Tokyo's Mad Men: New UCLA book explores antics of Japanese avant-garde in 1960s
They threw random possessions off rooftops, made printed copies of Japanese currency and perpetrated odd "happenings" in commuter trains that left Tokyo residents scratching their heads.
By Meg Sullivan, UCLA Newsroom
No wonder these artists have been dismissed as just another group of nonsensical pranksters.
But there was so much more to the underground artists who made Tokyo an epicenter for the avant-garde in the late 1950s and early 1960s, UCLA historian William Marotti argues in a forthcoming book.
In "Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan," Marotti contends that the two dozen or so renegades gave voice through their art to postwar angst and in so doing presaged countercultural concerns that would reverberate worldwide in the late 1960s and early '70s.
"By delving into what these quirky artists were doing, you discover what was going on in politics and culture at the time," Marotti said.
Duke University Press is gearing up to publish the book as New York's Museum of Metropolitan Art mounts a major retrospective devoted to the art movement. "Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde," which runs through Feb. 25 at MoMA, showcases more than 200 pieces from the era, 20 of which figure in Marotti's book.
An associate professor of history at UCLA and an affiliated scholar with the university's Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, Marotti is a leading authority on Japan's postwar avant-garde. "Money, Trains, and Guillotines" is the product of two decades worth of investigation of the movement and its key figures, who are little known in the West, with the exception of the transnational artist Yoko Ono. For the book, Marotti interviewed more than 40 prominent players and mined multiple archives and dozens of private collections in the U.S. and Japan.
In the book, he credits the movement with "the unearthing of hidden connections to politics and history in the simplest objects of daily life" and "the identification of the world of the everyday itself as the central space for investigation and transformation." Taking aim at what was then a newly expanding consumer society, their results were so controversial that they often attracted the attention of the police.
"In a certain sense, agents of the state became some of this art's most enthusiastic appreciators," Marotti said. Authorities "identified the nascent political potential within it."
Artists who figure prominently in the book include:
These and other Japanese artists rose to prominence in the calm after a politically stormy period in which Japan's progressive elements rose up in protest against the U.S.–Japan Mutual Security Treaty, Marotti found. Ultimately signed into law in 1960, the revised treaty formalized Japan's role as a key Cold War ally of the U.S. and partner during the Vietnam War.
In an attempt to co-opt opposition to the treaty and stifle activism on the part of labor, Japan's new prime minister, Hayato Ikeda, promised to double Japanese citizens' incomes in a decade, making the state the guarantor of consumer comforts. The high-growth era entailed marked lifestyle shifts and necessitated long commutes for a growing number of Japanese in dense apartment blocks concentrated on the expanding periphery of Tokyo and other urban centers. Meanwhile, the government was going out of its way to project a rehabilitated image of itself. This drive, Marotti writes, "became increasingly oppressive as the [1964 Tokyo] Olympics drew near, the event that was to symbolize Japan's triumphant emergence from under the clouds of wartime and reconstruction, standing on its own as a showcase of U.S.-sponsored modernization."
Abandoning the social realist style that had previously typified Japan's progressive artists, this avant-garde forged a new vocabulary to challenge what they saw as their country's newfound compliancy. Through pieces incorporating found objects, such as "Compact Object," the artists prodded fellow citizens to question the wave of consumer culture overtaking the country, Marotti contends.
The happenings and other interventions, meanwhile, were designed to expose what the author calls "hidden forms of domination in the everyday world," taking art into the streets and trains to intercept Tokyo residents during their long commutes with the purpose of "agitating" the suddenly quiescent citizenry. In one Olympics-related happening described in the book, avant-garde artists donned white lab coats and surgical masks and got down on their hands and knees to scrub sidewalks in Tokyo's tony Ginza district — an effort receiving praise from the tone-deaf authorities, Marotti recounts. The Fluxus group would later repeat this action in New York City.
Meanwhile, with single-sided monochrome prints of the 1,000-yen note, which were decorated with the image of an imperial prince, and the unrealized guillotine escapade, the artists were perpetrating what Marotti describes as a "symbolic attack" on the postwar constitution's continued elevation of the emperor as a symbol of authority. Their oppositional activity emerged from and engaged a long history of art and political protest hearkening back to the postwar occupation period.
Marotti credits an annual art show sponsored by a prominent newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun, with having galvanized the avant-garde at the time. That is, until the exhibition was abruptly suspended in 1964 because, in the words of detractors, "it was disturbing public order."
The artists were also stimulated by such American neo-Dadaists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who eschewed traditional concepts of aesthetics and whose work was exemplified by the use of modern materials, popular imagery and absurdist contrasts. But in many ways, Marotti concludes, the Japanese artists were ahead of their times, with a critical focus and organizational strategies that anticipated guerrilla art, wrapped art and Pop Art — and moreover, the key political concerns of the late 1960s.
"While working independently, these artists were very much 'of the moment,'" he said. "They grasped this explosive moment in consumer culture and analyzed its political effects."
Published: Friday, November 16, 2012