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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

M+ Associate Curator Isabella Tam examines the changes in Japan’s post-war photography through the works of Hirata Minoru, Anzai Shigeo, and Hikosaki Naoyoshi.

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

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

Video Transcript

A Case Study of Postwar Japanese Art

Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.

MICHIO HAYASHI: Well, I'd like to, first, join Professor Joselit for thanking all the team members on M+ and Doryun and Lars and—tThank you so much. And this is actually quite an honour to be here, to be involved in this very stimulating discussion. And, well, globalisation is not always a good thing, but this is—this type of event is one of the good things about globalisation, and I think—really, I appreciate this opportunity. So, my talk, I mean, I have a very complicated title, but... Yeah, yeah, please keep that. [chuckles]

I'll talk a little bit about Japanese post-war art history as Doryun already explained and— in hope of complicating the discussion about globalisation from a local viewpoint. And... But, first, let me start with a very general question. The title of this symposium, 'Theorising Global Art Histories', and I wasn't really sure when— if I was expected to talk about the recent globalisation phenomena or to talk about art history in general, to rewrite art history from a global perspective. So... So I... First, I thought about the history of—art history and then tried to see what are the good points of art history, what are the recuperative aspects of art history in the past, and, you know, if you look back, you will see art history has this great tradition of figuring out our cultural connectivities across the nations or regions. And so the— Because we look at objects very carefully and specifically, the art history developed this ability to find interesting networks of objects and styles, and the classic example would be the Hellenistic art in contact of that with the early Buddhist art in India. So this connection of Gandharan Buddhist art and also Hellenistic art is an interesting example of a cultural map not quite exactly matching the political map and extending towards a different region.

And another example will be the art historian called Alois Riegl, and he actually wrote a very classic text called Stilfragen: The Style Question. And he actually traced the change of the motif— plant motif in the capital design from Egypt to Middle East to Corinthian capital in Greece. So this is another sort of example of how art history found... Internet— I mean, [a] network, which is different from political now map. And the Chinese and in traditional Japanese and in traditional Korean, this East Asian network [of] ink painting is another example. And this is a—just one example of Japanese painter called Sesshu, who is seen as probably the most important ink painter in Japan, but he spent so much time in China, and it is possible to see him as a Chinese painter rather than a Japanese painter. So, methodologically, it is undeniable that this strong focus on the analysis of the specific aspects has been polished and improved in Europe from the late 19th Century century to the early 20th Century.

So, in essence, I think there is still a lot to be learned and revived from the tradition of art history as a discipline. But that does not mean that art historical imagination was free of national boundaries. Oh, sorry, this is actually—I wanted to indicate this... simple diagram of how cultural map and political map actually do not necessarily match up. So—But that does not mean that art historical imagination was free of national boundaries. In fact, the opposite is more true, and it is already known that the birth and development of art history coincided with the development of the modern nation state. And in this context, art historical investigations are often being framed by the notions such as national tradition, cultural purity, and aesthetic canon. The transnational investigations were often made, unfortunately, in the field of premodern art, but things become more rigid and codified when it comes down to modern art, especially art after the Industrial Revolution. It became normative to write a history of French art or German art, Italian art, and so on.

This conflation of the national and the cultural becomes more apparent in the geographical periphery of modern art history.

sSince the nations at the periphery were always in danger of being or losing their cultural identities because of the significant influence from the centre. In that case, Japan... is an interesting example to think about and—because Japan opened its gates to the West in 1867 and radically remodelled its socio-political systems in an effort to catch up with the West. So... anxiety of losing one's cultural identity becomes a perpetual problem in Japan. But this anxiety about the loss of cultural identity goes back to a much earlier period, in fact, in the premodern period of Japan-China relationship. So in this dialogue, you have how Japan is... you know, the language itself, the Japanese owed so much debt, to use Professor Joselit's metaphor to China, and then how to repay this debt was very much a problem for the Japanese imagining. How they defined Japaneseness as different from Chinese culture.? ButAnd while things radically changed in 1867 when Japan opens to the West. Ththe West became the other, dominant other for Japan, so, you know, the problem is actually rewritten as the difference between the West and Japan. So how to define Japan as opposed to the Western culture becomes a huge problem, and China actually recedes in the background. It's a big background, but it recedes from the consciousness.

But overall, this dualistic model occupies the cultural imagination of Japan, the or Japanese people, and in this context... the post-war or World War II played a significant role in sort of overdetermining this dualistic concept because Japan was defeated by the United States as you know and occupied for seven years, from 1945 to 1952. That was another rewriting of the whole Japanese social and political and cultural system. And after that, how to reconcile Japanese identity with traditional, —with the western influence, became a dominant motif of cultural imagination. And in that, two solutions were proposed. One is the assimilational model and the other is the dialogical model. And in this assimilational model... the culture of Yayoi, which actually goes back to the 1st and 3rd Century AD becomes a sort of... began to be seen as the essence of the Japanese culture. On the dialogical model, Jomon culture came to be seen as the essence of Japanese culture. Either way, dualistic model really continues.

And then just to explain and illustrate what Yayoi culture is, this is a... Well, this is an Edo example of the late 17th Century century architecture, which is called Katsura Imperial Villa. The building was discovered by a German architect called Bruno Taut, and he came to Japan in 1933 and stayed there for a couple of years and discovered this painting, wrote about this architecture as quintessentially modern. This is, you know, Japanese tradition was found to be assimilable to modernity or modernism. So the Japanese people we are very happy to hear that. And this is, you know, Japan had modernity already before the West. That's the kind of trope the Japanese people begun began to appropriate during this time. And this tradition goes back to the Yayoi earthenware on the left-hand side, this one. This is a Yayoi period earthenware from circa 1st to 3rd Century. This came to be seen as the origin of the Katsura Imperial Villa, and there is a this long tradition of very clean, geometrically ordered and well-balanced design in Japan. This is a Yayoi treasuretradition. On the contrary, on the right-hand side, you see a vessel from the Jomon period, which actually predates the Yayoi period. And this Jomon culture was discovered in reaction to... Tao Tien appropriation or appreciation of Yayoi culture. And this, in fact, a Japanese artist called Taro Okamoto played a significant role in recuperating or rediscovering the Jomon culture as the true essence of Japanese culture.

But this dualistic model, interestingly enough—, by the way, sorry, this is just one painting by this artist called Taro Okamoto, who himself is a painter and a sculptor too and oftentimes juxtaposed a modern motif with a primitive motif in his own painting, and he called his aesthetics 'polarism', like, two centres not really synthesising with each other in a sort of a, you know, constant dialogue and in tension. So the dialectic model that he proposed is— was an alternative to this Yayoi tradition. But something happens in 1950s, which actually is a new development of this cultural discourse, that is to say, the introduction of the notion of hybridity. The... dualistic model that I introduced here is—oh, sorry— replaced by hybridity model, which is not a substantial definition of cultural essence. It is actually a functional definition of cultural essence, that is to say, hybridity model actually sees hybridity as the essence of Japanese culture. So, therefore, there is no substantial element to be identified [as] the essence. It is rather a function—the ability of Japanese culture to absorb foreign elements into its own system and change it. That began to be seen as the essence of Japanese culture. And... And in fact, there is an influential cultural critic or intellectual called Shuichi Kato, who published a very influential article called Hybridity of Japanese Culture in 1955. Two articles there.

And so this is a very interesting development because this coincides with the period of high economic rise, 1950s to 1960s.

There is an influx of Western images into Japan and Japan was rapidly changing its cultural landscape. And so, therefore, Kato himself actually studied in France and stayed in Europe for a couple of years and came back, and he found that— he actually talks about England— British culture and French culture as pure. And Japanese culture is never pure. It is actually very hybrid of Western and Japanese elements, so, therefore, there is no essence. So this kind of thinking really is interesting to revisit because if you look at the artistic practises of the 1950s to 1960s, you will see many practises which actually... deal with this problem of absorption, assimilation, and simulation of Western culture, especially American culture. And the artist Shinohara Ushio he actually started what he called 'imitation art'. And he actually was aware of the development of American art, Pop art, Jasper John, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and he, in fact, literally copied Robert Rauschenberg's Coca-Cola Plan on the right-hand side, and he made a copy by looking at a black and white reproduction of this and made this. And Rauschenberg came to Japan in 1964, I believe, and Shinohara actually went to see him and actually with this copy of the Coca-Cola Plan, and Rauschenberg was very happy because 'Japanese artist actually copied my work'. But Shinohara actually told him, 'I have made twenty20 of them'. [laughter] Rauschenberg was a little bit hesitant. [laughs] He continued smiling, and so— But Shinohara was very conscious about this imitation,. and he actually called it ‘iImitation aArt’. So in—to extend Professor Joselit's metaphor, this derivativeness or derivativity is now seen as an asset here by Japanese artists as a gesture to return to this debt to the Western avant-garde.

So this attitude is so different from the previous generation. That is to say, the Gutai, for example. Gutai is probably one of the most well-known avant-garde movements in post-war Japan that started in 1954. And the leader of Gutai is Yoshihara Jiro. On the right-hand side of this slide, he's shaking hands with the French critic, Michel Tapiée, who visited Japan in 1957. And the motto of... Gutai, by Yoshihara, is 'Never copy another artist. Be original', was the most important message of Gutai, and there's nothing else, just be original. Do what nobody else has done. Yeah. But a generation later, Shinohara is doing iImitation aArt, and this notion of originality was already radically questioned in the 1960s. And this is one example of Gutai art, as you probably know, the Shiraga foot painting. This... This discourse of hybridity actually has a very interesting resonance in the larger cultural field of the time. For example, the architectural movement called Metabolism used this metaphor of metabolic system of absorbing and digesting and throwing out what's not needed from the system to reimagine the architectural space or urban space of Tokyo. So these are the models that were created. Those were created by Metabolist architects. And, you know, this Metabolic imagination, it also resonates with a larger, a much larger, discourse, discourse which actually corresponds to the development of Japanese industry at the time. That is to say, Japanese uniqueness began to be seen as the ability to adopt foreign ideas and improve them into very sophisticated gadgets, like automobile industry and Sony and Walkman, et cetera. Japanese culture, in total, began to be seen as these variations of Metabolic systems.

So this is the period when an enormous amount of image trafficking from the West occurred in relation to the high economic rise, as I said already, and the symbolic event for that— This this is another, sorry, design from the Metabolism Symbolic event for that is Tokyo Olympics in 1964. This is really the first wave of globalisation that Japan, post-war Japan, experienced, and this is marked by an incredible influx of information or images from outside at a rapid pace. As a result, an explosion of hybridity occurred during the late 1960s to the extent that the absorptive function of Japanese culture reached its limit.

So I will show you quickly—show you three examples of the late 1960s in the field of graphic design. Yokoo Tadanori is probably the most well-known also outside Japan. He mixed up the signs, visual signs, of the premodern Japanese culture, modern Japanese, and Western, premodern, and modern cultures. Hijikata Tatsumi, he was a founder of butoh, a Japanese contemporary dancing. He was often talked [about] in relation to Japanese indigenous tradition, but in fact, he was mixing up so many different visual signs from difference sources. This is a two pages from his notebooks. You can see he extensively studied De Kooning's painting, Willem de Kooning's painting. Also, the writer Yukio Mishima, who debuted in the 1950s and continued to write and became a kind of cultural hero in this culture— in the culture of the late 1960s in Japan. And he is a typical, I think, very symbolic example of this intake of influx of images and visual signs and reaching the sort of culmination point to the extent that the body, his body itself, has to implode from within. So, you know, it is possible to see his famous suicide in 1970 as— in that context. So... kind of overdose of images.

[faint chuckling]

And that is actually symbolised by another very symbolic event called Expo 1970, which took place in Osaka.

But in reaction to this influx of images, another attitude that Japanese artists and culture took was a return to the primordial nature. The Mono-ha is—coincides with Expo '70 or suicide of Mishima, and if you look at the Mono-ha sculptures actually went outside—the museum installed these pieces— or inside the museum also. You know, they use a very, you know, primordial mediums or objects like stones and steels and cotton. Oh, sorry. Yeah, and just simply juxtaposed those objects in the gallery or outside the gallery, refusing to use industrially processed images. So, you know, this form of very good complementary pair in that moment, historical moment, of post-war Japanese art. And same thing can be said about a very provocative photography movement called Provoke magazine, and they actually issued only three... three issues and then died out pretty soon, but Daido Moriyama is one of the photographers involved in this movement. So was Takuma Nakahira.

As you can see, these photographers actually tried to go beyond commercialised images, circulation of photographic images, by evoking a bodily contact with the world with the styles of—style of... out-of-focus and blurred and dynamic images. But irony is that this blurred image or style was quickly taken up by the advertisement industry. And this ‘Discover Japan’ campaign started in 1970, one year after the Provoke magazine, and you can see that out-of-date—out-of-mode style was completely appropriated by the capital. And this, by the way, who has—is still probably the biggest advertisement campaign in post-war Japan, which is advertisement campaign for the national railroad, so...

So the image saturation mediated by capital became an overarching condition of experience in general after 1970s. The notion of hybridity was developed into a more aggressive understanding that the cultural identity was something to be performed;, that is to say, something to be artificially, theatrically created by the manipulation of visual signs. After all, Japan became something to be discovered through these visual images. So this formation of image saturation as an environment and appropriation of visual signs becomes an everyday practice of consumers and people, general public. And identity formation by manipulating these signs became a kind of triangular formula. And to borrow the now-classic concept of Baudrillard, the French theorist, the age of simulacra really starts in the early 1970s in Japan. And... and this condition continues to the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, 1990s could be a different story, but 1980s, through the 1980s, I think this condition continues. I don't want to really explain— is I don't have time to really go into the details, but generally speaking,... the revolutionary politics—actually, the imagination— dies away and is replaced by the political apathy, and the turning point is really the 1970 and early 1970s. And the Cold War situation was visible, visible in the sense that there were very active anti–US base movement in Japan, but that kind of, you know, political movement against the Cold War situation completely disappeared after the 1970s, and Cold War situation becomes invisible. And —the everyday life becomes really, you know, entangled and completely encompassed by the circulation of high consumer images.

And then what is symbolic is that the secondary industry— that is, the heavy industry, the steel industry, automobile industry, you know,... the production industries—are replaced by tertiary industry. That is, service industry. Service industry, retail stores, and information services, those become the first, the largest industry in Japan in the 1970s. And those are the political or social events which were very important, and these are the artistic movements which are actually... just doing a very violence to the very complicated history, just picked up only a few symbolic movements there. But 1980s, this notion of hybridity, or their cultural discourse of hybridity, develops into a kind of legitimising discourse during the bubbling bubble economic time. The professor Joselit talked about 1980s is the turning point. It was a turning point in Japan. Especially 1985 Plaza Accord. The America, Germany, France and England and Japan, they agreed to depreciate US dollar in 1985. That had a tremendous impact on Japanese economy, especially the export economy, and, you know, that is the automobile war between US and Japan happened right after this. Japanese cars and electric wares really began to expand to the world market, and contemporary art also began to be recognised simultaneously by the Western audience. So...

And then so the artists also becomes— art world,. Japanese art world becomes really conscious about how they are seen by the gaze of the West. So in this context, the hybridity, notion of the hybridity, hybrid Japanese culture, postmodern Japanese culture.

I recall that in 1980s in New York, people were talking about Tokyo as the most postmodern city in the world and et cetera. So Japan was seen as the quintessential postmodern city, which actually goes back to this notion of hybridity. And they began to sell that. I use that notion in order to appeal to the Western audience. And this 1985 exhibition called Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties was a typical example of that. And here is Morimura Yasumasa's appropriation of Manet's famous flute player. And another, Yasumasa Morimura using Velazquez as a background and inserting his own self-portrait in it. So this kind of practice of the play of visual signs became a very Japanese thing to do. And... And in response to this, also, there are some people who actually advance or promote a Japanese culture in reference to the Mono-ha tradition, A Primal Spirit, which actually took place in 1990. And the works like this were included in this show, promoting this direct contact with nature, primordial body-work relationship, et cetera. But this already is the return of the Mono-ha aesthetics. The Mono-ha aesthetics was turned into a kind of label or sign to be consumed rather than... evoking the directness of encounter of the world— with the world.

And so, finally in the 1990s, there is an artist called Takashi Murakami, who became really successful in the world market. And he wrote a book called Art Entrepreneurship, a. And... published it in 2006 after he really became a successful artist in the global market. And his notion of entrepreneurship... of course, reminds us of Andy Warhol's notion of business art, but it goes more than beyond business art. That is to say, Murakami was very much aware of the global market economy and a strategy. And he was—he is —keenly aware of what is acceptable and what is not in the global market, and using the Japanese animation culture,... and also the lexicon of pop art as the basis of his appropriation, he creates a— the sort of field where Western or international audience can actually have an access to, but in which he emphasises the difference from the West... and emphasises Japanese uniqueness. And the strategy like his, in fact, left a huge impact, I should admit, although Murakami is not necessarily my favourite artist, but I have to admit the strategy like his left a huge impact on Japanese art community. Because part of the reason why Murakami took such an openly business-like strategy has to do with the invisibility of Japanese art world to the outside. Unlike New York or London, where international audience, including curators and critics and media, are always looking for new talents, Japan is, despite its international outlook, still remains largely invisible to outsiders. And in this regard, the language barrier is still a high hurdle.

So things are changing now, but not so rapidly.

So in a way, in order to get recognised by international audience, Murakami had to come up with a careful plan of marketing using his brand of Japaneseness as a surplus value in the market. Some feel that this is a typical case of capitalist co-optation of art, and others emulate Murakami in the attempt at breaking the national barrier. But as a result, it seems to me that he... the stock of Japaneseness that he uses in order to sell his art... was probably over invested. And then he got a short-term return, and now he is actually sort of disappearing from the contemporary art scene.

But good thing which comes out or came out from this is another phenomenon. That is, there are some younger generation of artists who actually are active outside and inside Japan and freely moving from one city to another, like Koki Tanaka or Meiro Koizumi, who do not really play the card of Japaneseness anymore in the international market. So... But there are so many artists who remain active outside the radar of global art market, so there is a huge rift between domestic recognition of contemporary art and the international recognition. Artists who are very influential in Japan in terms of its— in terms of both cutting-edge practice and theory often are not known at all outside Japan.

I myself live in two worlds of English world and Japanese world. I know so many artists in Japan and so many good artists, but they are completely unknown in the West. And some of them actually refuse to take a place in the global art market.

So this discrepancy leads us back to the whole history of the post-war Japanese art, which was in constant dialogue with the Western practices. The MoMA anthology that I edited with Doryun and two other scholars is an attempt to bridge the gap. By introducing important texts from the 1945 to 1989, I am—I was hoping that outside audience became aware of the fact that similar concerns were shared and discussed from a different angle. One misleading thing about this anthology was that we limited our scope to the text that discuss Japanese contemporary art only. The truth is that, roughly speaking, 80 per cent of the art criticism and scholarship produced in Japan are about Western art. But those texts were omitted from this anthology. The anomaly of the situation can be easily understood. Anomaly of, you know, Western audiences not interested in the discourse of Western art in Japan. This is anomaly because people read American scholars writing on Cézanne. People read German scholars' writings on Pollock and don't think it is funny. But people don't extend their scopes to outside non-Western world. So this is a very unusual thing, but it is not seen as unusual. So anomaly of this situation can be easily understood by comparing such cases.

So many examples like that exist, I'm sure, all over the world, not only in Japan. So part of the globalisation has to do with the effort of revisiting missed encounters. Some of them productively anachronistic, I should say. And it is important to set up the stage for those encounters in order to avoid simple juxtaposition of different cultures. Like Professor Joselit said, pastiche is not really the direction that we want to take. We have to find a stage. We have to set up a stage where those missed encounters actually happen. So—... And not only contemporary art in that sense, the whole history of modern art has to be opened up to its multiplicities. Thank you.


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
Isabella Tam
Isabella Tam

Isabella Tam is Curator, Visual Arts at M+.

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