Reiko Tomii’s profound and accessible study of 1960s avant-garde art from Japan offers an answer to a perennial problem in the appreciation of Japanese culture.

Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan, by Reiko Tomii.
320 pages
THE MIT PRESS, Nonfiction.

International observers often rely on the perception that culture from Japan is “exquisite” or “cool” without knowing how or where to place it in an international context. Japan does often present a cliched parade of exotic, weird and plain off-the-wall culture. As a consequence, its contemporary art is too often misunderstood as derivative of international trends, or baffling in its extremity.

Tomii’s mission in “Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan” is to retrieve Japan’s misunderstood avant-garde visionaries from the “abyss of history.”

For many years, Tomii has been the leading figure in a New York-centered network of art historians (PoNJA GenKon) working to establish the reputation of fine art from Japan in the postwar period. As an independent writer, educator and curator, she has been involved in many of the key translations of writing on contemporary Japanese art, as well as some of the most important exhibitions in New York.

“Radicalism in the Wilderness” reads like a life’s work that has been gestating for many years, and although it may seem to be on a specialized topic, its arguments have broad significance for the global study of culture in general.

Tomii cuts to the heart of the dilemma of how we are to understand what she calls the “international contemporaneity” (kokusaiteki dōjisei) of Japanese works: Striking and original art that was both similar and dissimilar to more renowned innovations taking place at around the same time in the U.S. or Europe.

Japanese artists were neither ahead nor behind, Tomii holds, but with careful reconstruction of their relationships, they can all be placed correctly in the larger picture of global innovation through a comparative and transnational exposure of what she calls “connections” and “resonances.”

Sometimes real human networks and direct translation of ideas can be found; in other cases, related discoveries of global import were being made synchronously in different parts of the world. One example was a series of 1960s experimentations in using holes to signify nonmateriality or conceptual space, a line culminating in a famous outdoor hole cut in the ground by the Mono-ha artist Nobuo Sekine in 1968. At the time, it was wrongly thought to be an imitation of a somewhat similar work by the American pop artist Claes Oldenburg.

Tomii focuses on this decade, a time of worldwide tumultuous change in culture and politics, when a sense of an emerging global consciousness was intensified by growing links among artists. She is proposing, in effect, a model for the study of global transactions and undercurrents, which can work to decenter the Eurocentric tendencies of conventional art history. The Japanese in fact embraced a conception of “contemporary art” (gendai bijutsu) in the 1960s that ran ahead of any similar notion of the “contemporary” being adopted in the West at the time.

The book is built around three case studies of some of the lesser-known artists in the postwar pantheon. Tomii’s vivid analyses are a master class of art history writing for their precise documentation and the way her narratives unfold.

The first, Yutaka Matsuzawa, was a philosophically minded conceptualist whose purpose as an artist became clear in a vision about art needing to “vanish the object.” After the suspension of a famous Tokyo avant-garde art show, the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, in 1964, he went on to stage exhibitions of invisible art works in remote locations.

Next, The Play were a ’60s collective in the Kansai region that coalesced as a group to devise a mode of working outside art institutions using absurdist performances. In one famous piece they all rode together on a styrofoam raft shaped like an arrow down river from Kyoto to Osaka.

Finally, GUN (Group Ultra Niigata) experimented with a Japanese variant of land art. The cover of the book depicts their work in a mountainous part of Niigata Prefecture, where they sprayed color on a snowy field using pesticide equipment borrowed from farmers.

Each of these artists and groups took their radical reaction to the constraints of mainstream society and culture out into the wilderness of rural Japan. This idea of “wilderness” as a focal characteristic of Japanese contemporary art plays a central role in Tomii’s arguments. It points to those who have worked in rural locations, outside of institutionalized forms and channels of recognition, and far from metropolitan Tokyo.

The concept of “wilderness” also speaks to the absence of any viable commercial form of making a living — and this leads to the ephemerality and physicality of contemporary art gestures in what was then a chronically under-commodified environment. In this sense the wilderness of Japan stands in relation to the world’s art centers and political powers.

For all their iconoclastic edge, the pioneers of the 1960s were absorbed into Japanese museum presentations in the 1970s, and they have received some wider appreciation in recent years. Matsuzawa’s famous “Psi Room” was recreated for visitors at the Yokohama Triennale 2014 by artist-curator Yasumasa Morimura. Meanwhile, The Play have recreated their work in Paris, attracting the attention of international curators such as Tom Trevor. And GUN’s rural work, which remains more obscure, was a precursor to the Echigo-Tsumari art triennale, which takes place in the same region. Tomii’s rigorous “amplification” of these figures puts them back into a “decentred” canon, effectively “regrouping” postwar Japanese art and placing it among the most extraordinary examples of art worldwide.

To over-emphasize this art-historical point, however, would be to limit this book to specialists. Beautifully written and structured, “Radicalism in the Wilderness” is a book for any culturally literate reader interested in questioning how to study regional art in its correct international context.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.