The Gutai Group
Summary of The Gutai Group
This Japanese movement represented a radical and energetic approach to artmaking that encompassed performance, painting, installation, and theatrical events, taking advantage of the freedoms available in their newly democratic homeland. They sought and achieved an extraordinary level of international recognition, collaborated with and strongly influenced conceptual and performance artists that came after them, and are now considered to mark one of the most important moments in post-war Japanese culture.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Individualism was a central concern for Gutai artists. During the Second World War, Japan's totalitarian regime had promoted the notion of a national body and stifled any hints of individual expression. Members of the group unashamedly rebelled against this attitude in their writings and artworks, encouraging the public, children, and other artists to "do what no one has done before!"
- The word 'gutai' translates as 'concreteness', and it articulates one of the Gutai group's most distinctive traits - their desire to physically engage with an extraordinary range of materials. The name also anticipated their investigations into the reciprocal connection between matter (paint, chemicals, tar, mud, water) and physical action (breaking, exploding, tearing, dripping). They wanted to create a new kind of art that explored the relationship between the human spirit and material, works that luxuriated in "the scream of matter."
- Gutai artists were exceptional international networkers who used the media to spread their ideas across the globe. They also collaborated with other artists' groups in Europe and America, including Allan Kaprow's Happenings, the Art Informel group, and the Dutch Nul collective. This drive was not only essential to the movement's long term success, but it also represented their rejection of Japanese isolation during World War II and their desire to be a part of a new, liberal-minded Japan.
- Gutai firmly believed in concept over form, thoroughly rejecting representative art. They wanted to move away from the art object towards the invisible world of ideas, and to leave plenty of room for viewers to come up with potential meanings on their own. Two Gutai practices that articulated these ideas were the pared-down, interactive works of Atsuko Tanaka and Saburõ Murakami's pieces that aimed to separate art from content with a strong dose of wit.
Overview of The Gutai Group
Japan in the 1950s was in a process of renewal after being ravaged by the Second World War, and diplomatic relations with the West - especially America after its occupation of the country came to an end in 1952 - were rapidly becoming reestablished. This new internationalism had a strong impact on Japan's cultural scene, and it was against this backdrop of young democracy and a growing belief in individual freedom that Jirõ Yoshihara was inspired to found the Gutai Art Association in the affluent town of Ashiya, near Osaka in Japan, in 1954.
Important Art and Artists of The Gutai Group
Kazuo Shiraga's seminal 'performance painting' featured the artist flinging himself, half naked, into a pile of clay, where he writhed and slipped around in the material while sculpting shapes from it - thus creating a picture using his whole body. Challenge To The Mud explored the place where physical action (represented by Shiraga wrestling in the clay) and 'matter' (the clay itself) collide. The pile of mud was left in situ after the performance for the show's duration, and presented as an artwork in its own right. Shiraga initially conceived the work as an expanded painting, and it predated his related 'rope hanging' performances in which he created exuberant canvases by dipping his feet in paint while suspended above or walking directly on them.
Saburõ Murakami's Laceration of Paper involved the artist hurling himself through a series of enormous kraft paper screens. The tautly stretched paper produced loud, explosive sounds as Murakami punched his way through each sheet as quickly as possible, releasing and reveling in its material properties. This piece embodies the Gutai artists' desire to go far beyond the limits of the canvas to produce encounters between the human spirit and the substance of matter itself. Murakami restaged Laceration of Paper several times with the last performance in 1994, two years before his death.
In Please Draw Freely, Gutai founder Jirõ Yoshihara invited visitors to the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition to create a collective artwork on a large, blank board. A sign by the work encouraged the public to express themselves without inhibition, and markers and pens were provided. The exhibition took place in the main park in the Japanese city of Ashiya, and was conceived as a totally democratic art event that would appeal to a general audience. With Please Draw Freely, Yoshihara wanted to reject passive spectatorship and quiet contemplation of artworks, and instead invite people of all ages to engage with art directly and experience being part of the creative process themselves - to make spectators into producers.
Useful Resources on The Gutai Group
- Gutai: Splendid PlaygroundOur PickBy Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, Yoshihara Jiro, Gutai
- Gutai: Decentering ModernismBy Ming Tiampo
- Between Action and the Unknown: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga (Dallas Museum of Art Publications)By Gabriel Ritter, Koichi Kawasaki, Namiko Kunimoto
- From Postwar to Postmodern, Art in Japan, 1945 1989: Primary Documents (MoMa Primary Documents)By Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Fumihiko Sumitomo, Kenji Kajiya
- The Seriousness of Fun in Postwar JapanOur PickBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / February 14, 2013
- Gutai: the First Happenings Were JapaneseBy John Perreault / Artopia / March 5, 2013
- The Alchemical Art Innovators of Postwar JapanBy Ellen Pearlman / Hyperallergic / March 18, 2013
- Gutai : the Spirit of an EraOur PickBy Andrew Maerkle / Frieze / September 27, 2012