Friday, August 31, 2012

Three Japanese Performance Artists

This morning, I was flipping though a book my friend Valerie loaned me called Art Since 1940.  Last week, we were hanging out and Valerie suggested that, because I own an art gallery, I ought to be well-informed about art history.  I agreed.  Flipping through Art Since 1940, I was struck by one inescapable fact: most of the artworks in the book looked really dated.  And they were.  Because I am an American living in the 21st century, it's hard for me to look at artwork from the 1950s or 1960s and truly see it as people in the 1950s and 1960s saw it, when styles like abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop art were shockingly new concepts.  Today, when I look at a Jackson Pollock, for example, I can't help but think of all the shitty, commercial, watered-down abstract paintings I've seen in a hundred corporate offices, shopping centers, and dentist offices.  Many of the styles of the past, by virtue of our image-saturated commercial culture, have lost some of their original impact.

The images in Art Since 1940 which most captured my attention were not made by Americans.  They showed things that had not become part of the American pop culture lexicon.  These images were created by three Japanese performance artists: Kazuo Shigara, Saburo Murakami, and Yayoi Kusama.

Kazuo Shigara (1924-2008) was a post-war Japanese painter and performance artist who painted with his feet, and sometimes wrestled with concrete, plaster, and mud.  Here's the image of Shigara that caught my eye.  It's called "Challenging Mud."

Photo from the first Gutai exhibition in 1955 at Ohara-Kaikan, Tokyo.
Saburo Murakami, along with Kazuo Shigara and Jiro Yoshihara, was part of a famous group of post-war Japanese artists who called themselves the Gutai group.  They were interested in destruction and decay, which makes sense after the enormous destruction the U.S. inflicted on Japan during WWII.  Murakami made art by puncturing or running through large sheets of paper.  Here's Murakami running through a series of paper barriers:

"Passing Through (21 panels of 42 papers)"
Yayoi Kusama is a female Japanese artist and writer who is still alive.  She became friends with 1960s New York artists like Andy Warhol.  She created a number of performance art "Happenings" like this "Naked Event" at the New York Stock Exchange in 1968, which also included a manifesto against the stock exchange.

To me, these images still look fresh and interesting and, frankly, new.  I like them because they are both serious and funny, which is the kind of art I tend to respond to.  

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