Expression Beyond Documentation: Japanese Post-War Photography
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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+.