How the 1960s Japanese Artists Developed Radicalism in the Wilderness

March 16, 2019

The 1960s brought various social and political shifts, and the demands of young people, mostly in the American and European contexts, culminated with the iconic student protest of 1968. However, the ideas of pacifism, race, gender and class equality sprawled throughout various civil movements on the global scale as well, naturally reflecting on the artistic practices, mostly the ones with the prefix "avant-garde".

Such was the case with a generation of Japanese artists who radically questioned the notion of an artwork and its function in society by conducting bold experiments. In order to bring attention to the little known practices of individuals and groups working during the mentioned period, Japan Society decided to present an exhibition titled Radicalism in the Wilderness: Japanese Artists in the Global 1960s.

GUN - Event to Change the Image of Snow
GUN Event to Change the Image of Snow, 1970. Compilation of documentary photographs of performance art. Photo © Hanaga Mitsutoshi

The Asian Response To Conceptualism

Namely, the exhibition in New York is focused on the work of late Matsuzawa Yutaka, who was one of the leading artists of his time, and the activity of The Play and GUN (Group Ultra Niigata) art collectives.

These artists were focused on deconstructing the inherited conventions and canons of the art-making process, and so they embraced entirely new approaches such as mail art, land art, and performance. They were very well connected with their contemporaries, among them On Kawara, Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Dennis Oppenheim, through ongoing correspondence.

Left Matsuzawa Yutaka - Matsuzawa Yutaka holding White Circle Right Maeyama Tadashi - Antiwar Flag
Left: Matsuzawa Yutaka (1922–2006) - Matsuzawa Yutaka holding White Circle, 1969. Digital print reproduced from Y. Matsuzawa (1969), 6 x 4 1/8 in (15.3 x 10.4 cm). Exhibition brochure published by Aoki Gallery, Tokyo; original photograph by Nakajima Kō / Right: Maeyama Tadashi (b. 1944) - Antiwar Flag, 1970. Silkscreen on fabric, 38 5/8 x 18 7/8 in (98 x 48 cm). Collection of the artist

Art As a Socio-Political Tool

The majority of these works, or rather interventions, were made in the remote landscape of the Japanese wilderness, outside metropolitan Tokyo, which reflects a precise agenda of rejecting any kind of belonging to the art system. The artists were eager to position themselves within a new global movement in radical experimentalism; similarly like the Westerners, the Japanese artists explored a wider theoretical field in order to articulate their visions as well as social, political, and cultural complexities of the 1960s such as the student protest, the Vietnam War, or the Apollo Space Program.

The Play - Current of Contemporary Art
The Play - Current of Contemporary Art, 1969. Documentary photographs of performance art. Dimension variable. Courtesy of The Play

Radicalism in the Wilderness at Japan Society Gallery

This exhibition is actually based on the book of the same title written by New York-based independent scholar Reiko Tomii and published by MIT Press in 2016. Together with Yukie Kamiya, the director of Japan Society Gallery, she decided to curate the show by gathering rarely exhibited works (painting, collages, documentary photographs, films, letters, etc.) from institutions and private collections, as well as from the personal collections of the artists themselves. Tomii stated the following:

1960s Japan is an exciting place in the study of postwar modernism. The state of international contemporaneity was embodied by many strains of practices found not just in Tokyo but also in outside regions, which I call the ‘wilderness,’ where artists devised alternative strategies departing from the mainstream and metropolitan modes of contemporary art. Significantly, these artists achieved global relevance by drawing on their local contexts, although that was barely recognized at the time.

Radicalism in the Wilderness will be on display at the Japan Society in New York until 9 June 2019.

Featured images: The Play - Thunder, 1977-86. Documentary photographs of performance art. Dimension variable. Courtesy of The Play; Horikawa Michio (b. 1946) - The Shinano River Plan: 11, 1969. Stone, wire, mail tags, addressed to Matsuzawa Yutaka, 1 3/4" x 7 1/8" x 3 1/8" (4.5 x 18 x 8 cm). Collection of Matsuzawa Kumiko. All images courtesy Japan Society.