A multidisciplinary collection of work from Japanese and American artists at the Fergus McCaffrey gallery in Tokyo explores the body and transgression of boundaries at a time when self-isolation and caution are the order of the day.
In Min Tanaka’s 15-minute video piece, the 75-year-old dancer first appears as a disembodied arm snaking between two rocks beneath a swiftly flowing stream. He then is seen as a living mass gingerly rising up beside a tree; sometimes like a vine that uses the tree for support, but also as an old man with desperate affection for life and without the burden of consciousness. The sound of cicadas, alternating with a distorted electronic score, drifts in and out as Tanaka twists slowly and shakily, turning movements normally associated with the effects of debilitating nervous system disorders into a choreographed vibration that acts as a perfectly appropriate resonance with the pulse of nature. At the end of Tanaka’s recorded performance, the artist is an unmoving object on the forest floor, and finally a ghostly presence standing in the corner of a clearing made into a primitive stage using four felled trees.
The work is shown on a small cathode-ray tube type monitor in a space only big enough for one person at a time, and is sandwiched between installations by American artists Barney and Schneemann (1939-2019), and a large action painting by Shiraga (1924-2008).
Barney’s contribution is a selection of pieces from his 2005 multimedia work “Drawing Restraint 9,” which was created aboard a Japanese whaling ship. Photographs show the crew of the Nisshin Maru, and there is an all-white plastic sculpture in the center of the room created by them under the direction of Barney and the ship’s captain. The sculpture features an anchor, knives for cutting whale blubber and a pipe from which drips a glossy liquid. Barney’s attention to detail and production values are apparent, as the photo frames are made of the same self-lubricating plastic that is used for the sculpture.
In Shiraga’s 1992 painting “Hiruko,” thick swathes of black, brown and white resemble frozen waves of feces mixed with spilt ice cream. Next to proto-kanji character brushstrokes are black footprints and gashes that look like claw marks. Shiraga’s process, influenced by Jackson Pollock’s style of action painting, involved hanging from a rope and using his feet to move paint around the canvas.
The drama and intensity of this oil painting is offset by the Schneemann work positioned opposite. An archive video from 1975 shows the American visual experimental artist naked and strapped into a harness to swing over a white space, languidly marking the floor and walls with colored crayons. Rather than exploring “self-confession, self-exposure or personal narrative,” she thought of this piece, titled “Up to and Including Her Limits,” as a painterly exploration of space. Schneemann’s 2008 re-creation of her original painting is installed next to the video, complete with a tree surgeon’s harness that hangs from the ceiling like bondage equipment. The words “tree,” “water,” “tired” and “go home” are scrawled among the colored lines, which seem tentative and playful compared to the visceral grunge of the Shiraga painting.
Although the exhibition was planned before COVID-19 came on the scene in Japan, and we have been obliged to socially distance and consider our bodies primarily as something to be shielded, there is much in this group exhibition that hits a nerve, like a sharp tap on a tuning fork.
As a collection of artifacts that document past events, the absence of the live body is a major subtext of this show. In the case of Tanaka’s work, performed and filmed at his mountain retreat in Yamanashi Prefecture, the particular vulnerability of the elderly and the role deforestation plays in the spread of pandemics come to mind. The strong correspondence between the works and the gallery’s deliberate exploration of cross-fertilization across social and regional boundaries is a reminder that self-isolation has become an everyday concern, on a national and personal scale.
With the possible exception of Tanaka’s work, which was created earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic was already a known health hazard, any relevance to the current situation is accidental. The combination of works is more generally about artists moving physically, aesthetically and intellectually without restrictions; emancipated through the “smooth” space proposed by 20th-century French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, that is to say, space that is fluid and free from colonization, hierarchies and conventions.
At the same time, a major theme is restraint and restriction. The highlighting of this paradox is a reminder that art is not mere expression, but a matter of organized artifice. That the exhibition uses very focused and deliberate curation to celebrate how these artists have achieved distinction by breaking out of the confinements of genre and convention, can be seen as neat metatextual commentary.