Friday, March 15, 2013

"Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Guggenheim

I should emphasize how much I love talking about the Gutai Art Association. On two occasions, I presented guest lecturers in other classes about this genre of art. Whenever I discuss performance, I always include them. Gutai: Splendid Playground was the exhibition I looked most forward to attending in New York City. Was I ever disappointed and it is easy to deduce why: the grainy documentary photographs are more dynamic than the stagnant paintings and sculptures presented at the Guggenheim.

Case in point: Tanaka Otsuka's Electric Dress from 1956. Otsuka is dressed in hand-painted incandescent bulbs assembled by an electrician. After the performance, she built a structure for it to be displayed. It is one of Gutai's most well-known works, but the object when seen in person, does not describe her fear of electrocution nor does it have the shape of the human being that once wore it.

Tanaka Otsuka's Electric Dress installed in the gallery:

I admire the Gutai for taking Jackson Pollock's Action Painting further by incorporating other methods of applying acrylic and oil to canvas (cannons, breaking bottles filled with paint, etc.). Unfortunately, the process is much more interesting than the end product. There was one exception and that was Motonaga Sadamasa's Work, 1963 in which he "shakes hands with the material" seen below:

Often the exhibition labels activated the work more than the art itself. Sumi Yasua "dripped paint, ran an abacus over the canvas and used a vibrating device." I spent more time reading the labels than looking at the work because they were more interesting.

There were documentary photographs and videos of the processes but many of the former were printed on vinyl approximately life size. I kept comparing it to what the original might have looked like, knowing full well that if it still existed, it wasn't preserved enough to be exhibited fifty plus years later. For example, this is one panel of the vinyl shown at the Guggenheim featuring Murakami Saburo performing At One Moment Opening Six Holes. If only the original canvas was on display rather than a life-sized photograph of it.

I am a bigger fan of the following three images taken at the first Gutai Art Exhibition held in Tokyo, October 1955 and they were notably absent in the Guggenheim:

The highlight of the old documentation was a small video showing Kanayama Akira painting with an automatic toy car in 1957. After attaching felted pens to the automobile, he left to take a nap and when he returned, his painting was finished.

Motonaga Sadamasa's Work (Water) from 1956 hung in the rotunda. Originally, the colored water in plastic, tubular bags was suspended from trees. In the spirit of Gutai, I kept wishing they would spring leaks and drip down to the floor below. Sadly, they remained still, like unoccupied hammocks waiting for someone or something to trigger movement.

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