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23 Jul, 2021 / by Isabella Tam

Expression Beyond Documentation: Japanese Post-War Photography

A man in white shirt and shorts runs between three rows of cars stopped in traffic. HIs arms are raised above his head in a 'V' shape.

In the 1970s, Hirata Minoru documented Akiyama Yūtokutaishi’s Glicoman/Tadonman, in which the artist ran around Japan impersonating the famous business mascot

When we talk about contemporary art, what comes to mind for many are artworks that can be observed first-hand in art museums, galleries, or large-scale festivals. However, not all artworks can be collected, exhibited, and observed. Performance art, for example, underscores the infectious power of the moment, making it difficult to replicate. Fortunately, many such works have been recorded through photography, ensuring they are not lost to oblivion. We are thus still able to encounter the flourishing artistic environment of post-World War II Japan and its far-reaching impact, even though many decades have passed.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Japanese society underwent a dramatic transformation in the wake of the war: the natural environment suffered, the economy skyrocketed, and social movements burned red-hot, all stimulating profound contemplation on the part of the nation’s artists. Through a variety of art forms, they began to explore the relationships between the individual and society and between lifestyle and the material world. M+’s collection of Japanese post-war art photography is testament to the artistic development of that moment. M+ Associate Curator of Visual Art Isabella Tam outlines how these post-war Japanese photographic artists reflected on tradition, examined themselves, and transformed their creative approaches.

Amidst all the changes, artists were rethinking how to respond to the times through their creations

Isabella Tam

Rapid Development, Deep Reflection

Rather than wallow in despair after defeat in the war, many in post-war Japan sought new possibilities. ‘Artists began to abandon the traditional brush and ink, turning to everyday materials—things like tin cans, which are widely available—for their creative work,’ says Tam. This approach captured the zeitgeist, when artists were making a break from tradition to reflect the changes around them, even with limited resources.

At the same time, the rapid growth of the nation’s post-war economy brought with it a number of major construction projects. Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics in the 1960s was a significant historical moment. ‘Those 20 years were an extremely complicated time for everyone, including artists,’ says Tam. ‘Amidst all the changes, artists were rethinking how to respond to the times through their creations.’

Monochrome photograph of a group of men in white coats on a sidewalk. They are scrubbing and cleaning the ground. A sign saying ‘Be Clean!’ stands next to them.

Hirata Minoru documented the Hi-Red Center's 'Campaign to Promote Cleanliness and Order in the Metropolitan Area', in which members of the collective scrubbed the busy streets of Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics. The event satirised the government's 'urban cleanliness' campaigns, which declared to the world that Tokyo was 'clean'

Tam explains: ‘In post-war Japan, in addition to the well-known Gutai group, there were a number of other important artistic activities or phenomena that were much less well-documented, such as the ephemeral works of the Mono-ha movement.’ Many Mono-ha works were quite large and concerned with the relationship between objects and the surrounding space, making them difficult to collect. Some were even outdoor actions, which left no trace behind after their completion. As a result, the only records of these artworks that remain are photographs.

Monochrome photograph of thick, dark railway ties lying side-by-side on the wooden floor of a gallery space, backed by a pegboard wall.

The exhibition at the 10th Tokyo Biennale showcased the works of many Gutai and Mono-ha artists, attracting international attention—about half of the works were subsequently presented at the Venice Biennale. Pictured here is Narita Katsuhiko’s Sumi, a piece consisting of wood burned down to charcoal, photographed by Anzai Shigeo

One such photographer was Anzai Shigeo, who seized the opportunity in 1970 to capture the 10th Tokyo Biennale, entitled Between Man and Matter. ‘What was on show at this international event was not simply Mono-ha works, but the sum total of Japanese experimental art from the two decades since the end of the war,’ says Tam.

Monochrome photograph of two people installing a sculptural work. The work consists of a thick, twisted rope that is tightly wrapped around a hexagonal pillar fifteen times.

Lee Ufan, an icon of the Mono-ha school, captured by Anzai Shigeo. In this photo, Lee is setting up his works for the exhibition August 1970—Aspects of New Japanese Art at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo

Monochrome photograph of seven men posing in front of a pillar rising out of a gravel lot to support a large boulder. The image is distorted, as if viewed through a convex lens.

Anzai Shigeo. Nobuo Sekine, Shiki City Plaza, Saitama, June, 1972, 1972. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of a man with his hands on his hips looking up at us, standing beside a split boulder. The boulder is shaped like a stubby finger, with the split severing the tip.

Anzai Shigeo. Suzumu Koshimizu, August 1970—Aspects of New Japanese Art, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, August, 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of two men building an indoor floor using dark railway ties and wet cement.

Anzai Shigeo. Noboru Takayama, Trends in Contemporary Art, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, July, 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of a man wearing a dark shirt and glasses. Behind him is a gallery space with a large wooden box on the floor with a thick pole-shaped object sticking out of it.

Anzai Shigeo. 5th Japan Art Festival, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, July 13, 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of two people installing a sculptural work. The work consists of a thick, twisted rope that is tightly wrapped around a hexagonal pillar fifteen times.

Lee Ufan, an icon of the Mono-ha school, captured by Anzai Shigeo. In this photo, Lee is setting up his works for the exhibition August 1970—Aspects of New Japanese Art at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo

Monochrome photograph of seven men posing in front of a pillar rising out of a gravel lot to support a large boulder. The image is distorted, as if viewed through a convex lens.

Anzai Shigeo. Nobuo Sekine, Shiki City Plaza, Saitama, June, 1972, 1972. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of a man with his hands on his hips looking up at us, standing beside a split boulder. The boulder is shaped like a stubby finger, with the split severing the tip.

Anzai Shigeo. Suzumu Koshimizu, August 1970—Aspects of New Japanese Art, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, August, 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of two men building an indoor floor using dark railway ties and wet cement.

Anzai Shigeo. Noboru Takayama, Trends in Contemporary Art, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, July, 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Monochrome photograph of a man wearing a dark shirt and glasses. Behind him is a gallery space with a large wooden box on the floor with a thick pole-shaped object sticking out of it.

Anzai Shigeo. 5th Japan Art Festival, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, July 13, 1970, 1970. Gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. © ANZAÏ

Confronting Society, Changing the System

Beyond material innovations, there were many artworks that confronted society and challenged the system. Numerous works and important but exclusive art events were recorded photographically. ‘A lot of events at the time took place only within the scene, sometimes even in private spaces, and so could not be witnessed by the general public,’ says Tam.

Monochrome photograph of six men wearing helmets and face masks standing on sandy ground. The men are naked except for vertical banners covering their lower bodies from waist to ground, on which are written the Japanese words for ‘obscene material.’ Each of the men has his right arm and hand raised in the air. Behind the men, flags and a banner are visible. On the banner, the words ‘Expo’ and ‘Destruction’ can be seen. A crowd of onlookers surrounds the men.

In 1969, Hirata Minoru photographed the Expo ‘70 Destruction Joint-Struggle Group’s demonstration at the Anti-Expo Festival in Osaka Castle Park

Japanese artists of the time were no longer thinking of art for art’s sake; they were more concerned with the connection between art and society. This concern led to performance artworks, or happenings.

Hirata Minoru, then a freelance journalist, met a group of avant-garde artists in the 1960s who organised small artistic collectives like the Tokyo-based, anti-establishment Hi-Red Center (1963–1964) and the short-lived Neo-Dada Organizers (1960).

‘Many of these “anti-art” artists would go out into the streets guerrilla-style or without warning to put on impromptu art shows,’ says Tam. Hirata, who knew them well, kept up with the news of these artists, and photographed many of their works. His close relationship with the artists and regular presence at their shows allowed him to capture more personalised details not easily revealed from an outsider’s perspective.

Monochrome photograph of a small, cluttered room with nine men sitting in roughly three rows. Five men in the back row are leaning against the walls of the room, which are covered with posters, some with portraits of women visible on them. Two men are in the middle row, with the one on the left lying on the floor, leaning on another man who is seated in the back row, while the one on the right rests his elbow on a coffee table and holds a lit cigarette. There are two men in the front row; the one on the left has only his upper half shown and is lying down and reading a book, while the one on the right is leaning forward. Most of the men are dressed in Western clothing, and their gaze is directed to the right.

Many small collectives of avant-garde artists came together in the 1960s. Hirata Minoru’s Dreaming the Future documents Ushio Shinohara, Tatsu Izumi, Genpei Akasegawa, and others at the first gathering of the VAN Film Science Research Institute in 1963

Two monochrome photographs. The left-hand photograph shows a man walking down the street in a button-up shirt, trousers, and leather shoes, with his head covered in metal clothespins that completely obscure his face. The clothespins are clamped one on top of the other, forming an irregular shape that has the appearance of a coronavirus; two women are watching him from a distance in the background. The right-hand photograph shows a woman with metal clothespins similarly covering her head and face, while her left hand, upon which she wears a ring, touches her chest.

Hirata Minoru’s photograph of Natsuyuki Nakanishi’s Clothespins Assert Churning Action for Hi-Red Center’s 6th Mixer Plan event in Tokyo in 1963

Hikosaka Naoyoshi, on the other hand, turned his camera to his own works, which were known for challenging artistic traditions like museum exhibitions, occupying a position between conceptual art and photographic expression. After experiencing the failure of student-driven movements such as the Anpo protests, Hikosaka put aside his ambition to reform society and instead devoted himself to criticism and reflection through art. In 1970, he used the photographic medium to document his performance art piece, Floor Event.

Monochrome photograph of a traditional Japanese room, the floor of which is being covered in white liquid. A naked man is on the right side of the photo, facing left and orthogonally to the camera, leaning down to open a rectangular metal can on the ground. In the middle of the picture is a man in a long-sleeved shirt and trousers with his sleeves and trouser legs rolled up and his arms on his hips, watching the naked man.

Hikosaka integrated photography into the larger artistic concept for Floor Event, during which he poured latex over the floor of his home. ‘The interesting thing about the nature of latex is that it’s white when poured and becomes transparent as it slowly sets,’ says Tam

Photography is both an expression of the self and a historical witnessing of important events

Isabella Tam

‘In the 1970s, artists were no longer focused solely on creating works of art, but on the close connection between the individual and their art,’ says Tam. This was why, for this piece, a stark-naked Hikosaka poured industrial latex onto the tatami mats that lined the floor of his traditional-styled home. For ten days, he recorded the process of the latex hardening on film, which he developed into tiny photographs. On the final day, he tore the latex off the mats.

A Case Study of Postwar Japanese Art
A Case Study of Postwar Japanese Art
34:35

Art history professor Michio Hayashi examines the mechanism through which postwar Japanese art has been introduced and received by the international audience

At that time, the public only considered works exhibited in art museums as ‘real’ art. Hikosaka’s use of his own home as the venue for his show was his way of critiquing the art system and considering the impact of industrial materials on traditional life. At the same time, the way the latex gradually became transparent as it hardened also signified the rebellious spirit of art as it seeped into everyday life.

A Lens on Art and Society

Photography, like performance, is an art form. ‘Photography is both an expression of the self and a historical witnessing of important events,’ says Tam. When these two aspects come together, the infectious power of photography becomes evident. Japanese photographers’ socially oriented investigations into how film itself could be used as a medium, such as their experimentations with different exposure levels and exploration of the relationship between film and canvas, influenced the works of artists abroad, such as Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen.

Two monochrome photographs. The left photograph shows five people wearing hoods and identical clothes facing the right side of the photo, walking in single file along a bustling street. The person at the front has their hands tied in front of them, and the one behind them has their hands on the first person’s shoulders. The right photograph shows the same five people, still in a line but not single file, facing to the left. Two are standing with their hands raised, one is kneeling on the ground, and two are crouched down with their hands in fists on the ground. Some stores are visible in the back, with passersby standing around in front of the stores watching the five people.]

Taiwanese photographer Chen Chieh-Jen performing Loss of Function No. 3 in Taipei in 1983, four years before martial law was lifted

Chen’s Loss of Function No. 3 (1983) protested Taiwan’s then-authoritarian government. The full performance was documented through film and photography, including the reactions of passers-by and police monitoring the scene. During the piece, Chen and four others dressed in identical clothing, covered their faces in hoods, and marched single-file through the bustling streets of Taipei’s Ximending district as if they were prisoners marching to an execution ground. After walking in silence for a stretch of road, they suddenly broke into shouts, contorting their bodies and beating their breasts. Chen described this work as a pure manifestation of the sorrow and struggle of that time.

When situated between objective historical record and subjective emotional expression, this form of photography offers a means to open up different perspectives on history, allowing viewers new ways to understand and experience a moment in time.

The Chinese version of this article was first published in the Hong Kong Economic Times on 18 February 2021. It is presented here in edited and translated form. As told to Janice Li, with additions by Amy Leung (Editor, Web Content). English version originally published on M+ Stories.

Photos by Hirata Minoru: © Minoru Hirata; M+, Hong Kong
Photos by Anzai Shigeo: © ANZAÏ; M+, Hong Kong
Photos by Hikosaka Naoyoshi: © Hikosaka Naoyoshi; M+, Hong Kong
Photos by Chen Chieh-Jen: © Chen Chieh-jen; Photo courtesy the artist; M+, Hong Kong

Isabella Tam is Associate Curator, Visual Art at M+.

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