Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2012
Ming Tiampo Gutai: Decentering Modernism Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011. 264 pp.; 12 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Paper $39.00 (9780226801667)

Few today would dispute the fact that the Japanese collective Gutai Art Association (1954–1972) is the most renowned postwar avant-garde movement coming out of East Asia. If, on the one hand, Gutai’s assertively internationalist attitude ultimately paid off, on the other, its members often paid a high price for embracing internationalism when what was expected from a Japanese avant-garde collective was mainly the particular and exotic. Ming Tiampo’s excellent Gutai: Decentering Modernism, the first English-language monograph on Gutai, explores Gutai’s internationalism as a structuring element in the group’s long and diverse creative trajectory. In doing so, the book contributes an insightful model for narrating the history of postwar modernism across national borders, subverting the center-periphery divide that informs conventional accounts of global art history.

Gutai: Decentering Modernism offers a thorough scrutiny of Gutai’s practices and exhibitions from its early days to the group’s dissolution; but the book is not only—and not mainly—a historical survey of Gutai’s activities. Gutai serves here as a privileged locus to interrogate the broader transnational dynamics of postwar modernism. Drawing from theorists as diverse as Edward Said, Harold Bloom, and Adam Smith, Tiampo criticizes conventional narratives of modernism, which locate its putative origin in the West, from where it supposedly disseminates to the rest of the globe. The main problem faced when dealing with non-Western modernisms is not that modernism originated in the West; the difficulty, in Tiampo’s words, is rather that we continue to “imagine modernism as a closed system, located in the West and perpetually disseminated to its peripheries” (43). Gutai’s conscious effort to participate as original creators in an internationally defined realm of artistic exchange makes it a particularly rich starting point for a criticism of the Eurocentric narrative of modernism.

From early on, originality was the buzzword and motto of Gutai art. As the group’s leader, Yoshihara Jirō, repeated time and again: “Create what has not been done before!” (11) At the same time, originality is also a fundamental notion in the conventional division of creative labor between center and periphery, according to which “innovation takes place in the center and is disseminated to the periphery” (2). Hence, to decenter modernism, as Tiampo puts it, “we must first decenter originality” (13). Chapter 1 introduces Gutai from the perspective of its strategies of originality. By stripping down to white underwear and painting with his whole body, as in Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud (1955), going on stage wearing a structure of wires and fluorescent bulbs, as in Tanaka Atsuko’s Electric Dress (1956), or breaching through six consecutive paper screens in front of a packed audience, as in Murakami Saburō’s At One Time Opening Six Holes (1956), Gutai left highly informed Tokyo-based art critics literally without words. As critic Haryū Ichirō commented years later on the general reaction to Gutai’s first exhibitions in Tokyo: “It was almost as if we met with a life form from Mars” (11).

Despite its outlandish results in the eyes of its contemporaries, Gutai’s relentless search for originality, as Tiampo demonstrates, must be understood within the context of the pressing issues that affected Japanese cultural politics after the country’s defeat in the Second World War. Having lived through the fascist militarization that accompanied Japan’s imperialistic expansion in East Asia, Yoshihara embraced postwar values of individuality and subjective autonomy as antidotes to the prewar ideology of kokutai, or the national body: “Radically subverting the wartime image of the nation’s body (kokutai) in the immediate postwar period, the carnal body (nikutai) emerged as a site of expression and as the root source of desire and subjective autonomy (shutaisei)” (41). As Tiampo argues, Gutai’s emphasis on creative originality cannot be dissociated from this embrace of subjective autonomy and individuality as fundamental political values in postwar Japan. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that Yoshihara’s embrace of individual creativity—not to mention Gutai’s distance from the social struggles of 1950s and 1960s Japan—simultaneously set the group apart from a more collective, class-based understanding of shutaisei as well as from the leftist politics of their contemporaries in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

Distance—from Paris, from New York, from Tokyo—deeply defined and informed Gutai’s creative trajectory. Chapter 2, “The Interpoetics of Distance,” explores Gutai’s experiments with postal art, portables, conceptualism, and instruction-based pieces as creative strategies to overcome and appropriate distance in artistic practices, while chapter 3 turns to the Gutai journal as another fundamental piece of the group’s presence in an incipiently global art world. Founded in 1954 in the town of Ashiya, in Western Japan, Gutai’s home base was peripheral not only to the cultural capitals of Euro-America but also to the center of Japan’s political life. Yet, Gutai’s hometown was far from a rural backwater. Strategically located roughly midway between the bustling commercial center of Osaka and the international port of Kobe, the affluent Hanshinkan area had been the site of a sophisticated, Westernized culture in prewar Japan known as Hanshinkan Modernism. Yoshihara himself, the heir to a salad oil mill, was a product of the highly international environment of prewar Hanshinkan, whose connections to the West had traditionally bypassed Tokyo.

Gutai’s heightened consciousness of its position in the international art world was imbedded in the very (im)materiality of its artistic practices. In a number of significant ways, “distance was not just an impediment to be overcome but a creative inspiration for the group” (2). Gutai’s awareness of distance enabled a prescient attitude to the international art world as well as new insights into the possibilities of artistic practice unmatched by their contemporaries in the center. For the Nul 1965 exhibition in Holland, for instance, the group devised the concept of the Gutai portable as a way to overcome the huge difficulties and costs involved in the transportation of mounted canvases internationally. Kanayama Akira’s piece for that occasion wittily included a drawing of a hand holding a letter outside a mailbox as a reference to the Gutai pieces sent by air to Europe. That the first official action by the group—even before its collective exhibitions—consisted in the bilingual publication (Japanese and English) of the Gutai journal is emblematic of their consciousness and creative use of distance. Yoshihara’s careful efforts in making sure that Gutai publications reached the right hands both in Japan and overseas bared substantial fruits in Europe and North America. Art critic B. H. Friedman found copies of issues 2 and 3 of Gutai in Jackson Pollock’s studio after the painter’s death. Meanwhile, another copy of the journal reached the French critic and leader of the Informel group, Michel Tapié, in 1957, sparking Gutai’s most fruitful—and also most entwined—connection in the European art world.

Chapters 4 to 6 examine the political underpinnings of Gutai’s domestic and international exhibitions from 1958 to the group’s last show during the 1970 Osaka Expo, as well as their reception by the public and critical responses both in Japan and abroad. Gutai’s debut in the international art scene was tied to Tapié’s recognition of the group as a Japanese partner of Informel. The collaboration with Tapié granted the group its first exhibition outside Japan, in 1958, at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. But Tapié’s strategy of promoting Gutai as a painting-based collective in the style of Informel is also partly to blame for Gutai’s rather lukewarm reception among New York critics at the time. Nonetheless, besides the French critic’s misgivings about the New York art scene, the American reception of Gutai, as Tiampo argues, “was politicized in a manner specific to the U.S.-Japan relationship after the war, and to the concerns of the cold war in Asia” (109). American critic William Rubin’s observations that Gutai members “are trying single-handedly to thrust Japanese art into the twentieth century by turning away from their own traditions and looking to New York and Paris” (110) illustrates well this somewhat condescending view of Gutai’s position and stakes in the international art world. Immediately after New York, Yoshihara traveled to Europe, introducing Gutai art to Paris, Brussels, Turin, and Barcelona. Tiampo provides a highly nuanced and vivid portrait of the diversity of Gutai’s activities throughout the long span of the group’s lifetime and its multiple generations of members. Her direct engagement with Gutai’s works is the best antidote to recurrent misperceptions of the group as merely derivative of Abstract Expressionism and other Western modernist trends.

Gutai: Decentering Modernism provides a comprehensive study of Japan’s most well-known postwar avant-garde collective, but it also offers far more than that. Tiampo’s book is a very welcome addition to a growing body of works that theoretically locate Japanese art within the broader transnational context of modernism and avant-garde art in the postwar era. Its well-argued portrait of Gutai as a transnational phenomenon upsets conventional assumptions about the clear-cut divisions between center and periphery in the production and consumption of culture in the late twentieth century. If part of the responsibility for the delay in Gutai’s international recognition, as Tiampo vigorously argues, “can be put squarely on the shoulders of art historians working within national models of analysis,” this book is a major contribution to transform views of Gutai and of the importance of so-called peripheral sites in the international art world.

Pedro Erber
Assistant Professor of Romance Studies, Cornell University