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Post-war performance art: from Japan to New York

Transport to the 60s and 70s through these Japanese performance artists who shaped the art world

By Maria Kruglyak

The 60s and 70s artworld underwent a drastic change. Artists began transcending the boundaries of modernism in a way that has characterised how we see and produce art to this day. This turn has been highly theorised, sometimes pointing to the globalist and activist characteristics of the time, sometimes to the exhaustion of the modernist field in Western art history. At the forefront and at its most influential of this exploration were several Japanese artists.

Japanese women artists held a particular position in the immigrant and avant-garde community, producing some of the most radical works forgotten by history. Amongst these works are those of Yayoi Kusama, Takako Saito, Mieko Shiomi, and Shigeko Kubota. Their outsider position in society and in the artworld, coupled with new prospects for women that came about with the postwar era, constituted fertile ground for the creation of something entirely new that proved highly influential.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama suffered from hallucinations from early childhood as a consequence of the oppression of the Japanese militarist regime and the strict discipline of her mother. As a way to work through her mental illness, Kusama developed her visions into paintings which would later become the groundwork for her meticulously crafted art. It is, however, a mistake to see her work only in the context of her mental illness and disregard the wide-ranging explorations of symbolism which has contributed to the development of 60s art.

One of Kusama’s most interesting works is Narcissus Garden, that blew up the Venice biennale in 1966. Having been rejected, she decided to hijack the biennale through a ploy that criticised the narcissistic and exclusionary nature of art institutions. Dressed in a striking golden kimono, Kusama displayed an installation of 1,500 mirror balls in front of the exhibition hall, selling these for 1,200 lire ($2) each. The passersby were given flyers stating “Your Narcisium [sic] for sale”. By the time that the biennale organisers caught on and called the police to stop the performance, Kusama had become the most famous artist of the 1966 biennale.

The following six years saw Kusama’s radical body-painting performances, where she hired models dressed in bikini, painting their bodies with polka dots. One of these performances spontaneously became an event where the audience became involved, taking off their clothes and painting each other in a celebratory frenzy. Hereafter, Kusama held performances in more private spaces, where everyone painted each other and ultimately ended up in orgiastic activities. These performances blurred the lines between art and life, going beyond the artistic into a bodily (sexual) liberation.

Takako Saito

Takako Saito’s works are perhaps less known than Kusama’s, in part due to many being made in the spirit of anti-authorship. Having moved to New York in 1963, she worked with the Fluxus group, who were at the forefront of creating performance art for five years until leaving for Europe. She moved from one place to another for a decade, working odd jobs and creating little art until settling in Dusseldorf. Here she organised performances in a truly collaborative spirit.

My personal favourite is a performance at the opening of Saito’s solo exhibition in Naples in 1976. Having hung dozens of white paper cubes from the ceiling with a transparent thread, each piece shuffling in the air with muffled sounds, Saito went around the space cutting them down. Inviting the audience to join her in playing with the cubes, the public was soon stacking the fallen pieces and kicking them to one another. Spontaneously, they created monumental structures, cutting flowers out of the cubes and tying these up to the threads hanging from the ceiling. The result turned the art into a form of play and communication.

Mieko Shiomi

Mieko Shiomi is representative of a crossover between art and music that kick-started the cross-media movements of the 60s and 70s. Already in her student years, she co-founded Group Ongaku, an avant-garde music ensemble that many international artists worked closely with. In 1964, she joined Fluxus in New York, influencing the Japanese-American artists interaction with music.

One of my favourite pieces by Shiomi is Water Music. Its music score and instruction states “water in a children’s garden pool covered with a white cloth. let the water loose its still form.” In her performance, Shiomi picked up water from the pool and then released it in a meditative performance, reminiscent of Zen practices. She then played a record of Carl Maria von Weber’s An Invitation to Waltz that was covered with dried glue. Some of the glue was softened when Shiomi dripped water onto it from a syringe, revealing the record surface.

Utilising mail art, Shiomi also sent instructions to performance artists all over the world, collecting responses which documented their performances. For example, one of her artist friends created the instructions of Water Music by lighting a candle in the middle of the pool and making smokers from the audience light their cigarettes from the candle, their movements and breathing making slight waves on the water’s surface. Whilst many artists worked with mail art in one way or another, Shiomi’s use of it stands out in tracing how the art was actualised.

Shigeko Kubota

Shigeko Kubota is perhaps the most radical of these artists. Although having befriended Tokyo’s avant-garde artists in her post-university years, including Group Ongaku and Yoko Ono, Kubota soon lost faith in penetrating the Tokyo art scene due to how male-oriented the Japanese society was. and by 1964, left for New York.

Exactly a year after Kubota’s arrival in New York, she presented her first performance as part of the Perpetual Fluxfest, a regular performance art festival organised by the Fluxus group. Dipping a brush attached to her underwear in a bucket of red paint, Kubota squatted over large rolls of white paper spread on the floor, pressing the brush against the paper to make calligraphy marks. There are obvious feminist undertones of the work: constructing it as a parody of the glorification of the machismo of the Eastern calligraphy tradition, and the marks indicating a cycle of creation a subversion of objecthood wherein the vagina is rather a site of creation, creativity, action. Ahead of her time, Kubota’s works were heavily criticised in the 60s and 70s, not least by other Fluxus members, and it would take until the 90s for her style to become ‘in vogue’.

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