Light bulb moment

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 19

Light bulb moment

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 19

Light bulb moment

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 19

Light bulb moment

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 19

Light bulb moment

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 19

The Gutai and Zero groups are now recognized as pioneers of live art. As an exhibition of their work opens at Bonhams, Hans Ulrich Obrist explains why these movements are now more relevant than ever

The emergence of the Gutai group in Japan in the mid-fifties represents one of the great moments of the avant garde in the post-war era – although it is only finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves now. In 1954, Shozo Shimamoto and Jiro Yoshihara, empowered by the climate of freedom in the immediate period following the end of the American occupation, founded the group during the gathering together of a disparate collection of artists near Osaka.

It was Yoshihara, in the group's manifesto, who first stated that Gutai (which literally translates as concrete) stands for embodiment. And at the first Gutai exhibition held in 1955 in Tokyo, the group's artists responded with wild enthusiasm to his call to arms.

Having previously painted with his feet, Kazuo Shiraga stripped down to his underwear to writhe in pools of mud, while Saburo Murakami threw himself through paper screens. Later in 1956, Atsuko Tanaka would don her Electric Dress, a glowing assemblage of incandescent bulbs, wire and paint.

I recently met the great Takesada Matsutani – who was a member of the group after 1963 – and spoke to him about this legacy of experimentalism. In his archives I saw a number of the amazing New Year's cards that the group made and sent to each other, and that foreshadow so much of the mail art of the 1960s.

That interest in embodiment, not only in performance art, is one of the reasons Gutai is so relevant in the digital 21st century. The age of the internet, (counter-intuitively perhaps), has seen a return to live art as evidenced by artists from Roman Ondák to Tino Sehgal.

Among the preoccupations of the Gutai group was a fascination with the beauty that arises from damage or decay. This is perhaps one of the threads that connects the group with the other avant-garde movements of the same generation, particularly Zero, but also with English artists such as John Latham and Gustav Metzger, for whom the memory of war and of destruction was an important common experience.

Another legacy of the war was the discrediting of the pre-war hierarchies, and both Zero and Gutai are remarkable for their horizontal inclusive nature and the absence of formal inclusion or exclusion mechanisms. Traditionally, many western avant-garde movements have been markedly vertical. As André Breton famously said, "You are in, or you are out", or Michele Bernstein's statement, "You are a Situationist or you are not".

Neither in Gutai nor in Zero do you see that level of proscription. They represent a less militaristic, less top down, less hierarchical – a more 21st-century style of working and organizing. Which is perhaps another reason why they are of great relevance at the moment.

While the group's work anticipated much of the performance art of the 1960s, at the time they largely met with indifference, both at home and abroad. Sadly, this was a common reaction to non-western art movements at the time, when the western centricity of art history went unchallenged. Fortunately, the western art world is becoming aware that art history has a polyphony of centers.

And now, thanks primarily to an interest amongst working artists, Gutai, which anticipated so much of what was to come, is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-Director of the Serpentine Galleries

What's the Gutidea?

This October, Bonhams is exhibiting 20 works from the Gutai and Zero groups, along with pieces by Yayoi Kusama. These are all from the 1960s, acknowledged as the most important period of production for the groups' artists. This is the first time that an exhibition has been organized that puts these two movements alongside each other. Highlights include Kazuo Shiraga's Fan (shown opposite), an important suite of works by Schoonhoven, a large piece by Günther Uecker, and a 'Phallic display' by Yayoi Kusuma. Since many of these works have not been seen in public since the 1960s, this is a rare and fascinating opportunity to discover a pair of the most important and cutting-edge movements of post-war art.

Zero vs Gutai, Bonhams New Bond Street, 11-20 October.
bonhams.com/zerovsgutai

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