The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue

Destination Out: Cinematic Illumination, More Than Cinema and Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia

Cinematic Illumination, More Than Cinema and Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s enrich our understanding of the Japanese film avant-garde's political and intellectual contexts.

Flyer for Masao Adachi’s <em>Closed Vagina (Sain)</em> screening at Art Theater Shinjuku Bunka, 1965. Private collection.
Flyer for Masao Adachi’s Closed Vagina (Sain) screening at Art Theater Shinjuku Bunka, 1965. Private collection.

Enclosed in four black walls, frames are projected in rat-a-tat sequence, wrapping around what eventually lights up to unveil a 360 degree panorama: the silhouette of a man frozen in time as he jumps, like the horse photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878; newsprint images of Hubert Humphrey and John Lennon; 16mm film footage shot out the window of a moving trolly; a series of close-up candids of a young smoker. He’s the multidisciplinary artist Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver, who first mounted this work, entitled Cinematic Illumination, as part of the Intermedia Arts Festival held at the Tokyo discotheque Killer Joe’s in 1969, when Gulliver was all of 21 years old. Through February 2021, Cinematic Illumination occupies a room on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, a staggering testament to the brain-breaking logistics necessitated by what is usually referred to as “expanded cinema.” Blessed by an overhanging disco ball, Gulliver’s rig requires 18 carousel projectors—the kind people used to torture dinner party guests with slides from their vacations abroad, once upon a time—shuttering on and off in perfect synchronization as they beam 1,440 images over the course of about 30 minutes. While Gulliver (mostly) adheres to the traditional rate of 24 frames per second, Cinematic Illumination invites, if not dares, the viewer’s eye to follow the image from left to right and back again, as opposed to the traditional vertical film strip centering one frame at a time in the field of vision. Gulliver’s accomplishment is all the more impressive given its originally intended form as a one-night “happening,” never to be repeated again—and from the position of a massive public-facing museum increasingly driven by the need for exhibitions that will digest easily on Instagram, Cinematic Illumination is a rare and precious example of expanded cinema given the time, care, and logistical finesse required to get its point across in our ever-desiccating physical reality.

For the average visitor to MoMA (where, full disclosure, I work as a ticket-taker), Cinematic Illumination is seamless, a surreptitious magic lantern surrounded by more traditionally arrayed galleries. Half a century after its debut, Gulliver’s blending of form and concept is unmistakable and accessible, not some stale artifact from an arcane, bygone artistic movement. Yet, from a curatorial point of view, it’s impossible to think about work like this without immediately landing on a headache-inducing paradox: sure, paintings can be photographed, music recorded, and films copied, but how does one go about saving a happening—especially when its fleeting ephemerality was the whole point? Gulliver was among a generation of Japanese artists and thinkers seeking to upend the conventions of exhibited two-dimensional artwork as well as projected film at large, marching in not-quite-lockstep after the Fluxus movement pioneered in New York City by Dick Higgins and George Maciunas. The phrase “intermedia” is originally attributed to Higgins, who cribbed it from a 1812 essay by British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the differences in mythic allegory deployed by Shakespeare and the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser. Like expanded cinema—a phrase coined by avant-garde filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek but popularized by film scholar Gene Youngblood in his 1970 book of the same name—intermedia necessarily becomes a broad and imperfect descriptor for a wide range of approaches and practices, whether they actively sought to live up to it or not. As scenes dissipate, the social nuances and aesthetic arguments that comprise once-unstoppable artistic movements are scattered to the various winds of broad-strokes history for all but a few: the obsessives, the connoisseurs, the archaeologists.

Enter Japanese Expanded Cinema and Intermedia: Critical Texts of the 1960s, a dense and comprehensive new book edited by scholar-curators Go Hirasawa, Julian Ross, and Ann Adachi-Tasch and released by Archive Books. Critical Texts collects essays and other assorted texts (alternating between lofty pronouncements, first hand recollections, and everything in between) written by key figures within the postwar Japanese avant-garde, never before available in English. MoMA reprising Cinematic Illumination is fortuitous not just for the publication of Critical Texts: in parallel, Pioneer Works hosted a show this past year called More Than Cinema, zeroing in on four polemical, film-based works by the artists Motoharu Jōnouchi and Keiichi Tanaami, which anticipated the supposed heyday of “underground” or “experimental” cinema in Japan. (In a cruel twist, Gulliver was set to perform a rare live happening in person at Pioneer Works, alongside his contemporary Katsu Kanai, when both More Than Cinema and Cinematic Illumination were originally slated to open before the coronavirus shutdown of spring 2020.) The editors of Critical Texts take pains to describe the project as ongoing, the book itself the result of many years’ continuing research, collaboration, and exhibition. Collaborative Cataloging Japan, a Philadelphia-based organization of which Ross, Hirasawa, and Adachi-Tasch are a part, was the main force in organizing these events, and Critical Texts does a brilliant job contextualizing disparate strands of protest and art-making without negating the approaches of individual participants nor inviting easy conflation across contemporaneous, but wholly divergent, cliques within Japanese art history.

The specification of terms is crucial to Critical Texts, which is separated into four sections spanning these disciplines as they came into being over the 1960s: “Intermedia,” “Precedents to Expanded Cinema,” “Case Studies,” and “Pop Cinema: Cinema as Art in the Age of Reproduction.” In his introduction, Ross explicates that the works covered rarely qualify as “traditional” narrative or short-form media, intended to be toured, distributed across cinematheques, or absorbed by institutions. Many of the artists featured also worked as writers or critics, many having studied (not unlike Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama, or Shigeko Kubota) in New York City before returning to Japan. Fluxus happenings were documented by Kenji Kanesaka, an underground filmmaker who studied at Northwestern University before co-founding the Japan Filmmakers Co-op in Tokyo. Filmmaker Takahiko Iimura may have been the first Japanese writer to use the word “intermedia,” writing a report on a 1965 trip to San Francisco for the film journal Eiga Hyōron. Iimura spelled the phrase three different ways in katakana, the Japanese alphabet most typically used to transpose loanwords from Western languages—indicating that, per Ross’s introduction, “there wasn’t yet consensus on how to spell its Japanese iteration, probably as it was the first instance in which it was written for a Japanese readership.” By mistake or otherwise, Iimura also conflated intermedia with expanded cinema, which “arguably dictated the initial conception of ‘intermedia’ to have a deep relation with cinema, which continued to be prevalent in the discourse on the terms thereon.”

Part of the thrill of reading Critical Texts is seeing evidence of the art form’s ability to seamlessly migrate from one cultural context to another, the documents themselves haunted by the specters of McLuhan, Warhol, and the New York avant-garde. In describing “extreme cinema,” film critic Satō Jūshin cites The Flicker (1966) by Tony Conrad and Wavelength (1967) by Michael Snow as “works that showed us the even greater depths of terror to which stroboscopic effects could be pushed.” Of the Conrad piece, in which black and white frames alternate at increasing arpeggios to sometimes nauseating effect, Satō continues: “What affected me most was not the hallucinations themselves, but something more fundamental, as if my brain waves were being torn apart.” In other words, technological experimentation and mathematical formulas could produce psychological states that would grip long after the supply of booze and drugs had run out. “What is being pushed to the extreme,” Satō concludes, “is not the limit of what can be expressed. It is the extent to which the viewer can coexist with the film.” Even under the occasional patronage of corporations like Sony and Pepsi, many of the 1960s happenings and artworks used abstract means to engage modernism’s favorite topic, the irreversible forward-grind of industrialization. According to Hirasawa, the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka solidified “the growing power of the capitalist system and the state,” leading to “the hollowing out of expanded cinema and intermedia” and effectively spelling the end of the postwar avant-garde.

Art critics (such as Emily Watlington of Art in America) who bemoan the limitedness of More Than Cinema’s archival materials are proactively missing the point, because these happenings were staged as present-tense interventions. Protesting the 1960 security treaty between the United States and Japan known as Anpo jōyaku, colloquially shortened to Anpo, a student named Michiko Kanba was killed by police demonstrating outside the National Diet Building on June 15. Jōnouchi Motoharu and his compatriots at the VAN Film Science Research Center (Nihon University) produced a film intended to be shown as a commemorative protest one year later in her honor, entitled Document 6.15. After the initial promise of a straightforward documentary, the end product was reedited by VAN into a radical, cacophonous polemic of sound and form, initiating outrage and protests from the audience before the screening was aborted. (The “original” Document 6.15 no longer exists in full, but clips and ephemera from its screenings are included in More Than Cinema.) A similar fate befell the premiere of the 1963 film Sain (Closed Vagina), produced collaboratively by Masao Adachi and the Nihon University New Film Study Club. A rival student league stole the second reel of Sain, preventing the screening from being executed in full—but Adachi, always tilling towards more radical alternatives, embraced the chaos while the audience erupted into confusion. Critical Texts includes Adachi’s reflections on this process (or anti-process), alongside pseudonymously written letters of protest and support, enriching the picture of earnest student activists who still believed disrupting aesthetics could be a means of making revolution.

Not for the faint of heart, Adachi’s 1971 film Gushing Prayer would twin sexual frustration with political impotence, a Brechtian and despairing statement on a society closed off from its own liberatory impulses. The preponderance of drugs, glitter, and hippie hairstyles bely the reality that most of these artists grew up during World War II and/or in the immediate aftermath of the United States’s long occupation of defeated Japan. Reviewing Cinematic Illumination, Jason Farago of the New York Times cited the “youthful certainty of an artist and a generation taking its new prosperity for a test drive, for whom partying could be the most valuable freedom of all.” But artist Keiichi Tanaami pushed back against the freak-a-delic assumptions made of his paintings exhibited at Killer Joe’s, claiming instead in a career retrospective catalog that “if there are people who get a hallucinatory or psychedelic sense from my paintings, perhaps that is based on the unimaginable experience of war. The light from the searchlights cutting through the bright red night sky left deep scars in my young eyes and heart." If one generation’s radicalism is another’s kitsch, then the labors of Hirasawa, Adachi-Tasch, and Ross in situating crucial political details for future historians is all the more essential. To shed light on artworks which nevertheless insist on interrogating (if not destroying) themselves is an act of devotion in extremis—and a task, which can never truly be declared as finished.


Steve Macfarlane

STEVE MACFARLANE is a filmmaker, writer, and programmer based in Ridgewood, New York. His book No Accidents: The Films and World of Nancy Meyers is being published in 2021 by Topos Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues