Radicalism in the Wilderness: Japanese Artists in the Global 1960s
Matsuzawa Yutaka, On Another Work in Another Container, or On Cutting, 1963. Brochure, 7 3/8 x 5 1/8 inches. Keiō University Art Center, Tokyo;Takiguchi Shūzō Papers, ca. 19451979.
On viewJapan Society
March 8 – June 9, 2019
Japan Society’s exhibition space on 47th Street is just a stone’s throw from the United Nations complex on the bank of the East River. This proximity to the headquarters of an institution that promotes global interconnectedness is appropriate, if only coincidentally: the exhibition currently occupying the galleries focuses on the relationship between geographic centers and the so-called “wilderness” on the peripheries. Radicalism thinks through this dialectic within Japan itself and on an international scale. The show features boundary-pushing artists who worked in areas remote from Tokyo—the seat of the art establishment after World War II—while proposing the terms “connection” and “resonance” to describe, respectively, concrete links and conceptual parallels with figures in Europe and the United States. The frequency with which such relationships are highlighted in Radicalism ultimately implies that in the 1960s, ambitious artists the world over occupied a shared conceptual space that transcended notions of geographic hierarchy.
Just over half of the exhibition is dedicated to the work of a single artist: Matsuzawa Yutaka, a prolific conceptualist best known for the dematerialized and arcane practice he developed in the 1960s. Before plunging into these deep waters, however, curator Reiko Tomii acquaints us with projects from the previous decade, which tend to be more traditionally visual and object-based. These include two “chemical paintings”—sheets of galvanized iron treated with photosensitive chemicals—as well as a series of diagrammatic watercolors with titles alluding to heightened states of consciousness, an enduring theme of Matsuzawa’s work. In a telling gesture, various documents relating to a two-year stretch Matsuzawa spent in the United States during the mid-1950s are included alongside these early works, suggesting the importance of contact with the West and the general mobility of ideas during the 1960s.
During his time in the United States, Matsuzawa became interested in extra-sensory perception and other paranormal cognitive phenomena. After returning to Japan in 1957, he developed a practice centered on the concept “Psi,” which he used to refer to these non-traditional conceptions of the psyche. Matsuzawa produced a variety of eccentric “Psi” collages and constructions during the early 1960s, gathering many of them together in a single room of his home, the so-called Psi Zashiki Room. For Radicalism, Japan Society has obtained several collages classified as “Psi Mandalas.” These works take the form of three-by-three unit grids, a structure derived from the esoteric Buddhist cosmogram known as the Diamond World Mandala.
Both Buddhist practice and psychic phenomena would only grow in importance for Matsuzawa after a disembodied voice commanded him, in 1964, to “vanish matter.” This experience prompted him to abandon conventional visual art and focus instead on text-based manifestos, many organized on the familiar three-by-three mandala grid, as well as entirely dematerialized practices relating to kannen, a form of meditative visualization. At Japan Society there is a vast, to some degree overwhelming, quantity of this material on display, including a great deal that relates to Matsuzawa’s unusual exhibition practices. The notable show Independent ’64 in the Wilderness, for example, consisted only of a magazine advertisement asking participants to retain their contributions and transmit a “formless emission” to the site of an imagined exhibition. Matsuzawa also organized a number of more concrete shows featuring like-minded artists outside Japan, including Gilbert and George, Lawrence Weiner, On Kawara, and Hanne Darboven, whose contributions consisted of letters or telegrams sent to Japan. In addition to documenting these concrete “connections” with European and American figures, Radicalism also highlights important affinities with the work of Yves Klein and Yoko Ono, artists with whom Matsuzawa had no direct contact.
GUN, Event to Change the Image of Snow, 1970. Documentation of performance. Photo © Hanaga Mitsutoshi.
Such “resonances” continue to play a crucial role in the second half of the exhibition, which is split between two artist groups: GUN (Group Ultra Niigata), based in the rural prefecture that gives the collective its name, and The Play, who operated out of Osaka. These groups, whose performative activities were often carried out in the natural landscape, are introduced as a Japanese equivalent to Earthworks artists in the United States. Indeed, GUN’s Event to Change the Image of Snow (1970), an ephemeral project in which members of the group spread pigment across a snowfield, was inspired by second-hand knowledge of Dennis Oppenheim’s use of snow in works like Annual Rings, executed two years earlier. GUN member Horikawa Michio’s extended project Mail Art By Sending Stones (1969–1972) similarly recalls Robert Smithson’s extensive use of rocks as an art material. Horikawa’s undertaking, inaugurated in response to the Apollo 11 mission, involved mailing river rocks to diverse recipients, including friends, fellow artists like Matsuzawa Yutaka, and even Richard Nixon, then recently elected President of the United States (the White House responded with polite, if bemused, thanks).
The Play, Current of Contemporary Art, 1969. Documention of performance. Courtesy The Play.
Osaka’s The Play focused primarily on large-scale public projects and performances. In 1968, for example, the group attempted to use ocean currents to float a fiberglass egg measuring 2.2 by 3.3 meters from Japan to the United States. The ultimate fate of the egg remains unknown. The Play subsequently adopted the journey or voyage as a characteristic form: in 1969 they boarded a Styrofoam raft and piloted it through the Uji, Yodo, and Ōkawa rivers to Osaka, in 1970 they drove a flock of sheep from Kyoto to Kobe, and in 1974 they circumnavigated the small island Minami Daitōjima by trolley. Radicalism, however, devotes the most attention to a project titled Thunder, which was carried out across ten summers starting in 1977. Each year, members of The Play gathered in some remote location to construct a massive wooden pyramid with a lightning rod at its apex. They then waited for lightning to strike—in ten years it never happened, and the fruitless “time of waiting” became the object of the exercise. The exhibition concludes with one last example of international “resonance,” comparing Thunder with Walter De Maria’s contemporaneous The Lightning Field. The Play was not aware of De Maria’s work, but when they learned about it they sent an appreciative letter to the American artist. In melancholy counterpoint to the network of personal and intellectual relationships mapped through the rest of the exhibition, De Maria never wrote back.