Neo-Dada and Anti-Art in Japan During the 1960s

 

The twentieth century saw the formation of new avant-garde artistic movements in Japan by artists and art groups who were largely inspired by (and exchange with) concurrent European art movements. These radical, experimental art groups challenged the status quo, both politically and artistically. Tracing back to the 1920s with the Dada art group Mavo, new experimental art movements built on one another to become more and more radical. By the 1960s these groups and movements were pushing the boundaries of art and social engagement as we know it. The 1960s can be characterized by two movements in the Japanese avant-garde art scene: Neo-Dada and Anti-Art. Both can be framed as reactions to the sociopolitical climate of Japan in the 1950s and 60s. Neo-Dada is characterized by radical deviation from conventional art standards, with high levels of importance placed on the body as an expressive tool; Anti-Art attempted to re-conceptualize the definition of art, aiming for a “descent to the mundane” 1 in which the line between art and non-art was blurred or destroyed altogether. Artists Takamatsu Jiro, Nakanishi Natsuyuki, and Akasegawa Genpei were three Japanese artists whose works exemplify the Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of Tokyo in the 1960s. Their performances or ‘happenings’ as the group Hi Red Center, and Akasegawa Genpei’s “1000-Yen Note Incident” provide excellent examples of events that lay out the intentions behind these movements, as well as the methods employed by artists to bring the ideas to life.

The Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of the 1960s are widely viewed as responses to historical events. In the fallout of World War II, Japan entered “a period of shock, tragedy, and a struggle for survival […] by 1951, the goals of the Occupation had been achieved: Japan’s military machine had been dismantled, her war-torn economy revived, and a democratic form of government established” 2. The United States still desired to station troops in Japan as a front against the USSR during the Cold War, so the US-Japan Security Treaty was signed. All of the anxiety and animosity of the period generated leftist sentiments in the form of communist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist movements, which gained popular traction. One common goal of these leftist movements was to stop the re-ratification of the US-Japan Security Alliance in 1960. Leftists rejected its furthering of US militarism and imperialism; their sentiments taking the form of protests and demonstrations that culminated in a massive riot between demonstrators and police in front of the Diet Building on June 15, 1960. Regardless of public opposition to ratification, the treaty was indeed re-signed. The failure of these leftist movements to achieve their goal contributed to “a collapse of faith in liberal humanism and communism to penetrate the authoritarian and conservative structures of Japanese society” 3 and forms of artistic expression that “dismissed political ideology altogether and celebrated anarchistic revel” 4.

A great example of this artistic response is the avant-garde art group Hi Red Center founded by artists Akasegawa Genpei, Takamatsu Jiro, and Nakanishi Natsuyuki. The group emerged from the art scene at the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, a place with “optimistic disregard for any cultural authority whatsoever” that embraced “the euphoria of apathy” 5. Many Yomiuri artists “advocated making junk art and violent demonstrations to protest the conventional practice of art. In a messy and anarchistic riot, they experimented with forms of art and performance that parodied and critiqued the social establishment” 6. What set Hi Red Center apart was the artists’ shared interests in “objet as the focus of events that would go beyond the walls of the museum or gallery as well as their informed leftist concern for the inequities of modern Japan” 7 . A work that exemplifies these traits of Hi Red Center is The Yamanote Line Event, a ‘happening’ performed on October 18, 1962. Nakanishi, with his face painted white, crouched on a train station platform and emphatically licked an egg made of clear polymer resin filled with everyday objects such as “wristwatches, bits of rope, sunglasses, bottlecaps, and human hair” 8 . Takematsu stood behind Nakanishi, nonchalantly reading a newspaper with holes burnt in it while holding one of his own objects, a long rope attached to everyday objects. Akasegawa acted as the photographer while Nakanishi boarded the train, hung his egg on the strap hanging from the ceiling meant to be a handhold, and shined a flashlight upon onlooker’s faces to observe their reactions.

What was the point of such an absurd performance, and how does it illustrate a collapse of faith in leftist political movements to dismantle conservativism in Japan? First, Hi Red Center was interested in how space influenced viewers’ interpretations of art. They aimed to “destroy the hierarchical status of art by bringing it into the ‘space of daily activities’” 9 .They had suspicions about the constraints of traditional art exhibition spaces: “what is offered to the public, at which venue, by whom, under what circumstances, resulting in what reception?” 10 . They believed art exhibitions and the institutions that promoted them were constraining, which would be counterproductive for a group trying to engage in anarchistic revel. Furthermore, they were concerned that art spaces could be inaccessible or alienating to much of the public—which would be elitist, and would make art complicit in the “mechanical banality and covert authoritarianism underlying Japan’s mass capitalist society” 11 , and the very social establishment the artists were attempting to critique. The decision to perform in a public space is a clear attempt to disrupt the banality of everyday life that tells citizens to conform to social roles that benefit the state—like, be productive for the economy, which is what most businesspeople on the Yamanote Line were likely thinking about before they saw the event. Second, Anti-Art shows that the context of a designated art space constrains the meaning of something displayed within that space as ‘art,’ which goes against the goal of blurring the lines between art and everyday life. If Nakanishi had licked an egg object at an art exhibition, it would immediately be recognized and consumed as art; though, when he did it on the train platform, the act truly bewildered onlookers, who were merely living their day-to-day lives. Onlookers outside of the exhibition space were able to consume the objects, performance, and artist in new, unpredictable ways. Taro Okamoto said, “utter nonsense might have more power to change social reality than seriousness”12. If riots and demonstrations against the militaristic and imperialist Anpo treaty failed, then perhaps politics had to be engaged with “not only on the social and spatial strata, but also on the subjective level of the individual and the body itself”13 via public performance art that purposefully embodies non-normative, non-productive practices.

Perhaps the clash between the goals of Anti-Art and institutional power is even more evident in the 1000 Yen Note Incident, that occurred when police impounded Akasegawa Genpei’s artworks that utilized copies of 1000 yen note bills such as “Morphology of Revenge,” and charged the artist with counterfeiting. The artist cited money as “most familiar yet forgotten object”14 and by making sculptures out of copies of money, Akasegawa “stripped the authority of the object […] the premise of the money system makes us believe the original money is far more real and valuable than the simulated model,”15 even though the materials themselves were virtually the same. The trial began in 1966, and Akasegawa and other artists turned the courtroom into an exhibition space, where they gave lectures on contemporary art movements and displayed their absurd objets. Akasegawa’s defense was that his work was a model, and not a counterfeit, and the two differed due to intention. He therefore defended his work as art, which reified the boundary between art and non-art, thus not adhering to the premise of Anti-Art. Though he did achieve his goal of garnering an increased audience size, for the event was a sensation in Japan and is now heavily recorded both in art and social history. This brings us to “the riddle of the avant-garde: the eventual institutionalization of even the most radically iconoclastic, vanguard practices within public culture […] the avant-garde, will sooner or later, be separated from the sphere of life and preserved in the realm of art in a historicized, academicized, or otherwise institutionalized form”16.

In conclusion, artworks like “Morphology of Revenge” and The Yamanote Line Event illustrate how social reality can be engaged with and transformed via art; however, they also demonstrate the limit of art to challenge dominant modes of social reality promoted by institutions like the state. Neo-Dada artists can celebrate anarchistic revel and absurdity in their groups and spaces, they are not separate from the sociopolitical environment around them; Anti-Art practitioners can try to eliminate the boundary between art and the rest of life, but when confronted with legal forces, the two categories might have to be upheld as separate. These two artistic movements were two of many developments in the 20th Century avant-garde, and like prior artistic movements like Mavo, Neo-Dada and Anti-Art ran their course before transforming into new movements that continued to challenge the artistic and social status quo.

 

Footnotes

 

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 150.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 156.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 142.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

 

  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 150.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 162.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007.

 

Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 149-187.

 

Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 141-72.

 

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