For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art & Photography, 1968-1979
GREY ART GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 11 – DECEMBER 5, 2015
JAPAN SOCIETY | OCTOBER 9, 2015 – JANUARY 10, 2016
The timelines of art history are marked by eruptions that reorient artistic practices and philosophies, bursting through the prevailing mentalities and cratering the landscape of cultural production. In 1968, three landmark productions—an exhibition, a publication, and a magazine project—set off a decade’s worth of radical action in Japanese contemporary art and photography. Because of their impact, Yasufumi Nakamori, the curator of this major historical exhibition, posits 1968 as Year Zero for gendai (the contemporary) in Japanese art. Spanning two venues and including more than 300 photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures, and photo books by twenty-nine Japanese artists, this exhibition coalesces a multitude of aesthetic experimentation driven by the era’s erumpent developments in photography.
The exhibition’s title is drawn from Takuma Nakahira’s groundbreaking photo book, For a Language to Come (1970), which came four years after Nathan Lyons established the snapshot as an emergent photographic style in Contemporary Photographers: Toward a Social Landscape (1966). On both sides of the globe, artists and photographers were looking for new ways to see, create, and make meaning from images. For Nakahira, who is presented as a bellwether figure in this exhibition, photography needed to discharge all traces of artistic expression and self-evident personality in order to achieve a looser state of straight documentary. The dystopian images that fill his book epitomized the rising aesthetic of the era, which was grainy, blurry, off-kilter, and slightly out of focus. His visions of raw urban nights and cracked city streets evoke the kind of cloacal beauty Oscar Wilde might have felt when the gutter was his bed and the starry night sky was his view.
The exhibition is evenly spilt between the two venues with just enough overlap to make each feel whole, yet remain distinctly its own. Nakamori, who is Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where this exhibition originated, has organized the work into four thematic categories. The first is marked by revolutionary politics: manifestos, zines, rough images of protestors and police. It’s a hotbed moment that cools into philosophical practices geared around the interrogation of material transformations in time and space through performative actions. Others, comprising the third faction, went in the opposite direction, creating work that focused on the physical nature—the materiality or objecthood—of imagery. Finally, the fourth grouping centers on introspective, personal approaches to creating photographs. Though there is a kind of narrative to this conceptual flow, the groupings were more contemporaneous than sequential.
Before Nakahira produced For a Language to Come he co-founded the revolutionary magazine Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought, which grounds the opening section of the exhibition. Nakahira and his colleagues ran the magazine for about a year and only published three issues, but its impact as a repository for the defiant and tumultuous imagery that typified the era’s popular sense of social upheaval was undeniably significant. Copies of the magazine are on view at both locations in vitrines, and are augmented with correspondent silver gelatin prints. Some of these pictures, like Students with a Megaphone, Nihon University College of Art (1968) by Kazuo Kitai, resonate strongly with more recent youth movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Umbrella Revolution.
Outside of the political unrest many artists and photographers concentrated their efforts on method-based performances that were designed to interrogate questions of matter, time, and space. A prime example is Hitoshi Nomura’s Dry Ice (1969). In a set of ten photographs Noruma records the evaporation of a block of dry ice on a long sheet of rubber. At every interval he writes the time and date beside the diminishing ice block, contextualizing the transformation of a solid to a vapor in real time. One of Nakamori’s curatorial strengths is to collapse the distance between the Japanese photographers and artists and their western counterparts. So it’s noted that when Nomura installed Dry Ice at the 10th Tokyo Biennial in 1971, it resonated remarkably with Jan Dibbets’s contribution, The Shortest Day at my house in Amsterdam, (1970), which photographically documented the movement of light across the Dutch artist’s studio.
Amongst those who were interested in the materiality of imagery—as opposed to its representational nature—Jiro Takamatsu made work that was clear and succinct. In a series called “Photograph of Photograph” (1972 – 73) Takamatsu took pictures of old pictures; they are sharp but the image at the center of each one is so distorted by reflected light that its presence as object is more immediate than the image itself. The literalism of this work is stark and its emotional tone is close to clinical. It could be a textbook illustration of what Stephen Shore so poignantly explains in The Nature of Photographs, that before it is anything else a photograph is a physical object.
The remaining bodies of work center on introspective approaches, bringing the presence of the photographer directly into the work itself—much the way Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson did with New Journalism in the 1970s. The pioneer of putting himself at the center of his work was Nobuyoshi Araki. This exhibition contains some of Araki’s earliest and most endearing efforts, including the groundbreaking Sentimental Journey, (1971) which documents his honeymoon in the most ordinary, if remotely erotic manner. Compared to the experimental and philosophical efforts of his peers, Araki’s embrace of the banal and the personal was a radical move.
Year Zero for the contemporary era meant the end of the modern era in Japan. As Nakamori explains in an essay that opens the comprehensive and scholarly exhibition catalogue, this transition from modernity to contemporaneity is distinguished by the cross-pollination of artistic and camera-based practices. It was also a time of increasingly international synchronicity between Japanese artists and their Western peers. Throughout Japan’s modern era, photo history and art history had advanced along separate lines. This exhibition marks an important transition across a boundary line too few had so clearly recognized. By the end of the decade the economic boom of the eighties would bring the radicalism of the seventies—and most of the avant-garde practices associated with it—to a close.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.