The main hall of the Guggenheim Museum’s signature, spiraling exhibition space is currently dominated by an enormous hanging sculpture. Long plastic envelopes swim over the atrium, filled with brightly-dyed water that casts faint, glimmering shadows on the floor below. This is Work (Water), by Motonaga Sadamasa, a foundational member of the Gutai art collective. Hailing from the Japanese town of Osaka, the Gutai helped to define the vibrant Japanese contemporary and conceptual art scene of post-war Japan. Blending an open exploration of the raw materials of creation with a playfully subversive worldview, the Gutai made enormous contributions to the contemporary art practice worldwide.
It is this new spirit of art making that the Guggenheim in effect catalogs in its exhibition Splendid Playground, a comprehensive retrospective of the group’s creative practice, and active advocacy for artistic creation in the everyday. The group explored new forms and expressive capabilities for art in the drastically transformed landscape of a Japanese nation still recovering from the horrors of two atomic attacks and years of dictatorial rule under Tojo. Central to their practice was a focus on process, on the kinetic energy expended in creation, and the utilization of that energy as a social force. Embracing and encouraging arts advocacy for Japanese youth, the group sought to encourage art as an open practice, challenging understandings and assumptions about contemporary society.
Throughout the show, The Guggenheim emphasizes the group’s pioneering creative views, exhibiting a variety of works that predated or predicted new artistic practices years before they appeared on a broader, global scale. Alongside abstract expressionist explorations in painting and sculpture, the Gutai also explored early acts of performance and environmental art. In Sakuhin (Paper Break Through), by member Saburo Murakami, the artist bounded through sheet after sheet of wrapping paper, using emotional and physical force to drive himself through the material, while documenting the practice with photographs and film. This utilization of human and natural force informed much of the Gutai practice, echoing traditional Japanese traditions and beliefs in natural forces and processes.
Murakami Saburō, Passing Through (1956), Performance view: 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition, Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo, ca. October 11–17, 1956 © Murakami Makiko and the former members of the Gutai Art Association, courtesy Museum of Osaka University
In other works, the artists presented explore the interactions of work with environment, illustrating the work’s place within the natural environment. Takasaki Motonao’s work Apparatus, on view nearly halfway up the museum’s walkway, works with the humidity of its exhibition space, using partially glued pieces of paper that curl based on the humidity and air movements of the room the work is placed in. Delicately minimal, Motonao’s piece works at a simple interrelation between elements, beautifully highlighting the constant flux of the work in space.
Near the end of the exhibition, the work takes a turn towards futuristic fantasy. Inspired by the dawn of the space age, and the technological revolutions transforming Japan during the 1960’s, the Gutai turned their attention towards new possibilities and potentials for life in a technologically advanced society. Housed in a small, neon-lit annex, Yoshida Minoru’s Bisexual Flower works at this new indeterminacy of machine and nature. Creating an automated life cycle in a single organism, Minoru’s peculiar creation works at the breakdown of natural processes driven by innovation.
MOTONAGA Sadamasa, Work (Water) (1956), Polyethylene, water, dye, and rope, dimensions variable Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27-August 5, 1956 © Motonaga Nakatsuji Etsuko, courtesy Motonaga Document Research Office
Throughout the collective’s career, the Gutai pushed the boundaries of installation, painting, sculpture and process-based arts, seeking to embrace new modes of communication and expression to connect their practice with the broader art world. Over 50 years later, the group’s impact on conceptual art is hard to ignore. Taking this impact as its starting point, The Guggenheim offers a strong introduction to the Gutai’s complex and varied practice.
Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress (1956), (refabricated 1986). Synthetic paint on incandescent lightbulbs, electric cords, and control console, approximately 165 × 80 × 80 cm Takamatsu City Museum of Art, Japan © Itō Ryōji, courtesy Takamatsu City Museum of Art