own efforts to decenter the discipline of art history.
Although Gutai has "wowed" global audiences with their radical experimentalism many times over in the past, it seems unable to go beyond these wow moments of novelty. Gutai remains at once known and unknown. To solve this problem, a two-pronged approach is necessary: first, to expand the knowledge base of Gutai and second, to create a framework for Gutai to be understood in transnational art history. As the author, Ming Tiampo herself readily acknowledges, Decentering Gutai is her second Gutai book, with the first yet to be written. (I content-edited the volume.) That is to say, she prioritised the second approach in this book, striking out a critical position to create a space for Gutai to be contextually understood and mapped out many of its connections, disconnections, and misconnections within its ambitious international networking.
Gutai's resolute internationalism was exceptional among Japanese practitioners, affording it a special place in transnational art history. This may suggest that Gutai does not necessarily make a suitable methodological case study for post-war Japanese art. Yet, curiously, the more we pay attention to the transnational, the more we are forced to examine the locally specific. A thorny issue of evaluating Gutai's 'painting' illuminates this point. Tiampo, has pointed out, as have other Gutai scholars, that the concept of "painting" that formulated differently in Japan (East Asia) from the West must be taken into account in our comparative study of Gutai and Euro-American counterparts. In particular, what is commonly considered under the rubric of "happening," such as Shiraga Kazuo's Challenging Mud, and that of "installation art," such as Tanaka Atsuko's Bell, constituted "painting" in the mind of the Gutai members.
Reiko Tomii is a New York–based independent scholar and curator who investigates post 1945 Japanese art in global and local contexts. In her publications and projects, including her contribution to 'Century City' (Tate Modern, 2001) and 'Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art' (Getty Research Institute, 2007), she explores 1960s art by looking at international contemporaneity, collectivism, and conceptualism. She is co-founder of PoNJA-GenKon, a scholarly listserv group for contemporary Japanese Art.