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Q&A: The Canadian Behind the Guggenheim’s Breakthrough Gutai Show

Guggenheim Museum, New York February 15 to May 8, 2013

“Gutai: Splendid Playground” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is the first North American museum exhibition devoted to the revolutionary postwar Japanese art movement. Brilliantly installed—and co-curated by Carleton University associate professor Ming Tiampo and Guggenheim senior curator of Asian art Alexandra Munroe—“Splendid Playground” makes key artworks look as fresh, joyous and radical today as when they were first made: Tanaka Atsuko’s wearable Electric Dress (1956) made of coloured light bulbs pops like an overloaded Christmas tree; Motonaga Sadamasa’s sleeves of clear plastic tubing filled with shimmering, jewel-toned liquids paint the air as they traverse the atrium; a vending machine dispenses real artworks; electric motors power Yoshida Minoru’s enormous, neon-coloured Bisexual Flower (1969) to open and close like a psychedelic plant.

Conceived in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War, the Gutai movement might be thought of as aiming to heal a broken world through art. Founded in 1954 by Yoshihara Jiro, the wealthy heir to a manufacturing fortune, the association involved 59 artists spanning two generations and disbanded just one month after Jiro’s death in 1972. Gutai artists took painting, sculpture, performance and installation into parks, theatres and public spaces and rejected tradition in favour of the experimental, the playful and the site-specific. In an effort to overcome Japan’s isolation from the West, they reached out to New York and Amsterdam, creating networks of exchange which have been insufficiently acknowledged by Western art historians.

In her incisive 2011 book Gutai: Decentering Modernism, Vancouver-raised scholar Tiampo uses the example of Gutai to challenge the hegemony of Eurocentric framings of modern art. In this interview with Gillian MacKay, Tiampo talks about how the Guggenheim show came to be; argues that the margins of the art world—Canada included—have often proved more innovative than the centres; and advocates new conceptual models for imagining a global art history.

Gillian MacKay: When did you become interested in Gutai?

Ming Tiampo: I can remember the moment. It was 17 years ago, and I saw an untitled Shiraga Kazuo painting from 1957 at the Pompidou. I was there to look at Informel paintings [the French version of Abstract Expressionism]. The Shiraga looked so compelling and raw compared to what was coming out of France in the 1950s. You can see his footprints! I borrowed the Pompidou painting for the show—in an act of love, I guess.

GM: The videos of Shiraga swinging from a rope and allowing his bare feet to move the paint around on a canvas on the floor are riveting. Then, there is his semi-naked performance in the mud.

MT: At first, it was about painting with his feet—which he continued to do for his entire career. In 1955, he decided to push it further. In Challenging Mud, documentation of which is also in this show, he jumped into a big pile of mud, sand and rocks and manipulated it with his entire body. For him, it was a radicalization of the painted process. Afterwards, he actually exhibited the pile of mud itself as a work of art itself.

GM: In the Gutai Art Manifesto of 1956, Yoshihara Jiro rejects illusionism and calls for artists and materials to “shake hands with each other.” In what ways did Gutai artists radicalize painting?

MT: Shimamoto Shozo wrote that you had to kill the paintbrush because it was dominating the paint in such a way that paint could no longer be heard. Gutai artists used a lot of non-art materials like dirt, glass, nails, matches and sawdust, and they started to find new ways of painting. They painted with their feet, they threw bottles full of paint, they used toy cars. All of these strategies were about shaking hands with the materials, of allowing what Yoshihara Jiro described as “the scream” of the matter to emerge.

GM: The word gutai means concreteness. Why did these artists fixate on matter as an index of authenticity?

MT: Artists around the world at this time were questioning representation. In Europe, they rejected humanism and embraced a kind of phenomenology and existentialism. The idea was that the body and materials were all you could trust.

Something similar happened in Japan, except because Japan was totalitarian, and the ideology of humanism was not as deeply embedded, artists and intellectuals there did not blame humanism, but actually wanted more of it. To rebuild, you had to rebuild the subject—but through the body and the concrete.

GM: So individualism was important. Coming so soon after the horrors of totalitarianism and Hiroshima, how do you explain the spirit of optimism Gutai had about art and creativity?

MT: From a Western perspective, the mistake that is often made is to only look at Japan as having been a victim of the bomb. But within Japan, a lot of artists and intellectuals, especially on the left, were asking why the Japanese people had followed its militarist leaders into an unjust war. They were trying to understand what had gone wrong and to take responsibility.

One theory was that Japanese citizens were not able to stand up to the militarists because they lacked a spirit of individualism. As a result, Yoshihara Jiro urged them to make originality and subjective autonomy a central tenet of their work. The artists always thought they that needed to be one step ahead.

GM: So fun has a serious component. It is almost as if things got as bad as they could get in the Second World War, and it was time for the artists to reimagine the world.

MT: Absolutely. That is the ethical perspective that Gutai takes vis-à-vis the war. If members of society learn how to draw freely, to speak freely, to act freely, they will perhaps be more likely to act independently when faced with what Yoshihara Jiro called “the darkness of the 20th century”—the siren song of totalitarianism.

That is why they did interactive works like Please Draw Freely (1956), which we have recreated as a framing device for the exhibition—there’s a big drawing board on the rotunda floor at the Guggenheim. Many of the Gutai artists were teachers and educators of children. Children were seen as the foundations of the new society, as the place where the future could be built.

GM: Motonaga Sadamasa’s Work (Water) (1956) in the atrium of the Guggenheim makes exhilarating use of that iconic space. I love the way it traverses the ascending ramps and weaves them together with arcs of colour and light.

MT: I could look at that work for hours.

GM: What was it like to recreate a piece from 1956—I believe it was originally displayed outside in a park hanging from trees—in 2013?

MT: We actually call this a new commission to reflect our position that the site-specificity makes this a new work. Motonaga didn’t remember the Guggenheim very well, even though he had lived in New York in 1966 and 1967. We sent him an architectural model that he then filled with very small paper cut-outs of the hammocks. He did it shortly before his death in 2011. It was his final work, actually.

GM: For the upper ramps, Nasaka Senkichiro, who will be 90 this year, recreated the long, snaking aluminum tube from Expo 70 in Osaka that emits recorded sound and serves as support for hanging other artworks. It must have been poignant working with artists at the end of their lives, many of whom have been friends and mentors. You have written about going up in a mechanical crane with Shimamoto Shozo, who showed you how much fun it was to drop bottles of paint from a height.

MT: We were sad that we didn’t have any of the first-generation artists to the opening. There are not many left, and all are in their 80s. Shimamoto passed away a few weeks before the opening. Takasaki Motonao, technically a “phase two” artist, was the eldest artist who made the trip to New York, at the age of 90.

GM: Why don’t we know more about Gutai in the West? It’s like finding out that an amazing group of people have been living around the corner for years and somehow I failed to notice!

MT: Actually, Gutai has been “discovered” several times. Every single time they reappear, it seems that people ask the same question: “Why didn’t we know about them before?” And I think it’s because there hasn’t been a sustained effort to weave them into a history of art.

GM: The ambitions of Gutai were huge: not just a renewal of society at home, but overcoming Japan’s postwar isolation, breaking down the cultural barriers between East and West.

MT: It’s a postwar utopianism not unlike the utopianism that created the United Nations and other such international institutions. It is also about wanting to rewrite art history.

GM: The success of “Gutai: Splendid Playground” is a marked contrast with the poor reception given the first Gutai exhibition in the United States, in 1958 at New York’s Martha Jackson Gallery. Critics saw it as second-rate Abstract Expressionism. It seems the links to performance and experimentation were not well understood.

MT: It’s complicated, but I think in the end people just weren’t ready to see how radical the paintings were. If you read the reviews, you see that it was in postwar terms—Cold War terms, even.

GM: Will “Gutai: Splendid Playground” help to put these artists on the map?

MT: The exhibition has been a real eye-opener for a lot of people who don’t normally think about world art history. That, for me, is its biggest success.

I think finally art history is catching up. Art history now has the capacity to look beyond Paris and New York and to understand that Gutai was not just a precursor to Happenings or a kind of Abstract Expressionism—which is how they’ve been understood in the past—but that these artists were engaging in incredibly sophisticated and complex forms of experimentation which touch on Conceptualism, Performance, installation, environment and interactivity.

GM: Yet the bias toward the centre is still well entrenched. For example, the popular art history textbook Art Since 1900 portrays Gutai experimentation as a “creative misreading” of Jackson Pollock and of Harold Rosenberg’s seminal 1952 article on action painting.

MT: It is all under the rubric of the dissemination of modernism from the centre. Art Since 1900 is not seeing this as a global conversation. Absolutely, Pollock was very important to Gutai, as he was to artists around the world at that time. Second-generation Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists even, were fixated in the same way. Allan Kaprow, as well. Why is Kaprow’s 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” framed as innovation from within, whereas Gutai is framed as having misread the message of a famous figure from the centre?

GM: In Gutai: Decentering Modernism, you explore the ways in which the notion of influence can be employed by art historians to downgrade artists on the periphery. Hence Van Gogh and Manet are not considered derivative when they are inspired by Japanese prints, but Japanese painters of the 1950s are called derivative when they are inspired by Jackson Pollock. You prefer the word “translation” to “influence.”

MT: Translation is a useful way to describe how cultural transfers take place. Translation is not necessarily misunderstanding—that is where Art Since 1900 gets it wrong. It involves an authorial turn that helps us to think beyond notions of influence.

GM: In addition to cultural politics, professional jealousy can play a part as well. Yves Klein was completely unwilling to acknowledge any connection between Shiraga Kazuo’s performances in the mid-1950s and his celebrated Anthropométries paintings made with the human body in 1960.

MT: Klein actually wrote a screed against Gutai in his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto of 1961. Because he had spent time in Japan in the 1950s, he was terrified of being seen as derivative.

GM: How important is it to determine who came first?

MT: I am kind of interested in who came first because the history of art is interested. And I happen to be working on a group [Gutai] who have been ignored even though they did come first. I’m happy about that, because it helps my argument. On the other hand, my ultimate goal is not to figure out who won the race, but to define a set of terms that allows us to talk about modernism in subtler, more nuanced terms and to think about it transnationally.

GM: Art Since 1900 claims that after the setback in New York in 1958, Gutai “never recovered from the fiasco and slowly degenerated into a caricature of itself.”

MT: The received wisdom in Gutai scholarship both inside and outside Japan was that Gutai was really interesting until its artists met Michel Tapié [a prominent French critic and promoter of Informel painting] in 1957, after which they lapsed into a kind of Informel stupor, and only produced paintings for the market.

The idea behind this narrative, I think, is that before Tapié they were fresh and uncontaminated by the West. As soon as there is contact, it is somehow inconceivable to art historians that there could be a productive, generative relationship.

GM: A kind of Orientalist view.

MT: Totally. They can only be original if they are totally “other” and as soon as they come into contact with us, well, of course, we must dominate. It’s mind-boggling that this still exists. As you can see from this exhibition, that is not true: there was continued and sustained experimentation after Tapié, and furthermore, Gutai was international from the publication of its first journal in 1955.

GM: The Guggenheim exhibition makes strong arguments for continued vitality. There is the International Sky Festival project in 1960 and what you call “phase two” beginning in 1962.

MT: One of the big contributions of our exhibition is that we are introducing phase two of Gutai to an international audience. Even within Japan, it was always ignored and played down. For us, it was a pretty big risk.

GM: In the 1960s, a number of Gutai artists become interested in art and technology—I’m thinking of Yoshida Minoru’s gigantic Bisexual Flower from 1969—who have not been taken as seriously.

MT: Exactly. I think that until very recently, art and technology have made uncomfortable bedfellows, in part because artists who use technology have been seen as collaborating with the military industrial complex.

GM: How would you describe phase two?

MT: In phase two, we see a shift from an interest in recovery from the war towards an interest in asserting the individual in the context of double-digit economic growth, rapid technological progress and increasing human alienation.

GM: How do the works on display address societal issues? Would Gutai Card Box from 1962 be an example?

MT: Card Box is a really interesting and critically engaged work. It’s a machine that repeats the removal of human subject from the landscape that occurred in the 1960s. People no longer went to small family shops; instead they bought their drinks and their cigarettes from vending machines. But at the same time, it worked as a critique. Instead of a commodity, what you got was an original work of art.

The trick—both with the original version and the refabricated 2013 version in this show—is that there is someone hiding inside the machine. When you put your money in, there is a little one-way mirror that allows the visitor and the person who is inside the box to interact. The person who is inside the box decides what to give the visitor, so it is actually a kind of gift rather than a purchase, especially since the money does not then go towards profit; whatever is received at the Guggenheim Card Box will go towards a children’s charity.

GM: So you are selling original Gutai artworks for $1?

MT: For the openings and opening week, we were selling only Gutai postcards. You have to realize that there are only 15 Gutai members who are still with us. They are all in their 70s and 80s, and they spent their Christmas holidays making hundreds and hundreds of these cards for visitors. I think we budgeted for 30,000 cards, and obviously they couldn’t make them all.

So, in the spirit of international exchange, we asked New York artists, and a few Canadian artists who are friends of mine, to make cards to supplement the Gutai cards. [Some of those involved include Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Michael Buckland and Barbara Todd.]

GM: Getting back to Decentering Modernism, what are the implications for Canada of your centre-periphery analysis?

MT: Because I have worked a lot in the US, as well as in France and Japan, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be Canadian in this context. Actually, I find at the periphery, there is more freedom for invention. This kind of analysis opens up possibility for similar investigations of other peripheral sites such as Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg or NSCAD.

There is a certain conservatism about having to present things in the centre. You have to think about what New York art critics are going to think and what will be successful in that context. On the periphery, there can be a lot more freedom and openness to experimentation.

GM: How does Canada fit into the context of world art history?

MT: I feel as if the models that we have for intercultural engagement, at the very least, make us very open to the idea that cultures can mix, cross and change each other in interesting and unexpected ways.

If one wanted to make larger claims, I feel that in many ways Canada can serve as a model for a kind of transnational or transcultural art history. We are aware of political issues like language politics. We understand the post-colonial negotiations that need to happen in cultural encounters and contact zones. We are accustomed to and sensitive to what that means as it plays out. I feel like when dealing with artists and art historians from other countries, people have been more open to me because I am Canadian and not American.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was corrected on April 18, 2013. The original copy said Tiampo was born in Vancouver. In fact, she was raised in Vancouver and born in Calgary.

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