Encounter vs. Event: The Emergence of “Non-Art” in Japan, circa 1970
In February 1970, the editors of the popular Japanese art magazine Bijutsu techô (Art Notebook) boldly announced the arrival of a new generation of artists in a feature entitled “Voices of New Artists — From the Realm of Non-Art.”1 A black and white image appeared on the title page depicting the now well-known artist Sekine Nobuo unraveling a cylindrical mold of earth. Sekine dug a large hole in the ground and molded a positive cylindrical shape of the same volume on the ground adjacent to the hole. At the end of the exhibition, he returned the dirt back into the earth, filling up the hole to its original state. This iconic work, a site-specific outdoor piece entitled Isô-Daichi (Phase-Earth), was presented at the 1st Open Air Contemporary Sculpture Festival2 at Kobe’s Suma Rikyû Park in October 1968 and initiated the recognition of a group of artists practicing “Non-Art,” some of whom later came to be known as Mono-ha (School of Things).
The editors of Bijutsu techô’s choice of this particular image to represent the chihei (literally, the earth’s horizon) of “Non-Art” declares a radical re-conception of art’s aesthetic and institutional foundation in Japan — a movement away from art that is a product of individual artistic expression towards an art that explicitly rejects the willful act of creating. Sekine did not actually create an object; he simply displaced or transferred what had already existed. Phase-Earth proved to be literally “ground- breaking,” in that it pointed to the complex phenomenon of the earth’s very existence. Through a radically non-hierarchical means of perception in which all parts matter equally, Sekine revealed the inseparable relationships between subject, object, and site.
Phase-Earth reveals two components central to “Non-Art”: the artist’s and viewer’s aesthetic encounter with the work itself and the work’s status as an index of an event. These components simultaneously challenge the autonomy of both the viewing subject and the artistic object through their rigorous spatial and temporal integration. The artist conditions this experience by the sheer scale of the work— the earth’s spatial displacement — and by presenting a synecdochic logic of composite parts that simultaneously form and de-form a whole (the Earth), dissolving it back into a ground zero state. By emphasizing the relational structure of the parts to the whole, and by highlighting the ephemerality of the event, Sekine rejects the notion of an artistic authorship.
The two strategies that characterize Phase Earth — the foregrounding of the relational encounter, and the singular event— come to define “Non-Art” as a practice around 1970 and are taken up separately through the work and writings of Lee U-Fan and Hikosaka Naoyoshi. The theoretical and artistic practices of these two radical figures signal the emergence of a “Non-Art” distinct from the plethora of experimental works in Japan of the 1960s referred to by art critics at the time as “Anti-Art,” such as Neo-Dada Organizer (Neo-Dada), Kyûshû-ha (Kyûshû School), Hi Red Center, Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension), Jikan-ha (Time School), and Group Ongaku.3 The collection of practices associated with “Anti-Art” are characterized by three main positions: art as an economy of excess, art as a ritual and/or a disruptive element in daily life, and third, art as the activation of an audience. In general, these groups aimed to undo the medium-specific classifications of “modern art” by focusing on a set of social relations between artist, action/event/object, site and audience. However, the location of the work was often inseparable from the body and identity of the artist.
Unlike “Anti-Art,” the practice of “Non-Art,” for both Lee and Hikosaka, consists in reevaluating the subject through a fundamental critique of the aesthetic and institutional conditions that lay at the core of modern Japanese art. These include, in Lee’s case, a challenge to the centrality of the subject and, in Hikosaka’s case, an explicit expression of the ways in which art, as a culturally predetermined institution, is always already embodied in one’s practice.
THE PRIMACY OF ENCOUNTER
Widely known as the key ideologue of the group Mono-ha and for his ideas on the notion of “encounter,” Lee laid out his radical re-conception of the aesthetic subject through a critique of Cartesian Philosophy in his 1969 text, “World and Structure.”4 In it, he argues that Cartesian rationalism had manifested itself at the core of Japan’s artistic and intellectual landscape. He critiqued both the belief in consciousness as the highest form of existence, and the process of signification as a means to signify the self. Countering the subject-object dichotomy of the Cartesian system, Lee rejected the willful act of creating, by emphasizing the relational structure —time, space, light, air, shadows, material, viewing body— surrounding the work’s existence.
In 1969, Lee presented Relatum (Kankeikô) — boulder-sized rocks dropped on rectangular plates of broken glass —at the Developments in Contemporary Art exhibition at Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art.5 Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception B) was one work in a series of works under the same title in which the artist explored the physicality and tactility of forms through various juxtapositions between rocks and other materials, such as steel plates, glass, canvas, cotton, and cushions. The term mono (thing) of Mono-ha refers to locating meaning not in objective form but in the relational structure through which things reveal their existence. Emphasis is on the bare facticity of the material’s “presence” and the inter- relativity among the viewer, the material, and the site or space surrounding it, including its shadows, if any.
In Relatum, Lee attempts to radically de-center the viewing subject through these transformative encounters. In his 1970 essay, “Deai wo motomete,” or “In Pursuit of an Encounter,” first published in the same issue of Bijutsu techô, Lee describes a distinction between art as an engagement with signs and art as encounter: To the artist who manipulates image and signification, the world serves as material. But to the deaisha [one who experiences an interactive encounter], everything is but a phase that reveals the appearance of a state of the world…[M]aterial as is, is the location of a transformation of structure and this is precisely why structure enables an encounter and allows a specification of the world of direct, interactive contact.6
It is significant to point out here that Lee saw the construction of the modern subject as a fundamental artistic problem. Lee aimed to subordinate the artist as a producer in favor of the notion that all elements are inseparable and non-hierarchical; all parts, according to Lee, the viewer as well as the rock and the glass, and their placement, matter equally (and are equally matter). This statement illustrates his desire to challenge first the status of the art object as a product of artistic expression, and second, the notion of the art object as a repository of projected ideas, a vehicle upon which meaning is imposed. In Lee’s words, “Structure enables an encounter and allows a specification of the world of direct, interactive contact.”7
Lee’s effort to critique the ideology of the Cartesian subject as adapted in modern Japan is neither an attack on Western philosophy nor an assertion of Japanese superiority but an attempt to dismantle the inherent relational structure that ultimately reinforces Japanese subjectivity. Lee’s cultural resistance is against Japan itself and, in particular, the nation’s incessant drive for intellectual equivalence and international relevance, a drive rooted in the historic Meiji commitment to rational utility and instrumentality since the late 19th century.
Literary scholar Naoki Sakai has theorized this condition through the relation between particularity and universality. Describing the source of Japan’s national strength as a product of its continuous competition against the West, he states:
The history of Japanese thought was created as a symmetrical equivalent to the history of Western thought or of Western philosophy, so that this field has been dominated from the outset by demands for symmetry and equality. The entire discipline has been built on the premise that, if there is thought in the West, there ought to be its equivalent in Japan. But these demands gave rise to the sense of a lack, as is best testified by the often professed bitter realization that there was nothing worth calling philosophy in Japan, although there should be an equivalent to it. The self-referential character was inscribed on the history of Japanese thought by way of this mimetic desire.8
Sakai demonstrates how the country’s mimetic desire to possess equal faculties of thought (such as philosophy) has resulted in a hierarchy between Japan and the West that is driven by a constant sense of self-lack. Paradoxically, this mimetic desire has been the underlying means for Japan’s intellectual progress and for its national strength. Lee does not attempt to retrieve a pre-contact Japan. Instead, Lee critiques the foundation of Japan’s modernization process by denying the subjects an identification with “Japan” or the “West” along with any separation between them. By negating the “subject,” Lee rejects that which forms the basis of modernism in Japan and elsewhere, and offers alternative modes of perception through his work. Namely, he explores ideas of interdependence and relationality among subject, materials, and site. He draws equally from Western and Eastern traditions of modern aesthetics and theories of ontology, inspired by Martin Heidegger and Kyoto School philosopher Nishida Kitarô, whose religious philosophy integrates Western philosophy and Buddhism.
In the earliest of the Relatum series from 1969, a brick-like rock echoes the shape of the broken glass upon which it rests. Despite its smooth mirrored reflection on the glass, the rock’s singular reflection splits into multiple, broken fragments. In an outdoor version reproduced in the same February 1970 issue of Bijutsu techô, Lee drops a heavy, circular rock directly onto the rectangular glass plate; the cracks spread outward from underneath the rock to the edges of the glass, catching the sunlight and the faint drift of the clouds above. In both of these works, the process of “breaking” forms an index of the invisible natural force of gravity by showing the dramatic result of an encounter between two physically different objects. As in a phenom- enological encounter, both entities are transformed by and at the moment of encounter.
Counteracting the permanence of works of art, Relatum also signaled methods of de-objectification, involving the use of ephemeral materials and the operation of chance and time. These are, of course, many of the same methods and materials that lay at the heart of Process Art in the U.S., particularly in the work of Barry Le Va.9 In Le Va’s On Center Shatter–or–Shatterscatter (Within the Series of Layered Pattern Acts) from 1968 to 1971, instead of a rock, we only see the results of a heavy object dropped in the center of several layered sheets of glass. Le Va dropped the object on a sheet of glass and then laid another sheet on top and repeated the act. The final appearance of the piece is the direct result of physical forces that occur when the object hits the glass. However similar, the two artists’ works are fundamentally different in one respect: if Le Va’s moves backward as a trace of an event that has already happened, Lee’s, in contrast, moves forward toward the anticipation of another “encounter” repeatedly enacted in the series Relatum. Le Va’s removal of the object and his static presentation of the results of its falling creates a demand that the viewer trace back the artist’s activity over a given time. For Lee, the rock’s encounter with the glass is an exercise in revealing the relational structure of the two materials with specific cultural implications, rather than an operation in chance and time as we see in Le Va’s On Center.
By dismantling the imposition of fixed aesthetic values such as subjective agency and the permanence of the art object, Lee’s notion of encounter led to a radical rethinking of objects and phenomenality opened up through an endless perceptual cycle of first-ness.
Hikosaka, one of the prominent leaders of the politically active art collective Bikyôtô (short for Bijutsuka Kyôtô Kaigi, or Artists Joint-Struggle Council), is known for his theories of “event.” A response to the devastating defeat of the nationwide student movements that culminated in 1969, Hikosaka’s work is a rigorous attempt to dismantle the ideological framework that one must engage with as an artist, even while knowing perfectly well the paradoxical impossibility of such a “work” of art. Hikosaka rejects the older Lee’s aesthetic ethos as an ahistorical retreat. Though he operated within a collective that explicitly attacked cultural institutions, Hikosaka turned the institution of art itself into an internal mechanism of one’s practice in his conception of the “event”— that is, a disposition an artist always carries within as an “internal institution.” One might think this “internal institution” in terms of Althusser’s notion of ideology, which has marked effects on the subject. In other words, no matter what critical stance the artist has against the institution, the artist cannot separate him/herself from the ideological existence of “art” itself.
If Lee’s “Non Art” rejected subjectivity by insisting on the primacy of a serial encounter, Hikosaka’s practice with the group Bikyôtô lay, contrarily, in reclaiming the agency of expression. Amidst the rising political distrust against both the U.S. and Japanese governments, Hikosaka was actively involved as a student at Tama University in the Anpô demonstrations against the second renewal of the Security Treaty of 1970,10 as well as in the widespread university upheavals of 1968–1969, headed by the militant, left-wing coalition Zenkyôtô (All-Campus Joint Struggle Council). Demanding control of free speech rights and the re-organization of a regressive and corrupt university system, the coalition built and lived inside barricades on campus during the protests, which the police violently repressed with tear-gas and water cannons in 1969. In his text, “The End of Strategic Retreat,” published in March 1971 in Bijutsu techô, Hikosaka reflected on the viability of artistic expression after experiencing the defeat of political expression. He stated: “What was revealed was not the death of subjectivity, but the meaningless emptiness of the space of everyday life that was built from our daily existence inside the barricades.”11 Here he conceived “meaningless emptiness” as a productive mode of daily existence that “wiped the dust off ” the cycle of repetition and “descent into daily life.”12 In this passage, the artist not only recognizes himself as a subject of an empty imperial order in a nation that has succumbed to capitalist imperialism, but also questions his function as an artistic subject bound within this ideological structure, as a producer of symbolic value. His daily struggle in the barricades was a means to achieve a tabula rasa, a clean slate, an attempt to shed his subject formation in order to locate, once again, the political agency of “expression.”
In order to effectively break the institutional bounds from within, Bikyôtô operated explicitly under the label “artist” (hence the use of bijutsuka [artist] in the group’s name).13 Their work exposed the institution of “art” itself as an internal mechanism of practice. Referring to this process of internalization, critic Reiko Tomii writes, “Even when art-making occurs outside of institutional sites (i.e. museum/gallery), ‘art as institution’ inevitably presents itself within one’s ‘internal museum’ which is characterized by the ‘impossibility of dissolution.’”14
Knowing the impossibility of dismantling one’s internal disposition as agents operating within the historical institution of art, members confronted this condition through individual performances in the year 1971 by operating under the name Bikyôtô Revolution Committee. Hikosaka’s Floor Event (a live performance enacted over a 10-day period at the artist’s home) was one of four solo exhibitions performed at sites outside the museum space; other sites included performances on a campus, performances in an underground theater, and a film projected on a riverbank. Floor Event was performed twice in 1970 and 1971, and, according to artist Takamatsu Jirô’s review in Bijutsu techô (July 1971), a total of 27 people attended over the duration of the piece from May 6 to 15. In the performance, the artist stripped bare, poured white, liquid latex on the floor of his room and swept it across the entire space until it congealed into a hardened transparent state over a span of 10 days. Hikosaka advertised the 1971 event, Floor Event No. 2, by sending out an invitational postcard with a photo from the 1970 performance, provocatively marked with the words, “REVOLUTION” in bold, red type — an ironic gesture at best, signaling the cyclical dimension of revolution. The following “instruction-performance” also appears in relation to the event:
A floor is covered by a transparent substance.
A floor that has been covered by a transparent substance.
A transparent substance that wraps the floor.
The floor and the transparent substance are simultaneously fixed by our gaze. A floor that covers another floor.
A floor that is wrapped by another floor.15
The text is a gradual, allegorical account of layering, effacement and renewal. The floor is physically erased through the whitewashing of the ground upon which the artist lives and then revealed slowly through its gradual transparence—thus, symbolically renewing the foundation upon which his “internal institution” lies. Faithful to the events from the barricades, which “revealed the genuine emptiness that wiped the dust off the repetition of daily life,”16 this event, as philosopher Alain Badiou notes, is part of “a truth-process,”17 or a compelling desire to hold true to one’s principles and ideals through a particular situation, rather than adhering to established truths or ideologies. As such, the event prescribes a process of self-examination in terms of one’s fidelity to it, and, in Hikosaka’s case, he tests the bounds of this process through the physical effacement and renewal of his internal disposition as an artist, reformulated through the external process of the “event.”
The artist notes that the methodology of the “event” is partially based on his joint study with Fluxus artist Tone Yasunao of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and his ideas on phenomenology as laid out in Die Idee der Phänomenologie (The Idea of Phenomenology) (1907) and Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) (1901).18 From his reading of Husserl, Hikosaka writes, “The essence of instruction is to motivate ‘expression’; this motivation is described [by Husserl] to the practitioner as, ‘the situation of the instruction-giver and receiver and the effect of reciprocal decision that is constructed between the two.’”19 In Floor Event, the artist occupies both positions, instruction giver and receiver (performer), as devices parallel to the dead slogans and failed protests in the aftermath of defeat. Here, the point is not the political event as referent, but rather the work’s capacity to defamiliarize and regain “expression” through the gap between instruction and event. Within the deadening cycle of failure, Hikosaka aims to re-activate the basic agency of “expression” through the physical process of erasure and reappearance from within his domestic space.
Through their respective rejections of the willful acts of creation, Lee and Hikosaka’s practices testify to a symbolic shift in the production of a greater autonomy in the field of postwar Japanese art through articulating two fundamental principles. In Lee’s case, by pointing to the relational structure of “encounter” through a continued perceptual renewal, he dismantles the imposition of established aesthetic values such as meaning and expressivity in order for a direct, interactive contact. Rejecting Lee’s aesthetic approach, Hikosaka’s work, on the other hand, activates the agency of expression by revealing that it is inherent in the mechanism of one’s practice through the “event.”
Although nearly three decades separate Lee and Hikosaka’s production from the present moment, their work has profound implications for contemporary practice. From Lee, whose every installation was so finely considered that there was scarcely a glass fissure or stone out of place, we can envision an artistic practice that, by utilizing the specific material characteristics of a medium, makes unnamed physical and psychological states recognizable, even visible. This means an art that activates the physical space in which the viewer and the object come to terms with one another in a radical dissonance. This phenom- enological relationship highlights both the viewer’s unique difference from one’s own self/body and that which surrounds them, as well as one’s interconnectedness with all matter and time. From Hikosaka, we see an artist who not only saw the failure within his own practice to confront the politics of his time, but who makes the risk of failure the focal point of his artistic endeavor. For so many artists today who indulge in the escapist pleasure of an aestheticizing lifestyle, they fail to see that the capitalist and spectacular conditions that enable this trend simultaneously disable them from confronting the politics and social urgency of war in the current moment. The best work that rises from and speaks of its historical time seems able to reconcile the comfort of repression from the global pandemonium that dawns before us.
Mika Yoshitake is a doctoral student in the Department of Art History at UCLA and a curatorial research assistant at MOCA.
- “Hatsugen suru shinjintachi — Higeijutsu no chihei kara” (“Voices of New Artists — From the Realm of Non-Art”), Bijutsu techô, no. 324 (February 1970) pp. 12 – 53.↵
- This show was publicly sponsored by Asahi newspaper, which contributed to its wide publicity, and was the first major outdoor sculpture festival of its kind, exhibiting thirty-two artists. Phase Earth won the Asahi newspaper award from which Sekine achieved instant recognition.↵
- These practices took shape in the early 1960s at the unjuried, open-entry Yomiuri Indépendant exhibitions (1949–1963) sponsored by the Yomiuri Newspaper company and took place annually at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art.↵
- Lee U-Fan, “Sekai to kôzô: Taishô no gakai (gendai bijutsu ronkô)” (World and structure: Collapse of the object/ gegenstand [Theory on contemporary art]), Dezain hihyô/ Design Review, no. 9 (June 1969).↵
- Developments in Contemporary Art was a survey of young contemporary art in Japan. At the time, museums were embracing avant-garde practices with the influx of non-juried, independent art exhibitions.↵
- Lee U-Fan, “Deai wo Motomete” (In Pursuit of an Encounter), Bijutsu techô, no. 324 (February 1970) p. 23.↵
- Naoki Sakai,“The Problem of‘Japanese Thought’: The Formation of ‘Japan’ and the Schema of Cofiguration,”Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. 48.↵
- These comparisons demonstrate that the principle of encounter is operative in American art of the same period, albeit under a different name. This difference should not confuse Mono-ha’s work as a derivation of artistic developments in the West. Rather their work operates in between East and West with convergences and divergences from the Western develop- ments of Process Art.↵
- Anpô is short for Nichi-Bei anzen hôshô jôyaku, or the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty. The Anpô crisis refers to the widespread demonstrations by students and leftists against the renewal of Security Treaty in 1960. The Security Treaty was first signed in September 1951 along with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, ending the American Occupation and allowing Japan to enter the international community. The Security Treaty allowed the U.S. to continue stationing troops in Japan, and the country thus served the U.S. as a military base during the Korean War. The renewal of the Security Treaty in 1960 provoked intense anti-war sentiment from the Left who feared rearmament. Despite massive strikes from hundreds of students, including one death, the Treaty was passed. Again renewed in 1970, Japan served as a military base for the U.S. in the Vietnam War, which coincided with the student movement against corrupt practices in the nation’s universities. Although faced with opposition (though not as violent as the decade before), the treaty has been automatically ratified every ten years since. See Reiko Tomii’s “U.S.-Japan Security Treaty,” in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) pp. 397–398.↵
- Hikosaka Naoyoshi, “Senryaku-tekikôtaiki no shûen” (The End of Strategic Retreat), Bijutsu techô (March 1971) p. 90.↵
- Hikosaka, “Hanpuku” (Repetition), Bijutsu shihyô No. 3 (October 1971) p. 72.↵
- Reiko Tomii, “Concerning the Institution of Art: Conceptualism in Japan,” Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999) p. 25.↵
- Hikosaka, Hanpuku: Shinkô geijutsu no isô (Repetition: Phases of New Arts) (Tokyo: Tabata shoten, 1974) pp. 86–87, first published as “Purakutisu to dekuwashi goto,” (Practice and Event) in Eiga hihyô (February 1973); My translation.↵
- Hikosaka, “Senryaku teki kôtaiki no shûen,” p. 90.↵
- Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. by Peter Hallward (New York and London: Verso, 2002) p. 67.↵
- Edmund Husserl, Tetsugaku no rinen (The Idea of Phenomenology), trans. Hasegawa Hiroshi (Tokyo: Kawade shobô shinsha, 1965). This book contains five lectures Husserl delivered at the University of Göttingen in 1907. Hikosaka was particularly inspired by Husserl’s theories on intentionality in Logical Investigations, Volume 2 (1901), which was translated into Japanese in May 1970, the same year as the first Floor Event. Edmund Husserl, Ronrigaku kenkyû 2 (Logical Investigations, Volume 2), trans. Tatematsu Hirotaka (Tokyo: Misuzu shobô, May 1970). See Hikosaka, Hanpuku, p. 281.↵
- Hikosaka, Hanpuku, p. 281. My translation.↵