The Gutai Group - History and Concepts
Beginnings 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.
A generation older than most of the collective's other future members, Yoshihara was the son of a wealthy merchant, able to thoroughly finance many of Gutai's activities. He had been a reasonably successful painter and teacher for over twenty years before seeking artistic revolution. He led the group until his death in 1972.
The first to join the Yoshihara's movement were young artists, either former students of Yoshihara's or others whom he met at one of the numerous cultural events that had taken place in the Ashiya area during the postwar years.
A number of small artistic groups and societies in the Ashiya region contributed to Gutai's success, supplying many of its members as well as its key ideas.
Founded in 1952 and consisting of about fifteen members - including future Gutai luminaries Tanaka Atsuko and Saburõ Murakami - The Zero-Kai (Zero Society) was the best-known of these. The deeply conceptual and radical group, focused on the idea that "every work of art begins from nothing", was extraordinarily experimental, counting sound, chance, and time among their materials. When they became part of Gutai in 1955, they encouraged the rest of the movement to redefine and expand their notion of what art could be.
The Ashiya City Exhibition also became a rich source of new Gutai members, notably Toshio Yoshida and Shuji Mukai. Co-founded by Yoshihara, the Exhibition was a juried salon show that had been extremely conservative before the war, but that had become a hive of artistic innovation in the Ashiya region since the end of the war.
Another group noted for its contribution to the movement's evolution was Genbi, a multi-disciplinary society also co-founded by Yoshihara with Kan Muramatsu, an art journalist. The group was primarily concerned with ways of bringing traditional Japanese art forms up to date and how to make the country's art scene more internationally relevant - themes that would repeatedly recur in Gutai. Thirteen future Gutai members were Genbi recruits.
Gutai artists were strongly influenced by European and American artists of the day, particularly Jackson Pollock and the European Art Informel movement. Many early Gutai directly responded to Pollock's rejection of representation and the unadulterated energy of his drip paintings, including Kazuo Shiraga who made energetic foot paintings and Shozo Shimamoto, known for his explosions of paint onto canvas using a handmade cannon. Jirõ Yoshihara praised Pollock in his Gutai Manifesto of 1956, describing how his work "reveals the scream of matter itself, cries of the paint and enamel."
Gutai's founder also used his 1956 manifesto to herald his enthusiasm for the Art Informel movement: "Their art is free from conventional formalism, demanding something fresh and newborn." While Pollock never responded to Yoshihara's attempt to make contact with him shortly before his death in 1956, Michel Tapie - the French critic who coined the term Art Informel to describe European postwar painting that violently renounced traditional ideas of composition and order - received his attentions with much more interest, and their relationship became longstanding.
The First Gutai Art Exhibition
Sixteen artists took part in the group's first exhibition in Ohara Hall, Tokyo in October 1955. The show, which was unfavorably received in the Tokyo art world, included a number of artworks which have since become some of their best known works, including Kazuo Shiraga's Challenge To The Mud, Saburõ Murakami's Work (Six Holes), and Atsuko Tanaka's interactive sound piece Work (Bell). Their actions that used the body as a medium were especially groundbreaking, predating the comparable American Happenings and European Actionist movements by several years.
The Gutai Group: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Kaiga and E
Even in their most outlandish moments, Gutai artists always maintained a formal and theoretical connection to painting, unlike other performance art movements of the 1950s and 1960s such as Allan Kaprow's Happenings, which advocated abandoning painting completely. In a time before performance art, interactive art, or conceptual art as it is understood today, Gutai artists had to invent their own vocabulary to explain their works. They summed up their artistic aims in a single word - "e", which loosely translates as 'picture' or 'picturing', using it to refer to their entire range of activities that aimed for "the expulsion of the frame", from painting and installation to performance and sound pieces. This broad understanding stood in direct contrast to kaiga - the Japanese word traditionally used to refer to conventional painting - whose history Gutai wanted to acknowledge while also going beyond it.
E had many articulations. Kazuo Shiraga painted with his feet; Akira Kanayama painted with a remote control car; and Yasuo Sumi painted with an abacus. Even looser expressions of e included Shiraga's Ultramodern Sanbaso, which he performed in a red outfit with sweeping sleeves, creating an e of a long and meandering red line; and Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress, which produced an e of bright color and rapid, moving light.
Printed publications were a vital part of Gutai's output. They contributed to the group's wider efforts to create and maintain an international network of similar-minded artists, and were also designed to engage audiences within and outside the art world.
The Gutai Journal was set up in 1954, a year before the movement's first group exhibition. It was heavily inspired by the Surrealist magazine Minotaure and featured photographs of Gutai artworks and shows, articles by members of the group, and images of works by their international contemporaries. The journal was incredibly pioneering in its design and layout, and became a kind of exhibition space in its own right, with contributions that included concrete poetry, graphic cutouts, and limited edition multiples by Gutai members. It was also translated into English and French and distributed to influential artists and critics internationally.
Kirin was a children's art and poetry magazine that aimed to free art education from the tight constrictions that had been imposed on it by Japan's military regime. Many Gutai artists taught art to children alongside their practices, and wanted to use art education as a way to encourage children to think for themselves and give them the freedom to create as individuals through play in the same way artists in the group did. Members of Gutai wrote around sixty articles for Kirin between 1954 and 1962.
Gutai was one of the first modern movements to make works that actively involved the spectator, anticipating the more famous, technology-based interactive art from the 1960s onwards. The group's desire to involve the public - young and old - in the creation of their artworks, or to encourage interaction with them, had its root in their emphasis on individual expression, democracy, and freedom. Well-known examples include Atsuko Tanaka's Work (Bell) (1955), in which viewers were invited to press a switch, setting off a series of ringing sounds around the gallery in an experiment in 'living sound' that interrupted other visitors' quiet contemplation of the rest of the pieces in the exhibition; Gutai Card Box (1962), a vending machine that dispensed original, postcard-sized Gutai artworks to the public; and many of the large sculptures in the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition of 1956 that invited visitors to touch, enter, walk round, and thoroughly reflect on the pieces in the same way the artists had in their production.
Later Developments - After The Gutai Group
The movement disbanded after Yoshihara's sudden death in 1972. Many Gutai artists, feeling that they were now part of the establishment they had originally been so eager to rebel against, founded new movements and made fresh works that ensured their continuing cultural relevance. Shozo Shimamoto, for example, created a new collective known as the Artists' Union, while a 1979 exhibition called Jirõ Yoshihara and Today's Aspects of Gutai showed almost entirely new painting, performance, and conceptual works by former members.
Gutai is now acknowledged as one of the most influential movements in art, and has had an enormous impact on contemporary practice both in Japan and around the world. Its impact on more famous, 20th century performance art movements such as Happenings, Fluxus, and Viennese Actionism, as well as on the conceptual art of the 1970s, is now widely recognized. Kaprow in particular cited the group as a direct influence, sharing their desire to push beyond the Action Painting of Pollock into more experimental territory.
The group's political engagement, their liberal attitudes to art education, and above all their promotion of pure, unbridled creative freedom for all are issues that continue to be relevant as are their concept of e to liberate painting from its historical constraints, their groundbreaking performances, and their democratic ideas about how art should be made and shown. Relational art and the engaged performance practices of Tino Sehgal or Rirkrit Tiravanija, for example, all owe a clear debt to Gutai.
Reflecting this continued artistic importance, there has been a resurgence of interest in the movement at important international institutions in the last few years, with a survey show at the Guggenheim in New York in 2013, a retrospective room at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and several high profile publications by contemporary art historians.