They threw random possessions off rooftops, made printed copies of Japanese currency and perpetrated odd "happenings" in commuter trains that left Tokyo residents scratching their heads.
No wonder these artists have been dismissed as just another group of nonsensical pranksters.
But there was so much more to the underground artists who made Tokyo an epicenter for the avant-garde in the late 1950s and early 1960s, UCLA historian William Marotti argues in a forthcoming book.
"By delving into what these quirky artists were doing, you discover what was going on in politics and culture at the time," Marotti said.
Duke University Press is gearing up to publish the book as New York's Museum of Modern Art mounts a major retrospective devoted to the art movement. "Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde," which runs through Feb. 25 at MoMA, showcases more than 200 pieces from the era, 20 of which figure in Marotti's book.
An associate professor of history at UCLA and an affiliated scholar with the university's Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, Marotti is a leading authority on Japan's postwar avant-garde. "Money, Trains, and Guillotines" is the product of two decades worth of investigation of the movement and its key figures, who are little known in the West, with the exception of the transnational artist Yoko Ono. For the book, Marotti interviewed more than 40 prominent players and mined multiple archives and dozens of private collections in the U.S. and Japan.
In the book, he credits the movement with "the unearthing of hidden connections to politics and history in the simplest objects of daily life" and "the identification of the world of the everyday itself as the central space for investigation and transformation." Taking aim at what was then a newly expanding consumer society, their results were so controversial that they often attracted the attention of the police.
"In a certain sense, agents of the state became some of this art's most enthusiastic appreciators," Marotti said. Authorities "identified the nascent political potential within it."
Artists who figure prominently in the book include:
Akasegawa Genpei (1937–)
Akasegawa's monochrome works on paper depicting 1,000-yen notes started attracting the attention of law enforcement and a wider public in 1963. Eventually, he was convicted on obscure obscenity laws, and his conviction was upheld by Japan's Supreme Court. Although Akasegawa never served jail time, the case, which dragged on for seven years, became a cause célèbre and ended up exposing the limits on artistic freedom and freedom of speech embedded in the Japanese constitution that Allied forces left in place after the occupation, Marotti argues. Today Akasegawa is a popular author in Japan.
Nakanishi Natsuyuki (1935–)
Nakanishi started attracting attention in 1962 with his "Compact Object" series, which embedded bones, clock parts, watches, eggshells, eyeglass lenses and other delicate objects in polyester egg shapes. He is now a world-famous artist.
Imaizumi Yoshihiko (1931–2010)
Imaizumi, together with Nakanishi, conceived a plan for a guerrilla art installation of a giant glass guillotine in the Imperial Plaza outside the emperor's palace in Tokyo. The work, "Equipment Plan," referenced a controversial 1960 short story in which Japan's emperor and his family are beheaded, which at the time of publication had triggered rightist violence and repression; it also referenced the artist's frustration with the lack of accountability for Emperor Hirohito's role in World War II and the crushing of popular protests often centered in the Imperial Plaza itself. "Equipment Plan" ended up being abandoned due to funding and logistical issues, but the unrealized work became a touchstone for a new political practice of art. Imaizumi subsequently helped found the radical Bigakko art academy, teaching there until his death in 2010.
Takamatsu Jirō (1936–98)
Takamatsu, along with Nakanishi, attracted attention in 1962 by staging "happenings" on Tokyo's central Yamanote train line. Wearing everyday clothing, the artists unsettled commuters by applying white face paint and improvising performances on the trains and stations with "Compact Object" and other art pieces that incorporated everyday objects. Prior to his death in 1998, Takamatsu had achieved substantial international acclaim as an artist.
Kazakura Shō (1936–2007)
Kazakura's extraordinary performance-art experiments included sirens, nude "happenings" and voluntary branding with a hot iron. Along with Akasegawa and Takamatsu, he attracted attention in 1964 with a series of "happenings" in which they threw everyday objects — such as an umbrella, a satchel, a suitcase full of clothes and a bed sheet — off the roofs of tall buildings. Kazakura today is recognized as a pioneering performance artist.
Shinohara Ushio (1932–)
Shinohara, a member of Japan's neo-Dada group, began attracting attention in 1960 with a series of performed "paintings" created by smacking canvases with boxing gloves dipped in ink. Distinctive for his Mohawk-style haircut and hugely energetic and colorful canvases and sculptures, the now–Brooklyn-based Shinohara went on to international acclaim and is currently enjoying a particularly strong resurgence in popularity.
These and other Japanese artists rose to prominence in the calm after a politically stormy period in which Japan's progressive elements rose up in protest against the U.S.–Japan Mutual Security Treaty, Marotti found. Ultimately signed into law in 1960, the revised treaty formalized Japan's role as a key Cold War ally of the U.S. and partner during the Vietnam War.
In an attempt to co-opt opposition to the treaty and stifle activism on the part of labor, Japan's new prime minister, Hayato Ikeda, promised to double Japanese citizens' incomes in a decade, making the state the guarantor of consumer comforts. The high-growth era entailed marked lifestyle shifts and necessitated long commutes for a growing number of Japanese in dense apartment blocks concentrated on the expanding periphery of Tokyo and other urban centers. Meanwhile, the government was going out of its way to project a rehabilitated image of itself. This drive, Marotti writes, "became increasingly oppressive as the [1964 Tokyo] Olympics drew near, the event that was to symbolize Japan's triumphant emergence from under the clouds of wartime and reconstruction, standing on its own as a showcase of U.S.-sponsored modernization."
Abandoning the social realist style that had previously typified Japan's progressive artists, this avant-garde forged a new vocabulary to challenge what they saw as their country's newfound compliancy. Through pieces incorporating found objects, such as "Compact Object," the artists prodded fellow citizens to question the wave of consumer culture overtaking the country, Marotti contends.
The happenings and other interventions, meanwhile, were designed to expose what the author calls "hidden forms of domination in the everyday world," taking art into the streets and trains to intercept Tokyo residents during their long commutes with the purpose of "agitating" the suddenly quiescent citizenry. In one Olympics-related happening described in the book, avant-garde artists donned white lab coats and surgical masks and got down on their hands and knees to scrub sidewalks in Tokyo's tony Ginza district — an effort receiving praise from the tone-deaf authorities, Marotti recounts. The Fluxus group would later repeat this action in New York City.
Meanwhile, with single-sided monochrome prints of the 1,000-yen note, which were decorated with the image of an imperial prince, and the unrealized guillotine escapade, the artists were perpetrating what Marotti describes as a "symbolic attack" on the postwar constitution's continued elevation of the emperor as a symbol of authority. Their oppositional activity emerged from and engaged a long history of art and political protest hearkening back to the postwar occupation period.
Marotti credits an annual art show sponsored by a prominent newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun, with having galvanized the avant-garde at the time. That is, until the exhibition was abruptly suspended in 1964 because, in the words of detractors, "it was disturbing public order."
The artists were also stimulated by such American neo-Dadaists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who eschewed traditional concepts of aesthetics and whose work was exemplified by the use of modern materials, popular imagery and absurdist contrasts. But in many ways, Marotti concludes, the Japanese artists were ahead of their times, with a critical focus and organizational strategies that anticipated guerrilla art, wrapped art and Pop Art — and moreover, the key political concerns of the late 1960s.
"While working independently, these artists were very much 'of the moment,'" he said. "They grasped this explosive moment in consumer culture and analyzed its political effects."