Japan’s limited progress at Tohoku’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after damage from the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami makes the March opening of this Taro Okamoto exhibition seem apocalyptic. Okamoto’s unique avant-garde style was deeply influenced by the West. He found contradictions in the Western idea of “progress,” which included nuclear technology, and this became the driving force of his artistic re-discovery of the notion of “Japan.”
Okamoto was an artist who liked to play with opposing ideas. At the entrance of the exhibition, an alien shaped sculpture, named “Non” welcomes you, while other sculptures such as “Kappa” (water imp) and “Jyurei” (spirit of a tree) offer a playful, even animistic and spiritual atmosphere of Japan but in a Western and modern artistic form.
In 1929, at age 18, Okamoto left Japan for Paris, where seeing the work of Picasso for the first time brought him to tears. Interested in philosophy and anthropology, he studied Hegelian dialectic under Alexandre Kojeve and ethnology under Marcel Mauss at the Universite Paris Sorbonne — he even joined Acephale, philosophical writer George Bataille’s secret society. In 1932, Okamoto became the youngest member of Abstraction-Creation, an international association of abstract artists.
This philosophical background was expressed through Okamoto’s artworks. The painting “Wounded Arm” (1936/49) depicts the young artist’s lyricism in style and antipathy toward elements of society. A female figure’s face and eyes — features that he intensified in his late works — are hidden under a huge red ribbon. Outstretched in front is the woman’s wounded arm, which with its clenched fist, expresses a harsh reality: After he began working on the painting, Okamoto was drafted to serve in the Japanese Imperial Army in China where he also became a prisoner of war.
After World War II, he formed the avant-garde artists group Yoru-no Kai (The Night Society) with literary critic Kiyoteru Hanada in 1948. Tired of hearing his painting “Heavy Industry” (1949) being interpreted as social satire, Okamoto created “Law of the Jungle” in 1950. His aim was to produce something to be seen as complete nonsense, but the outcome in fact depicted much of Japan’s animistic beliefs and interest in mystical powers.
Taro advocated “polarism” and created works using various polar opposites, such as organic with inorganic forms, and stillness with movement. These he used in daring combinations of colors, and in his 1954 book “Konnichi no Geijyutu” (“Art Today”), he shocked art fans by stating, “Art today should not be good. It should not be pretty, it should not be pleasant.”
Criticizing traditional Japanese ideas of beauty such as wabi sabi, Okamoto preferred the cultural background of Okinawa, which he visited in 1959. He wrote an essay about Okinawa, commenting on utaki, sacred places of worship that did not have symbols of gods or icons, and describing Izaiho, an initiation ritual for women to be recognized as goddesses performed on Kudaka Island (also known as the Island of the Gods). He also witnessed old rituals in the Tohoku area of Japan, such as namahage, involving participants in traditional demon costumes chasing children, and shishiodori, a ritual folk dance performance. To him, the primitive beauty of the Jomon Period, many remains of which could be found in Tohoku, was far more interesting than more accepted norms of aesthetics.
The highlight of this exhibition is Okamoto’s masterpiece “Tower of the Sun,” a monument that was originally built for the Omatsuri Hiroba (Festival Square) of the Osaka Expo 1970. Okamoto declared that the slogan of Expo ’70, “Progress and Harmony of Mankind,” was a contradiction in terms, and he portrayed this duality using Jomon symbolism. Inside the “Tower of the Sun,” he exhibited an artwork titled “Tree of Life,” which consisted of three sections: our past and our origin (lower section), the present and harmony (middle); and the future of humans (top). Instead of exhibiting portraits of world heroes, as had been planned, he chose to decorate the tree with masks, statues and everyday objects from all over the world.
At the expo, the giant phallic sculpture stuck out from the roof of a building designed by Kenzo Tange, and it looked as though it might have paid homage to George Bataille’s “L’Anus Solaire” (“The Solar Anus”). Housed in the Omatsuri Hiroba, it appeared to play on fact that the space in which it sat was a polarism itself — the Western concept of a public square paired with the Japanese concept of a matsuri (festival). It seemed that Okamoto tried to bring the spirit of a Japanese matsuri to the Festival Square as an allusion to those festivals in Japan for which some people’s homes were opened to the public, just like a Western square would be.
On a darker note at the exhibition, “Men Aflame” (1955) depicts the Japanese tuna-fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No.5), which was exposed to nuclear fallout caused by an American nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in 1954. The eyes of a looming gray mushroom cloud amid angry red flames stare at us, as the boat is tossed in the corner. Just as unsettling, is his startling calligraphy piece “Korosuna” (“Don’t Kill”), an anti-Vietnam War piece he created for The Washington Post, whose message is amplified by being exhibited alongside his World War II paintings.
The current problems in Fukushima appear to be realizing Okamoto’s issue with the Osaka Expo ’70’s slogan “Progress and Harmony of Mankind.” And as an artist with a fondness for Tohoku and its Jomon cultural significance, it brings this exhibition even closer to the heart.
Perhaps if we look at Okamoto’s use of primitivism with modernism, how he combined Japan’s modernity with history to give us a new perspective, we may find clues to a possible future for Japan.
“Okamoto Taro: The 100th Anniversary of His Birth” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till May 8; admission 1,300; open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (these are temporary opening hours, please visit the website for updates), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp.