Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, an exhibition that examines the birth of a new Japanese culture in the aftermath of World War II, opened at MoMA last week for the duration of the winter.
The show has an auspicious (and telling) relationship to the architecture housing it, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, an architect who came of age in Tokyo during the same period. Taniguchi’s restrained white walls couldn’t be more different than the sometimes frightening surrealism and utopian fervor of his one-time peers.
The exhibition begins with work by Taniguchi’s mentor, Tange Kenzo, who would eventually go on to spearhead the reconstruction effort in the '60s and '70s. But in the 1950s, Tange helped spur the creation of the Metabolists, a movement of architects who responded to the dire needs of the city around them with technology and megastructures. Tange proposed a radical idea—his "Plan for Tokyo 1960"—that imagined the city as a three-layered organism of shops, transit systems, and homes that linked to span Tokyo Bay.
But architecture only occupies a small portion of A New Avant-Garde. The other galleries are devoted to painting, illustration, photography, and filmmaking, beginning with works that are still raw and earnest with horror. Nakanishi Natsuyuki’s Compact Object (1962), a clear egg of bones, watches, and hair, recalls similar pieces from European artists created using the discarded belongings of victims. "It was amidst this desert of ashes that the Japanese people made a new departure for new experiences. In compensation for everything that they had lost, they had the liberty of imagining a new, ideal and at times utopian society," explains Nishikawa Nagao.
Surrealism and performance art flourished, in groups like Jikken Kobo, a collective of 14 artists that popularized performance art and modern dance in Japan. Their work is largely unknown outside of Japan. As The New York Times notes, one of the most remarkable collections comes courtesy of the Yomiuri Indépendant, an annual exhibition that invited anyone and everyone to display their art. The tradition lasted 14 years and let some of Japan’s emerging artists surreptitiously display their experimental works.
The later years of the exhibition are rife with tension and protest, thanks to artists rebelling against Japanese class structures, the Vietnam War, and the country’s newfound commercialism. The specter of hunger and war hangs over these pieces, some of them dripping with irony. It’s fascinating to see how Japanese artists made Western influences like Fluxus their own—equally interesting to see how Japanese inspired American and European artists. All in all, over 100 artists are represented, making it bigger than any other American survey of this period.
Unexpectedly, the destruction of Tokyo and Hiroshima re-emerged in the news this week, when Ariel Sharon’s son published an op-ed arguing that the destruction of Gaza should be equally complete. The delirious works on view at MoMA bear witness to the long legacy of modern warfare (and the short memory of anyone who argues for it). Though Doryun Chong definitely didn’t intend it, Tokyo: A New Avant-Garde has a sense of renewed urgency to it. Go check it out before February 23rd.