Art

The zero hour of Kobe’s avant-garde

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art’s present draw card is the Saint Petersburg collection, “Old Masters from the State Hermitage Museum.” But on a lower level, at the far end of a long corridor gallery, are photos and grainy videos — the small-scale documentation of one of Japan’s little-known postwar happening/public-performance avant-garde groups — 0 (Group Zero). Group Zero is comparable in scope and activity, if not in longevity, to The Play, another avant-garde group that also began in Kobe a few years earlier.

Group Zero congregated in 1969 as a research group for Western-style painting within the Niki-kai, a popular Kobe-based exhibition forum. Holding misgivings about making submissions to Japan’s formalized systems for public display, the group was oficially established in 1970 by Kiyoshi Furukawa, Chu Enoki and Kensaku Matsui, and had an evolving cast of participants, taking the name Japan Kobe Zero from 1972.

The year of the group’s departure coincided with the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, which showcased Japan’s postwar economic and technological miracle. It was also a time synonymous with the erasing of Japan as a nation-state for Japan Inc., a global corporate brand. Period artistic expressions were diverse, though an anti-Expo element arose, characterized by mild protest-type street performances, anti-illusionism in painting and the use of increasingly unadorned materials.

September 1970 observed Group Zero’s “Great Drawing Exhibition” with a total of 68 artists participating. It was the occasion for its first “happening,” called “Proposal for the Japanese Archipelago.” A model of Japan was made from fabric, suspended in the air, and was followed by a funeral — their “Japan” was dead.

An assembly of 150 participants appeared for “Rainbow Revolution” (1971), with each preparing to do what was necessary to survive a single day in Kobe’s Motomachi Shopping Arcade. They then “died” of pre-planned exhaustion that evening. Ropes tied between members’ bodies apparently suggested a hanging. But rather, the event was conceived of as a panegyric about life, an expression of collective energy contrasting the conventional individual “I” of the singular artist.

Spectators to “Dismantle and Regenerate” (1972) brought nostalgic items or things they wanted to forget to be placed into an iron crusher inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s “Chocolate Grinder.” Objects were ground up, then hardened into ammunition shells. Some were fired from a canon, obliterating already mashed memories, making them bafflingly unforgettable.

“Human Hunting Machine” (1973) was a large mesh-wire cage. People were lured into the machine by displayed telephones and face masks, ostensibly on the pretense of seeing art. Once inside, the entrance closed with a thud, trapping panicked visitors who were now spectacles for other museum-goers. Carrier pigeons were also “displayed,” though they tended to defecate on surrounding art works and not return before the museum’s closing time.

Until 1973, Japan Kobe Zero focused on happenings. Thereafter, several initiating members left and the group began submitting installation works to established exhibition forums. A further formalization occurred in the 1973 establishment of Zero Art Tank, an office of operations. Despite the changes, the group continued, even expanding the range of its western Japan activities, before disbanding in 1979.

“Japan Kobe Zero” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs until Jan. 21; 10 a.m.- p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥500. Closed Mon. (except Jan. 8) and Jan. 9.www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp/exhibition/j_1710/zero.html