In 1954, Japanese artists Shozo Shimamoto and Jiro Yoshihara formed an avant-garde art group called Gutai. The name means “embodiment” and “concreteness,” the separate kanji character ‘gu’ means tool, measures, or a way of doing something. ‘Tai’ means body—both existing in the physical form of a body, and existing under a national body which discouraged individualism. Formed during post-war Japan’s reconstruction period and active until the early 70’s, the artists were young enough to avoid deployment, but the trauma of war is clear in their work.
Gutai: 1953 – 1959 is on view at Fergus McCaffrey until June 30th. Featuring over 70 works by eleven artists, the show spans between pieces created before the formal establishment of the group, up until their emergence and acceptance into the international art world. Black and white documentary photographs and historical timelines on the wall illustrate major points in the group’s history and orients them within Japan’s cultural shift. Two major moments: Akira Kanayama, Atsuko Tanaka, Saburo Murakami, and Kazuo Shiraga joining the group in 1955, and French art critic and dealer Michel Tapié’s championing of the group beginning in 1957. The latter played a huge role in launching Gutai on to the world stage, at a time when Japan as a whole began to place a higher value on individuality and exchange with the Western world.
But Gutai was certainly not derivative of the avant-garde in the United States and Europe. In fact, many of the materials, practices, and concepts evident in the work displayed in the show anticipated or coincided with trends and developments occurring in the West.
In order to access the show, all viewers must step through the aftermath of a body slamming through gold paper suspended in a doorway. I stuck my head through cautiously, asking one of the gallery monitors “is this allowed?” He responded, “of course!” like he had already told a hundred other people the same thing. This recreation of Saburo Murakami’s performance “Entrance” occurred on the opening night of the show and the honors were given to Alexandra Monroe, the Guggenheim’s Senior Curator of Asian Art. Hanging on the opposite wall like stills from a movie is a series of photographs documenting the original event in 1955. Before seeing anything else, this entryway raises the viewer’s awareness of the interaction between their own body and relatively mundane materials elevated by their status as art, as well as the relationship between concept and form. Another of Murakami’s works, All Landscapes (1956) is all concept—it’s “just” a wooden frame hanging from the ceiling, inviting you to laugh at the joke.
The exhibition takes up 15,000 square feet in two different buildings, sometimes feeling like separate solo shows in one space. On display for the first time in the United States are five of Kazuo Shiraga’s sculptures and famous “foot paintings,” which were made by the artist sitting on a swing and painting on the paper below with his feet. Shiraga described this process as “rushing around a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion.” It’s tempting to stand in front of a work like Torimono, 1958 and try to trace Shiraga’s broad, sweeping steps. Another work, Red Bottled Object, 1956 (2017) is a macabre display of jarred cow liver and intestines, floating in a suspiciously red fluid.
Shiraga’s wife Fujiko was a frequent collaborator but also had a brief solo career from 1954 to 1961. Her work of layered raw washi and torinoko papers can appear deceptively simple, but the intentionality of her minimal actions is heightened by the realization she was scratching away at the surface with her fingernails. Her work White Board, 1955 is placed in the central hallway of the gallery, almost acting as a bridge between the separate rooms.
In one of these rooms, Atsuko Tanaka’s Bells, 1955 lines the floor beneath framed works on the wall, a method of display that is jarringly utilitarian in the context of the space. The only part given a pedestal is the button viewers are meant to push (again, I was instructed to do so by a gallery assistant) which triggers a series of bells to ring loudly in succession, breaking the deadly quiet of the white-walled gallery.