Andrea Rosen Gallery | October 14 – November 16, 2016
The Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo’s work emerged at the height of Cold War paranoia. From nuclear annihilation and techno-capitalist commodification to environmental collapse, manifest anxiety bursts from the artist’s diminutive birdcage sculptures, now on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery. Yet pessimism is also countered by a sense of urgency, for despite the prevailing gloom, Kudo, as artists must, continued to act and respond to the exigencies of his time.
Four enormous stepped plinths border the main gallery, atop which sit more than twenty small-scale sculptures dating from 1966 to 1980. The birdcages, almost resembling samples captured and boxed by an alien intelligence, present a skewed notion of our world: limbs, nascent technologies, and artificial plants predominate. These eclectic dioramas embody what Kudo considered the “new ecology”: a cyborgian future in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between technology and the body.
The wire frame of each is spray-painted in an acid hue, from tangerine and Kelly green to lemon yellow and hot pink. This parade of neon boxes is akin to the artificially colored conveyor belt of 1960s consumer products, which were beginning to dominate the era in which Kudo lived. Rather than co-opting the iconography of the commodity, as Pop art did so effectively, Kudo instead married its synthetic qualities with quasi-biological materials, like molded hands and primordial slugs. In Coelacanth (1970), a group of fleshy, protuberant appendages are confined within a fluorescent pink cage. One swollen form hangs from a wall as if caught mid-flight—perhaps a reference to the previous avian occupant—while the most menacing member nestles in the straw below, like some kind of phallic predator stalking its prey. Each of these swollen slugs bears a grotesquely crusty skin, suggesting an advanced stage of decay. Meanwhile, a curiously clenched hand lingers somewhat possessively on top of the cage.
Later works incorporate the human face, with the apparently incinerated visage of the artist staring out at the viewer from Portrait de l’artiste (1976) or the pair of pursed lips clamping down on cigarettes in Bonheur (1974). In the latter, the fragmented faces are suspended above a miniature, self-contained ecology comprising fake soil, electronic circuit boards, a thermometer, and some tablets. Kudo’s transformation of relatable, household objects into dystopian ciphers of contemporary life is virtuosic. Hyper-real organic forms, synthetic flowers and hi-tech electronics combine to create an effect both discombobulating and disturbing. With its ironic title (which translates as “happiness”), Bonheur serves as an indictment of postwar culture. The greying skin of the smokers attests to a dependence on narcotics and a reliance on the pharmaceuticals scattered across the base of the cage. Electrics and plastics, the new materials of the age, have destroyed and, ultimately, replaced the natural world.
Kudo studied in Japan and spent much of his time in Paris, and travelling and showing in biennales and exhibitions worldwide, from the 1960s onward. These works emerged from Kudo’s disillusionment with Europe’s individualistic culture. An eccentric figure, he never entirely meshed with major art movements though his work has been associated with Fluxus, conceptual art, and Neo-Dada. This isolationist stance might explain his idiosyncratic visual language. Most often compared to contemporaries like Paul Thek, his work also echoes some of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s early-1960s wax sculptures, in which facial fragments form the basis for an examination of the cyborg body. While Leeson examines the potentially liberating aspects of new media, Kudo’s critique fails to acknowledge any positive offerings that enhanced technologies can present.
Instead, Kudo presents a virulent critique, in a small package. These mini-capsules are so condensed, so tightly organized, that they teem with a sense of bundled energy, fighting to escape.
After the surreal, often grotesque, assemblages of the first room, the second space, filled with attractive, abstract sculptures, feels like a radical break. Made from primarily wood, string, and thread, these lesser-known works were apparently produced during a period of illness for the artist towards the end of his life. Clearly referential, despite their abstract forms, the works evoke unspooling thoughts, energy waves and, this being Kudo, some reference to human fertility, with one tadpole-shaped piece named Sous le ciel de Yanaka court spermatozoïdes Jomon B (1987).
Though the works are positioned in a pleasingly asymmetrical and chronological order, with their modest scale they feel dwarfed in the large white space of the gallery. The fact that every work can be seen at once obscures the differences between them. Ironically, given Kudo’s critique of consumerism, the exhibition resembles a retail environment, with multiple off-the-peg pieces on offer. Unremittingly critical, with its incarcerated and disfigured bodies, Kudo’s work speaks to many of our darkest fears. The notion of environmental collapse brought about by the unquestioning embrace of consumerism does not seem particularly far-fetched, especially now in this given moment.