Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography 1968-1979

Protest 1 from the series Oh! Shinjuku (1969) by Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012), printed 1980, gelatin silver print, 9 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches,The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the SI Morris Photography Endowment and Morris Weiner © Shomei Tamatsu – INTERFACE

IN 1968, AMID an economic boom, many in Japan registered widespread discontent over social inequalities. At the same time, the country was roiled by protests against the Vietnam War and the upcoming renewal of a treaty extending American occupation. This exhibition, the first comprehensive exhibition to focus on this critical moment, examines how Japanese artists and photographers, sensing that their traditional practices were no longer valid, began experimenting with the possibilities of camera-based practices, laying the foundations for contemporary art in Japan.

In the wake of World War II, Japan experienced sweeping trans-formations. Rapid industrialisation and the economic surge that began in the mid-1950s were soon overshadowed by deep anxiety, sparked by the US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo), which sustained American military presence within Japan’s borders. This tension reached fever pitch in the late 1960s, when political radicalism and mass protests erupted across the nation. Two flashpoints were the imminent renewal of Anpo, which embroiled Japan in the Vietnam War, and the Expo ’70 The World’s Fair in Osaka, which presented Japan as a technological powerhouse. Following these two events of 1970, Japan’s post-war ‘economic miracle’ gave way to recession, and activism dissolved into apathy.

In response to this turbulence, many in the 1970s began to reimagine the role of visual media in Japanese society. Artists and photographers (whose work was traditionally considered distinct from one another) pursued novel forms of expression that would capture the era’s complexities, forging new directions for the future. A critical feature of this experimental impulse was their embrace of innovative camera-based practices.

To explore this era, For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979 is the first major exhibition devoted to this groundbreaking shift in the Japanese cultural landscape. Unfolding in four thematic sections, the exhibition opens with the tumultuous 1968-70 period, when the burst of social discord coincided with the emergence of new photographic styles, epitomized in the defiant, raw aesthetic of the avant-garde photo- journal Provoke (1968-69). Two later sections focus on the fundamental role of camera-based experiments in the practices of Japanese artists engaged in international conceptual-art currents of the 1970s. A final gallery features the work of photographers who adopted either a subjective posture or a cool deadpan style to fashion radically intimate, visually arresting meditations on the self.

In illuminating a pivotal, though often overlooked, decade, when the realms of art and photography drew closer together than ever before, the exhibition spotlights Japan’s vital contributions toward shaping the global development of contemporary art. The show starts with Rupture, Revolt, Provoke – 1968-70. The activist momentum of 1960s Japan gave rise to dramatic shifts in politics, art, and culture. By the end of the decade, mass protests were staged against institutional bureaucracy and the Vietnam War, as wells as two other flashpoints: the forthcoming renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo), which would maintain American military bases throughout Japan and the imminent opening of the Expo ’70 in Osaka, viewed by many as a government-orchestrated distraction from the renewal of Anpo. The social turmoil came to a head on International Antiwar Day, 21 October, 1969, when protestors clashed with police nationwide, most notably in the Shinjuku ward of downtown Tokyo.

The tension of the late 1960s was reflected in the realm of photography. Both professional photographers and art students documented the demonstrations, helping mobilise the Japanese public. The photographers Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu also captured images of underground culture in the capital, while a Tokyo-based collective of photographers and critics established the experimental photo journal Provoke, published in three issues between 1968 and 1969. With its signature ‘grainy, blurry, out-of-focus’ style (are-bure-boke) and the urban subject matter, Provoke advocated a new image-based language that would reflect the complexities of late-1960s Japan. Although the influence of Provoke’s radical aesthetics was widespread, other photo journals, each having a distinct ideological, geographical, and artistic perspective, soon emerged, revealing the diversity of Japanese photographic expression during this era.

Section two is dedicated to Time, Man, and Matter: New Concepts in Japanese Art and Photography. The groundbreaking ideologies and aesthetics of the late 1960s soon gave way to individual – but interconnected – tracks of photographic experimentation in Japan. Some artists originally trained in painting or sculpture began to rely on photography to document performances or installations. Others infused the element of time into their work by creating photographic series that verged on the cinematic – what the artist Hitoshi Nomura called ‘sculpting time’. Still others adopted film and video into their artistic practices. In all such cases, the use of the camera was conceptually driven, reflecting international trends in contemporary art, including performance art, post-minimalism, and conceptualism. These global currents were highlighted in the landmark 10th Tokyo Biennale (1970), entitled Between Man and Matter, where artists such as Koji Enokura, Tatsuo Kawaguchi, Hitoshi Nomura, and Jiro Takamatsu (whose works are included in the next several galleries) were exhibited alongside their peers from North American and Europe, including Carl Andre, Christo, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra.

Image/Object: Seeing Beyond Photography is the concern of section three. The conceptually driven, camera-based experiments of the late 1960s and 1970s led many Japanese photographers, as well as artists working primarily in painting and sculpture, to challenge how viewers see objects in the world around them. Artists such as Koji Enokura, associated with the Mono-ha (School of Things) movement, produced close photographic studies that focused upon the material quality of everyday objects. Following an inverse path, others drew attention to the materiality of the photographic image itself: for example, Nobuo Yamanaka projected film stills onto unconventional surfaces; Jiro Takamatsu transformed photographic snaps into the subjects of new photographs; and Kazuyo Kinoshita challenged established conventions by fusing elements of sculpture, painting, and photography into single works. By testing the limits of image and object in diverse ways, the artists featured in this gallery propelled the medium of photography to new conceptual peaks.

The final section is dedicated to Introspection: The Photographer’s Personal Journey. In a departure from earlier norms, many Japanese photographers of the late 1960s and 1970s transformed memories and mementos, intimate lives and hometowns, into subjects for public presentation, specifically in photobooks. Though highly personal, such images were also decidedly experimental in both content and technique. For example, the photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki published snapshots of his honeymoon, establishing the new genre of private, ‘I’ photography (shi shashin); like many of his peers, he came to rely increasingly upon the emerging medium of photocopy to reproduce images for his self-published photobooks.

Others, like Shigeo Gocho and Kenshichi Heshiki relied upon stylistic strategies that had gained global significance, using a deadpan, ‘cool’ snapshot aesthetic (known as konpora, derived from the term ‘contemporary photography’) to convey the complexities of everyday life as well as their own subjective experience of it. Miyako Ishiuchi produced powerful photographic images of her hometown of Yokosuka, working in a radically large scale in contrast to most of her (predominately male) Japanese peers, and crafting each print in a ritualistic, deeply personal process. Together, these methods reflected a new freedom of artistic vision, laying the foundation for Japanese contemporary art in the 1980s and beyond.

The exhibition actually spans two New York venues: Japan Society Gallery and Grey Art Gallery, New York University, with over 350 photographs, photography books and journals, paintings, sculptures, videos, and a film-based installation from29 artists and photographers.

Until  10 January at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, www.japansociety.org, and until 5 December also at Grey Art Gallery,  100 Washington Square East,  www.nyu.edu/greyart. A catalogue accompanies the exhibitions.