Trapped by human society

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Osaka-born Tetsumi Kudo’s oeuvre has been the subject of a number of major international retrospectives since his death in 1990, and these indicate the artist’s increasing postwar historical significance. The current National Museum of Art, Osaka retrospective is magisterial. With more than 600 pages, the bilingual catalog that accompanies it is now an essential art-history reference.

Like several artists of the Osaka-based Gutai Art Association, which was established in 1954, Kudo independently inaugurated a new concept later termed “happenings.” These were a kind of performance, staged or improvised, that took place instead of conventionally exhibited artwork. He began these around 1958, when, as a boxer, he punched painting supports with gloves covered in paint. The first happening proper was American Allen Kaprow’s “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959). The earliest filmed happening of Kudo’s was his artistic debut in Paris, in February, 1963. Grainy footage of “Philosophy of Impotence” shows the artist bound with rope, wrestling with a phallic caterpillar larvae that he appears to be engaging in fellatio.

That happening title was significant. For Kudo, mankind inherently lacked freedom and was a prisoner of society, politics, culture and other restraints. He scorned the establishment and the anthropocentrism of Western modernism, sought a reappraisal of society and set forth to destroy Western dualism — man versus nature, man versus machine. Only by rendering everything impotent could it be possible to save humans from the slavery of preserving the species. He did not, however, take his own advice, and so we might wonder what his family made of all this.

Another reason for Kudo’s increasing international appraisal is that he helped inaugurate another genre integral to postwar art — the installation. From around 1957 in Japan, Art Informel and American Abstract Expressionism were all the rage in Japanese painting. Then in 1962, all became passé. From here on, genres collapsed into one another, and Kudo was at the forefront of the avant-garde, exhibiting works made of detritus, then referred to as junk art or anti-art.

In 1962, he took over a whole exhibition space in the Tokyo Yomiuri Independants Exhibition, which conventionally charged a sum for an individual work to be displayed. With “Distribution Map…” largely lauded as his magnum opus, he filled the gallery space with a net of dark green strings, overhead from which phallic objects were suspended with bulbs embedded in their ends. These phallic pupae appeared to turn into bread and then udon noodles, apparently a reference to semen that Kudo called the “juice of human dignity.” The medium, however, rotted in the gallery space and museum officials subsequently requested him to replace it with white string.

Still, Kudo demonstrably began in the late 1950s as a painter in the vein of Art Informel. Then still an art student in Tokyo, his work caught the eye of the French Informel originator, Michel Tapie, who effusively praised his work. Convinced there was nothing to learn in art school, however, Kudo set to creating an anti-art education of his own.

Awarded the grand prize of the 2nd International Young Artists Pan-Pacific in 1962, Kudo moved to Paris for the next 20-odd years, though he would have preferred New York. Unlike his predecessors who chose to learn in Europe, Kudo thought Europe was intellectually bankrupt, and he originally went only to obtain the prize money. He had no interest in earlier art and was more influenced by astrophysics, set theory, quantum mechanics, and electron micrographs, but he continued to exhibit his work as “paintings,” with works such as his “birdcage” sculptures at the Salon de Mai exhibition in Paris, defying the conventions of the medium.

“Your Portrait” (1974) is one such birdcage example. It encloses the insect-eaten visage of the Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco, a flower pot with lily of the valley, a phallus and some technological bits and pieces in addition to a thermometer. Intended as a sarcastic comment on European intellectuals and their transition into the mainstream establishment and therefore vanguard relinquishment, Kudo sought to pillory the wired connections of modern life to human nature, nature itself and technology — a criticism of social networks subject to observation and control.

From the 1970s, however, Kudo’s own artistic approach became introspective and while giving lectures and symposia in Japan in subsequent years, he himself agreed to a position within an establishment in 1987, by accepting a teaching post at the Tokyo University of the Arts.

Flush with contradictions and provocations, Kudo’s art repels in its poisonous colors and visual references to sperm, eyeballs, abundant phalluses, putrefying limbs and human disfigurements. While his artistic world of pollution and fragmentation appears apocalyptic, it was in fact his paradise.

“Your Portrait: A Tetsumi Kudo Retrospective” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs till Jan. 19; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥850. Closed Mon., Dec. 24, Jan. 14, (open on holidays). www.nmao.go.jp/en/