Mono Ha Art Group – What the School of Things Taught Us

April 4, 2016

Mono-ha, meaning the ‘School of Things’ in Japanese, refers to a group of artists, originating from Japan, who were active from the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s. The name Mono-ha is actually more of a label applied to the group, since as far as groups go, this was a fairly loose one. Its members did not necessarily share all the different ideologies yet what connected this group into a whole was the joined need to rebel against the values of the Western modern art. The importance that the Western Art placed on the individual and unique artist as a creator of artworks, the young artists of this group protested against and focused their energies on the creation of the discrete art objects, emphasizing the making of the objects ruled by the relationship created with the surrounding space and outdoor locations. Mono-ha is thought of as centering around Nobuo Sekine, Lee Ufan, Katsuro Yoshida, Susumu Koshimizu, Koji Enokura, Kishio Suga, Noboru Takayama and Katsuhiko Narita.

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Lee Ufan - Relatum, 1968. Image via

The Beginning

The late 1960’s and 1970’s were some of the most experimental periods in the history of Western art with many concurrent movements and artists working simultaneously in more than one style. What we see from the beginning and in the works of the Mono-ha group is the experimentation, use, and reference to the two Western art categories, Installation art and Earth art.

Placing importance on space and the location, the artists of this loose group, felt that the aim was to bring ‘things’ together, as far as possible in an unaltered state, allowing for the juxtaposition materials to speak for themselves. The importance and the role of the artist were moved from The Creator to the Re-arranger of Things into Artworks, drawing attention to the symbiotic relationship between the ‘things’ and the space surrounding them. The challenge was set from the start, not just in relation to the role of the artist and the functionality of the artwork, but also with the use of materials that often showcased the ephemeral quality of the end object. The works of this group were forcefully anti-modernist, primarily sculptures and installations that combined basic materials such as rocks, wood, sand, glass, cotton, and metal, often in simple arrangements and with minimal artistic intervention. The choice of the material, or better to say ‘mono’, set the artist of this group apart from the mainstream of contemporary art at that time, which consisted of fabricated works similar to Primary Structures and various kinds of Kinetic and Op objects.

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Left: Phase Mother Earth, 1968. Production shot. Susumu Koshimizu (left), Katsurō Yoshida (center), Nobuo Sekine (far right). Photographer unknown / Right: Nobuo Sekine - Phase Mother Earth, 1968. Images via

The Earth and The Hole – The In and Out

The emergence of the Mono-ha group has its roots in many political and cultural factors of the 1960’s. Most of the members of this group graduated from Tokyo’s Tama Art University during the students' protests of the late 1960’s. Born in the political setting, their works called upon meditation, patience, and reflection. The idea of ‘creation’ was questioned since after few failed student uprisings, the artist started to re-evaluate art’s expressive and symbolic value.

“ Faced with this solid block of raw earth, the power of this object of reality rendered everybody speechless, and we stood there, rooted to the spot… I could feel the passing of time’s quiet emptiness… That was the birth of ‘Mono-ha’.”

For many, the moment that marked the beginning of this group is traced back to a cylindrical hole in the ground. Nobuo Sekine’s Phase - Mother Earth in Kobe’s Sumarikyu Park consisted of a hole dug into the ground, 2.7 meters deep and 2.2 meters in diameter, with the excavated earth compacted into a cylinder of exactly the same dimensions. Showcasing with this work his interest in topology, Sekine, shook the foundations of the three-dimensionality in art. Topological shapes are not viewed as measurable objects, but rather seen as ‘phases’ that are changeable over reduction and extension. Influenced by Eastern philosophy, in particular, Zen, Sekine with his works produced an unusual fusion of Western mathematics and ancient Eastern aesthetics and philosophy that influenced the new look on creation and art.

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Left: Kishio Suga - Situated Underlying Existence. Image via / Right: Lee Ufan - Relatum Silence, 2010. Image via

The Reflection of The World

Using the materials that were often assembled to showcase the juxtaposition of two opposites, the philosophical and theoretical background was more than important for the understanding of the works produced within this circle of artists. For the radicalization of their thoughts, Lee Ufan was considered to be the group’s spokesperson. In both his sculpture and installation works, as well as in his paintings, Ufan promoted the thoughts of Eastern philosophy and the rejection of the Western notions of representation. Choosing to focus on the relationship of materials and reflection rather than the expression or intervention, the aim was to reflect on the world at large and to encourage the fluid coexistence of numerous beings and different elements. The stone and the glass, two opposing materials, placed in the gallery space, showcase the minimal intervention of the artist needed for the tension and the relationship between the two to be felt and recognized. This marked the beginning of Ufan’s Relatum series and interest that continued throughout the artist’s career. With this series, Ufan challenged the functionality of the artist and placed the emphasis on the relationship between the materials that produced the work itself.

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Left: Lee Ufan - From Point, 1976 / Right: Lee Ufan - With Winds, 1983. Images via

The Importance of the Mono-ha group

We must understand that the philosophical reflection on the world, differ in the West and the East. The fast-paced and the constant search for the end result, in most cases, is not a shared view in the Eastern part of the world. One is asked to view things as a whole and to realize that such a reflection will bring back the important knowledge and the understanding that the individual has in the world. The individual must not be looked at as a whole, put as one part of the fluid e co-existence of all the elements.

This need to understand and reflect upon the world was the governing force behind the motivation and the creation of different works within the Mono-ha group. Their importance is seen, not only in the choice of the materials used, or the ephemeral quality that the materials produced but also in the production of the new school of thought that became internationally recognized. The sculptures of chance that are revealing of the materials used, invite the action of reflection in the viewer and the artist himself. The natural materials, sometimes juxtaposed with industrial materials, produce the objects that reflect on the surrounding space and creation of the situations, a product of the relationship between the ‘things’, was one element that this group experimented with. No longer was the importance placed on the visual interpretation of the artist, but on the world around us, and the bringing to the front the natural forces that were considered the most important creators of the world.

Editors’ Tip: Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (Abbeville Modern Art Movements)

This book provides a survey into the world of contemporary Japanese sculpture. Investigating the originality and the force of the three-dimensional art in post-war Japan, the book covers movements of 1950’s and 1960’s that broke away from the traditional view of the sculpture medium. Cover the major group movement; such as Mono-ha and Gutai, the book also explores the work of over 90 contemporary Japan artists. The text, based on interviews, studio visits and exhibition reviews, is divided into different categories that cover topics such as the choice of the material, time, image, relationship and space.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured images in slider: Kishio Suga – Soft Concrete, 1970/ reconstructed 2012. Image via; Kishio Suga – Left Behind Situation, 1972/ reconstructed 2012. Image via; Koji Enokura – Untitled, 1970/ reconstructed 2012. Image via; Lee Ufan – Naoshima Island. Installation view.

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