Localizing Socially Engaged Art: Some Observations on Collective Operations in Prewar and Postwar Japan

Localizing Socially Engaged Art: Some Observations on Collective Operations in Prewar and Postwar Japan


Well into the second decade of the 21st century, the globalization of contemporary art practices appears to be an inevitable reality, which has prompted art historians and theorists to articulate its implications while capturing the phenomenon itself. Socially engaged art is one of the recent practices that enliven this project.

In studying contemporary art, it cannot be overemphasized that contemporary practices are built upon the legacy of modernism, or rather modernisms. First, as is widely accepted by now there are multiple modernisms, whose multiplicity lies in diverse historical contexts within which works which look similar in form to Western modernism come to have different significance when understood within their local context. Such insights can be brought to bear in contemporary art as well which, while it prides itself on being global, nonetheless tends to assume equivalency between practices that have passing surface resemblance.

It is important to be aware of this because multiple modernisms are connected to formations of contemporary art in various ways. In this essay I offer Japan as a case study of how the history of modernism in Japan affects the way socially engaged art developed. Key to this story is collectivism, which has long held a central place in the country’s art world, since the late 19th century onward, not only for avant-garde practices or socially engaged art but for the entire institutionalization of modern art in Japan.[1] The deep embeddedness of collectivism also affects assumptions about autonomy in modernism. This form of modernism produced practices in the 1960s and 70s that would be called socially engaged art but which, because of the different assumptions built in different experiences and histories, represent different kinds of intervention into the shape and place of artistic practice.

This paper proceeds in three stages. First, a history of socially engaged art in Japan needs to be informed by an understanding of collectivism’s vital importance to modern art in Japan. That is partly because, without understanding the modus operandi of prewar collectivism, we may not understand the criticisms postwar artists lodged against it. And partly because this distant ancestor of “social engagements”—while not the immediate predecessor of socially engaged art—demonstrates to us that artists have always been active social beings and keeps us from retreating into the seeming universalism of “autonomy.”

This is a great benefit of adopting the perspective of world art history: when we examine “modernisms,” the problems of modernism as conceptualized in Euro-America are brought into sharper focus. Paying careful attention to local particularities is one strategy for dismantling ingrained Eurocentric ideas, as Ming TIAMPO has demonstrated in relation to Gutai, which prioritized “originality” by engaging in inventive interpoetic dialogues with their Euro-American contemporaries as well as past cultural precedents.[2] She shows how the ingrained and dominant modernist (Western) assumption that creativity moves from the “center-out” can be called into question and reconceptualized from a “periphery-in” perspective. I outline a similar perspective in my book Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan.[3]

In the framework of multiple modernisms, each locale bears a story of how its modernism evolved. Since the formation narrative of modernism at each locale involves the formation of its art system, that at once shaped and was shaped by its art, a range of modernist assumptions and institutions must be reconsidered from multiple perspectives. Such contrapuntal study places analytical pressure on the Eurocentric narrative of a (single) modernism. This amounts to localization in tandem with historicization. Such studies will also expand our understanding of multiple contemporary arts that followed, and often grew out of, multiple modernisms.

The paper’s second stage brings us close to a proper prehistory of contemporary socially engaged art. Two collectives stand out in the 1960s as particularly significant: The Play and GUN (Group Ultra Niigata).[4] The Play, based in Osaka, developed a distinct communal collaborative strategy to undertake annual summer voyages into the landscape. Emblematic of their projects—and the most tireless—was their ten-year Thunder in the outskirts of Kyoto (1977- 1986), in which the group members and their associates spent each August building a pyramid on a small mountain top, waiting for lightening to strike it. Equally ambitious, GUN left a few outdoor works, among which was one of the most aesthetically stunning performative works in 1960s Japan, wherein their collaborative collectivism enabled an immense color abstraction spray painted on a snow field along the Shinano River in mountainous Tōkamachi.

As I proceed, I will outline the local particularities of collectivism in prewar and postwar Japan, which evolved amid an art system that by today’s standards would be far from adequate. In studying multiple modernisms, acknowledging what is not in place in the art system is as important as studying what is in place. That is to say, unlike the greats of Western modernism, Japanese artists could not afford much of modernist claims to autonomy because their “operations” were as important as their “expressions” in presenting their work to the public.

Finally, at the conclusion of the essay, I will argue that these differences should alert us to some problems in assuming the applicability of the Euro-American idea of artistic autonomy. The crucial relevance of Japan as a counter reference point lies in the fact that modern Japan—from the late 19th century onward—has been a land of collectivism, where artists’ group activities have been essential for advancing new art and for building new art systems.[5] Artists could not avoid undertaking both labors. If the first type of labor—“expressions”—typically take place inside the studio, the second type of labor—something I refer to as “operations”—was the labor of making their work public and building systems to support themselves that had to engage society outside the studio.

Figure 1 The Play, Thunder, 1977. Documentary photograph of performance art © The Play

[Image 1: The Play, Thunder, 1977. Documentary photograph of performance art © The Play]

Prewar Dantai as Social “Operations”

In prewar Japan, collectivism was an essential strategy for growing modernism on non-Western soil.[6] Japanese artists developed new forms of expression for a fast-changing Japan, while a functional modern art system had to also be built, practically from scratch, mostly learning from the West. The group activities of bijutsu dantai (meaning “art organizations” and frequently shortened as dantai) enabled artists to straddle the two realms, that of “expression” and that of “operation,” which respectively represent the aesthetic/intrinsic and the extra-esthetic/extrinsic aspects of the art world. In short, dantai collectivism functioned as a platform through which artists worked innovatively as both artistic beings and social beings contributing to aesthetic advances and infrastructure expansions. My terms, “operation” and “expression,” are intended to clarify the artist’s dual roles.

It is impossible to imagine the development of modern art in Japan without the contributions of dantai collectivism. It is of such importance that books on modern Japanese art history often carry a dantai genealogy chart as a standard piece of reference material.[7] It shows the distilled schematic of bandings, disbandings, and spinoffs of the scores of representative salon-based dantai that descend from the official, government salon, instituted as Bunten (short for the Ministry of Education Art Exhibition) in 1907, with some small collectives scattered here and there. As Alicia Volk rightly points out, the dantai chart reveals not so much a chronology of stylistic developments as the unfolding of “the overarching structural framework upon which narratives of historical change and formal development have been fashioned. They are the anchors in an otherwise chaotic sea of empirical and ideological complexity.”[8]

To expand on this, I would like to emphasize the practical social dimension of dantai, which asserted their aesthetic positions by creating self-governed organizational platforms. For example, Nika-kai (Second Section Society) was founded in 1914 by modernist oil painters who disagreed with the conservative Bunten jury who continually rejected their submissions. It was the first dantai of yōga (Western-style painting) to reject the government salon. Because the Bunten (which was an open-call, juried salon) was the sole public forum for artists at the time, for these progressive painters to publicly show their work, they needed a separate salon of their own devising, equipped with their own jury that would uphold their aesthetic standards. According to this basic logic, one dantai would beget other dantai, as groups of artists progressively split off over aesthetic (and other) disagreements. In the case of Nika, another major split occurred when some of their affiliates left in 1926 to establish Dokuritsu Bijutsu Kyōkai (Independent Art Association) to create a public for their Fauve-inflected aesthetic positions.

Some may wonder, why not hold solo exhibitions if an artist wants to assert his or her aesthetic position? Of course, artists held solo exhibitions in these prewar decades, too. But the ultimate goal of these was to gain attention that helped the artist get affiliated with an aesthetically agreeable dantai; established artists with solid dantai credentials might use solo exhibitions as an additional creative outlet and useful sales opportunities. At that time, solo exhibitions alone did not serve as an effective social interface because the art-critical or journalistic infrastructure, which we expect to offer discursive supports for solo endeavors, was also dantai-centered. As an example of how a solo exhibition might figure into an artist’s career, YOSHIHARA Jirō, future founder of Gutai, began his painting career with solo exhibitions in 1928 and 1934. The 1934 exhibition gained him favorable attention from the eminent painter FUJITA Tsuguharu, an influential Nika member, who encouraged him to enter his works to Nika’s annual salon. His 1937 submission received a special mention (tokutai) prize, and he was made a full member by 1941. His quick ascent put him in a position of art-world and public prominence which was essential to his postwar success in launching Gutai.[9]

It should be noted that dantai had distinct financial stakes. Especially pre-1945, when the art market was still in formation, both dantai salons and the government salon sold the exhibits from their shows, as indicated by the checklists that customarily carried the prices for works on sale. More importantly, successful dantai—whose aesthetic positions attracted both artists and the public—could expect to earn a good sum of money from membership fees, along with entry fees collected from submitting artists and admission fees paid by exhibition goers. Artists had further interest in being recognized as a dantai member because they could sell their works better and charge higher fees to students. The eclectic and moderately modernist Nika did very well. Conversely, dantai whose aesthetic positions failed to attract submissions and public attendance would fail financially and thus be often compelled to disband or reorganize. In other words, to succeed, the dantai needed to cultivate both artistic “expression” and function as an “operation” that satisfied its stakeholders.

It cannot be overemphasized that the prewar dantai served as the primary engine to propel modernism in Japan: neither museum nor market had any significant role in supporting modern art pre-1945 (because they were practically non-existent). In addition to being exhibition societies, the dantai offered such services as study groups, education through kenkyūjo, or “research institutes,” and regular publications, particularly of their journals and organizations. In essence, they performed tasks that would later be shouldered by professionals: the artists who formed them evaluated and validated other artists’ works (the role of art criticism), selected and displayed them (that of the art museums/galleries), sold them (that of art dealers/galleries), and educated the public about their meaning and value (that of journalism and art schools), compensating for the absence of professionals devoted to these specialized tasks.

The contributions of dantai were both social and aesthetical, yet they were not without problems. The ills of dantai, which have been pointed out for almost as long as they have existed, include favoritism and factionalism resulting from the jury system, which also bred creative stagnation and critical complacency. However, the bane of dantai, especially seen from the perspective of today, may be their longevity. For example, Nika and Dokuritsu, two dantai mentioned above, still host their annual salons, as do many others, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Art Center, Tokyo. While the former opened in 1926 as a rental exhibition hall, the latter was completed in 2007 with its first mission being to offer venues to dantai salons. (Its second mission is to organize exhibitions to highlight the latest trends inside and outside Japan.)

The idea that dantai outlived their relevance is not without merit, especially seen from a stylistic perspective. Today, their artworks tend to cater to comfortable and popular tastes, appearing to demonstrate an arrested development of sorts. Even in the interwar years, when dantai played a central role in maintaining and expanding the ecosystem of modern art, their governing aesthetics are almost impossible to square with the standard evolutionary view of art history: while new styles come in, approaches of decades past never fall out of style. Yet operationally speaking, dantai built much of the infrastructure of prewar modernism.

I have argued elsewhere that the bijutsu dantai (art organizations) are one kind of chūkan dantai (intermediary organization).[10] In sociology, chūkan dantai is defined as a free and voluntary organization (dantai) that serves the public good from a position in between (chūkan) the government and the individual. The roles that chūkan dantai played in politics, economy, and among the media and intelligentsia have been the subject of recent study to understand the formation of democracy in interwar Japan.[11] Through their expressions and operations, bijutsu dantai, too, served the role of chūkan dantai. That is to say: dantai founders might not have had “public good” uppermost in their minds in starting new salons, nor did the members participating in them. But as Japanese artists were negotiating their ways through the formation of modernity, their self-interest and professional-interest as collectively represented in the dantai, overlapped with a broader public interest, in that they helped to acclimate modern art practices in Japanese society, which would in turn strengthen the popular support of modern art. The ongoing populist presence of dantai in Japanese society has been amply acknowledged by those working close to them, as when AOKI Tamotsu, the current director of the National Art Center, Tokyo, recently characterized them as an “important social phenomenon” and a “grass-roots art system that coalesces art fans nationwide.”[12]

In this respect, the non-evolutionary nature of modern artistic expression under the dantai might even be seen in a redeemable light: the rear-garde expression of dantai did serve public interests by offering the audience a slow and incremental exposure to modernism, as well as allowing die-hard fans of impressionism, for instance, to continue to find new impressionist-style works at the annual exhibitions across the whole 20th century. In other words, what is considered ideal in modern art history—constant advances in forms of expression which frequently entail the rejection of previous forms—could have been confusing to audiences not accustomed to Western-imported modern art. Because major dantai represented a variety of modern styles, ranging from academic naturalism to Impressionism to Surrealism to abstraction, such a pluralism of expressions allowed the audience to see each of them in a prolonged manner, rather than as a series of quickly changing stylistic fashions. If the general taste, understanding, and knowledge of modern art grew slowly, that was the time necessary for modernism to take root in Japan, where it lacked a centuries-long tradition of oil painting or a tradition of art existing for an abstract “public.” In a way, it is possible, following art historian KITAZAWA Noriaki who called the government salon Bunten an “invisible museum,”[13] to consider the whole constellation of dantai salons as another invisible museum that educated the Japanese public on modern art. Strangely enough, it was a museum that was renewed with a fresh crop of works with every annual exhibition.

Wilderness “Operations” in 1960s Art

Collectivism is thus in the DNA of modernism in Japan: the prewar dantai, devised by artists themselves out of necessity, constituted a broad-based system that created the very possibility for modernism. In postwar Japan, the position of the dantai changed rapidly. In an optimistic mood for democratization, a progressive segment of the art world aspired to dismantle the entire dantai establishment. To them the official salon and the many opposing dantai were not so different from each other: they all operated on a jury/membership system they saw as anachronistic and feudalistic. The time was ripe for the independent exhibition. The idea harks back to the Salon des Refusés of 1863 in Paris, but it was a system that did not take root in prewar Japan because there was not yet a stable infrastructure in the form of a salon system. Only in postwar Japan did the independent exhibition become a possible platform for change, and it is worth noting that part of what made it possible was substantial operational support from organizations outside of the arts themselves. The first postwar independent, instituted in 1947, was sponsored by the Japan Art Society (Nihon Bijutsu-kai), which was part of a leftist umbrella organization working for cultural revolution in newly liberated Japan. The second, launched in 1949, was backed by one of Japan’s three main daily newspapers, the Yomiuri, which at the time was anxious to put political controversies behind it that stemmed from the newspaper’s zealous support of Japan’s militarism and the postwar imprisonment of its president as a suspected war criminal.[14]

These independent exhibitions—especially the Yomiuri’s—were one indispensable element in the formation of contemporary art (gendai bijutsu) described above: they made it possible for young artists (even children sometimes) to exhibit their work to a major audience without having to cultivate any relationships with the dantai establishment. Beginning with the appearance of the independent exhibitions, the salon-based collectivism of the dantai receded from the forefront of new art. Their presence in the public arena never waned, but they were joined by another set of cultural and social forms that would come to constitute the formation of gendai bijutsu (literally “contemporary art”). Gendai bijutsu is, in turn, part of the global/Western system of contemporary art; a majority of the Japanese art known outside of Japan is part of this formation, while the ongoing production of the dantai (which is part of kindai bijutsu, or modern art) is all but invisible to anyone outside Japan.

The new formation of gendai bijutsu entailed a new form of collectivity. Outside the dantai establishment, group activities came naturally to young artists who pursued their own platforms. But post-1945, these took the much smaller, more flexible, and more fluid form of the small collective (shūdan). These collectives no longer needed (or wanted) the salon exhibition to raise their public profile; they now took advantage of an increasing number of rental galleries, occasional opportunities to exhibit at one of the new museums of modern art, and ever cheaper forms of photographic printing that enabled art journalism to assume a larger role in anointing artistic trends. Whereas the dantai system produced a progression paralleling the assumed modernism in art history with a significant time lag (which in world art history is characterized as “belatedness” in the periphery), gendai bijutsu has been essentially in step with global post-1945 art, as I have discussed in my book Radicalism in the Wilderness, based on the concept of “international contemporaneity” (kokusaiteki dōjisei).[15]

Collectivism was born of the awareness (and concrete reality) in Japan that innovations in expression could not exist without work in operation undertaken through strategic alliances. Whereas modernism liberated art in a discursive framework, it never liberated the artwork as a material artifact or the artist. Keeping the centrality of “collectivism” in mind, we can capture two essential traits of modernism in Japan: the “do it yourself” spirit and the “social engagement” in the awareness of broader public importance. Up until the 1960s, however, artists’ expressions and operations were seen as basically separate.

The new development that arises in what I have called the “expanded 1960s,” is the merging of “expression” and “operation” in the form of collective performance art undertaken outside exhibition spaces.[16] The merging of artistic expression and social operation are exemplified by GUN’s Event to Change the Image of Snow and The Play’s voyages. In these works, there was no separation of “inside the studio” and “outside the studio,” “making” and “display,” “operation” and “expression.” In principle, their expressions (a snow painting or a lightning viewing) required them to go out and undertake operations outside their studio, bringing their works directly to the public in ways of their own devising. Thus, their operations were their expressions, and vice versa.

The history of performance art in Japan is long and complex, dating back to the mid-1950s.[17] Among the many varieties, some are more transgressive, such as Hi Red Center’s Cleaning Event (cleaning the streets of Tokyo), while others are more aspirational, as is seen in GUN’s Event to Change the Image of Snow.

Figure 2 GUN, Event to Change the Image of Snow, 1970. Documentary photograph of performance art Photo © Hanaga Mitsutoshi

[Image 2: GUN, Event to Change the Image of Snow, 1970. Documentary photograph of performance art Photo © HANAGA Mitsutoshi]

In Cleaning Event (officially known as Be Clean! and Campaign to Promote Cleanliness and Order in the Metropolitan Area),[18] the Anti-Art collective Hi Red Center executed a guerrilla project on the urban streets in broad daylight. If not physically harmful or violent, the artists acted as anonymous alien agents in the urban environment. Although their understated, tongue-in-cheek performance was not meant to block or disrupt pedestrian traffic, they obtained no permission from the authorities to use the street, making it unlawful. In contrast, mindful of the river laws, GUN obtained permission to use the dry riverbed of the Shinano River in Niigata Prefecture from the Ministry of Construction. At least in spirit, the group hoped to create a connection with the local residents: cheering them up by helping them momentarily forget their suffering from the heavy snow during the long winter in snow country. Both projects circumvented the exhibition system and merged expression and operation through performativity. However they differ significantly in terms of their sites and their relationships with society. Whereas Hi Red Center’s commercial shopping street operation-expression was a transgressive act and their intent was to be antagonistic to officialdom in public, GUN’s rural riverside operation-expression was sympathetic to the community and aspired to use art to contribute to it. Both intervened into an everyday space and both tendencies exist in contemporary Japanese art: Chim ↑ Pom, for instance, being an heir to Hi Red Center, while GUN’s work foreshadows the currently predominant form of socially engaged public art in the form of the (often rural) “art project.”

The criticality of Hi Red Center’s Cleaning Event lies in their mocking subversion of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s beautification program, which was changing the face of Tokyo in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by, among other hilarious elements, using ridiculous indoor cleaning instruments (a toothbrush, a broom for tatami-floors, and the like) on the public streets. Compared with such an edgy criticality, GUN’s work may appear benign in its lawfulness, despite their daring vision of land art, comparable to their American contemporaries such as Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty) and Dennis Oppenheim (who made a series of snow-based projects). Yet, observing the river laws (that required getting permission and returning the site to the original state) was a necessary step to realizing their grand vision.[19]

It became a distinct trait of artists working in the “wilderness” to challenge the boundaries of the social and art systems, while consciously working with—even exploiting—them where necessary. This trait distinguishes GUN and The Play who acted in the wilderness from the incorrigibly defiant Anti-Art practitioners like Hi Red Center.[20] The notion of “wilderness” has a few levels of significance. One is a traditional association with the outside and undeveloped: the character ya (野) of zaiya (在野, wilderness) has long meant “outside the seat of power” in the East Asian tradition. In the 20th century, anti-government salon dantai like Nika proudly applied it to themselves. In this context the “wilderness (zaiya)” deliberately and defiantly placed itself outside of the government-instituted salon. This sense of being outside and having to fend for oneself resonates through the history of both modern collectivism and the more recent developments of contemporary art.[21]

An event in 1964 suddenly forced the issue of where to find support for contemporary expression into prominence. In that year, the Yomiuri notoriously cancelled their independent exhibition, for that year and evermore, primarily due to the unruly antics of Anti-Art practitioners. This forced artists to move on without it, something that split contemporary artists between those who continued on in the context of museum shows, international exhibits, and rental galleries (which had developed enough by that time to support them) resulting in the “mainstreaming” of contemporary art, and those who attempted to continue the independent tradition, but this time in a truly independent manner (that is, with no sustained external support like sponsorship from the Yomiuri).

The turning point in 1964 also brings to light geographical imbalances that had been developing: the mainstreaming of contemporary art made starkly visible the geographical imbalance between Tokyo, the center of the art world, and other regions. Internationally as well, until quite recently, it was only the mainstreamed contemporary artists that were visible to the global art world. Interestingly, the dantai made various efforts to alleviate the geographical gap, for example, by sending parts of the annual shows, which opened in Tokyo, on tours to regional cities, and by organizing regional editions of shows. Museums, however, which cannot be moved so easily, polarized the map post-1945, something further exacerbated by a far denser concentration of rental galleries in Tokyo.

Perhaps not so surprisingly then, there was a strong desire to continue the independent exhibition outside Tokyo in the post-Yomiuri years. After the first self-governing (jishu) independent exhibition, Independent ’64, was held in Tokyo, a string of artist-organized independent exhibitions emerged in many locales of the “wilderness”—outside Tokyo and outside the mainstreaming segment of contemporary art.[22] This spirit was aptly captured by MATSUZAWA Yutaka, a pioneer conceptualist residing in the mountains of central Japan, when he organized his own imaginary independent exhibition and titled it, after the one mentioned above, Independent ’64 in the Wilderness.[23] As demonstrated by this example, the wilderness invokes “being out there,” that is, working outside of the norm of thinking or art making, both in terms of expression and operation.

It is the post-Yomiuri wilderness, specifically the short-lived movement of artist-organized independent exhibitions, that fostered the first movements in the direction of today’s socially engaged public art. It should be remembered that the termination of the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition was in large part prompted by the rampant transgressions of Anti-Art practitioners that exploded into the scene from 1960 onward. It is not an overstatement to say that the artists themselves destroyed the precious opportunity of the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition. In contrast, in the post-Yomiuri mini-boom of independent exhibitions, artists themselves organized similar opportunities. In doing that they quickly came to realize that social responsibility was part of the equation for both the organizers and participants. The most successful among the regional independent exhibitions, Independent Art Festival held in Gifu in August 1965 was a major learning occasion. Of special concern was one of three venues the local organizers secured: a dry riverbed of the Nagara River. The organizers had a meeting to devise the exhibit guidelines for this outdoor site.[24] The use of the dry riverbed posed a few challenges. First of all, in addition to requiring official permission for use, the river laws stipulated that the site should be returned to its original state after use. (Thus no destruction of the site was allowed.) Second, situated in central Japan, the city of Gifu and its beautiful river was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan: the artists had to insure the safety of unsuspecting tourists and families in leisure activities. (Thus hazardous elements were discouraged.) Third, due to Gifu’s mountainous geography, the river was prone to sudden severe floods; with the issuance of a flood warning, artists would have to evacuate their exhibits from the site quickly, lest their works float downstream and damage property, so the works had to be movable. (At the meeting, one set of concrete numbers was proposed: maximum weight of 150 kg and maximum measurements of 100-150 cm wide and 200 cm high.)

At first glance, such restrictions seem anathema to vanguard art. At the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, Ant-Art practitioners vehemently opposed the display regulations that the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum implemented after the appearance of increasingly confrontational works in the late 1950s. In Gifu, however, artists endeavored to create memorable and critical outdoor works and stay within the self-established parameters. Indeed, among the works most talked about by reviewers were two on the relatively regulated dry riverbed. Creating Hole, Group “I,” a Kobe-based collective, dug a 10-meter hole and filled it back in over the course of eleven days, thus keeping to the river law’s mandate of returning the site back to the original state.[25] In his Homo Sapiens, IKEMIZU Keiichi, an Osaka-based artist, shut himself in a 2×2-meter cage, which would have been easy for a few persons to carry out in case of emergency. Their works, while meeting the guidelines, answered to the scale of the vast outdoor venue, while revealing complex criticalities. An important example of land art in Japan, Group “I” “capture[d] the world beyond individualism”[26] through a “purposeless” act, whereby the collaboration in and of itself led to “self-liberation.”[27] A kind of Happening, Ikemizu’s Homo Sapiens represented the artist’s attempt to confront the human condition confined in the cage of civilization.[28]

For Ikemizu, a future member of The Play, this experience was seminal. It inspired him to institute a Happenings section, the first of its kind in Japan, in the Contemporary Art Festival, which he co-organized in a satellite city of Osaka, in August 1966. This led to a more focused endeavor in August 1967 with the First Play Exhibition, a three-day program of Happenings which he organized with his performance-minded peers, including MIZUKAMI Jun and AZUCHI Shūzō (Gulliver) among others, in a public playground near the Sannnomiya station in Kobe. In these presentations, the relatively small-scale performative works were presented under the conventional rubric of “exhibition.” Then came Voyage: Happening in an Egg in July 1968, which definitively merged operation and expression into a single large-scale project. In other words, there was no separate moment of exhibition: the creation of the work was—at the same time—its way of becoming public and relating to people.

The ultimate ambition of the project was to release a huge egg into the Japan Current in the Pacific Ocean. Since the Japan Current flows into the California Current, which reaches the continental U.S., there was a slight chance that the egg might reach America. Along with the group members, the project involved an associate professor of oceanography and the head of a local fishermen’s union in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, the township from which the group set out into the Pacific Ocean. Both passionately supported the group’s improbable project. So much so that the professor wrote a letter of recommendation to the prefectural fisheries department (which suspected the group was secretly planning a publicity stunt) in order to vouch for the project’s bona fide oceanographic and aesthetic significance and its potential to raise public awareness about oceanography. The union head offered one fishing boat for the project and arranged another for hire. By clearing the final hurdle—obtaining an environmental permit from Kushimoto’s Marine Safety Department for throwing an object into the open sea—the group successfully released the egg. It should be noted that The Play saw this operational collaboration as being an essential part of their project. So much so, that when they compiled a history of their activities, their membership roster always included all the supporters and participants in a project, both individual and institutional, along with the more core members. In their latest such compilation, dated 2014, five current members are listed, along with 122 individuals and 13 institutions, plus 4 translators of the volume.[29]

[For images of many of these works please visit this website: http://www.ne.jp/asahi/ike/mizu/ep/ep-acti.htm ]

Figure 3 The Play’s membership list. Reproduced from Play (Paris: Bat; Osaka: The Play, 2014), n.p. © The Play

[Image 3: The Play’s membership list. Reproduced from Play (Paris: Bat; Osaka: The Play, 2014), n.p. © The Play]

Encouraged by the success of Voyage, the group formalized their collective effort by founding The Play. From then onward, The Play organized a large-scale summer project annually in diverse locations in the wilderness—rivers, mountains, a lake, an island in Okinawa, and a plain in Hokkaidō—to undertake unconventional travels—on a Styrofoam raft, with a flock of sheep, on an agricultural trolley, and simply against the wind.[30] Discussion and collaboration were their hallmark in their often year-long preparation process. The membership might have changed from year to year, but in its near horizontal organization, everybody contributed something to each year’s project. Discussion was a mechanism to build not only consensus but camaraderie, while working together was crucial to realizing the unusual and large-scale plans—building a pyramid 20 meters long on each side in the case of Thunder, which had to be dismantled and returned at the end of each summer because the lumber it was built with was only on loan to them. Their spirit of collaboration was extended to involve non-members in various capacities—ranging from a Styrofoam company that rented their wares for free in Current of Contemporary Art (1969) to a ranch that provided a herd of sheep for Sheep in 1970 to land owners who let the group build Thunder on their lands every summer, 1977–86. Through their collaborative and communal operations, The Play found a new way to present “independent expression,” that departed from any reliance on exhibition. It should be noted that they invented this independent strategy by learning from their post-Yomiuri experiences, when there was no set template for communal collectivism or for finding ways to reach people and publics that didn’t require any of the existing infrastructure of exhibition. From the perspective of operation, this in and of itself makes The Play a singular presence in the prehistory of socially engaged art.

Figure 4 The Play members working on models for Thunder, c. 1977 © The Play

[Image 4: The Play members working on models for Thunder, c. 1977 © The Play]

Figure 5 The Play members constructing Thunder, 1977 © The Play

[Image 5: The Play members constructing Thunder, 1977 © The Play]

Some Final Observations

In history writing, the present and the past interact. This essay has examined collectivism across the 20th century to probe its origins in Japan and to ask the question of how it might color our understanding of socially engaged art of the 21st century. Central to this investigation is the dual agency of the artist who performs “operations” and creates “expressions.” Of the two, I have focused on “operations,” partly because it has often been neglected in modern Japanese art history even though it points to an important factor in the way Japanese artists forged a modernism in their locale, and partly because social engagement—the topic at hand—was always part of their operations. Particularly important to note is the artists’ proactive engagement with not only making new art but also making new art platforms whenever they faced a situation where the institutions were not in place. In studying what was not present, this essay thus highlights how artists’ operational ingenuity compensated for the lack of an art system that might otherwise have taken that work out of their hands. This is where a certain dissonance arises in our study.

In particular, the term “socially engaged art” causes some dissonance because, by highlighting the artist’s engagement with society as a distinguishing characteristic, it tacitly reinforces the modernist assumption of autonomy: that the work of art is autonomous and that the artist who creates it is autonomous too, insulated from the external concerns, including those of society. But this appears questionable given how central collectivism and artists’ own operations were for modern art in Japan. Granted, autonomy is a complex notion that harks back to the Kantian aesthetic judgement. As the philosopher Peter Osborne succinctly illuminates, confusions and misconceptions have historically abounded as to what the autonomy of art is, ranging from “aesthetic autonomy” and “artistic autonomy” to “self-referentiality,” to “the freedom of the artist” to “freedom from social determination.”[31] I have no intention of underestimating the endeavors of philosophers and theorists to precisely define “autonomy.” Nor do I mean to negate the history of modernism from Futurism, Dada, and Constructivism onward that aspired to blur the boundary between life and art and thereby destabilized the assumed autonomy of art. What I am trying to do is to call out a common bias at work in the term “socially engaged art” and listen for the dissonance it may create.

The crucial relevance of Japan as a counter reference point lies in the fact that throughout its modern period, Japan has been a land of collectivism, where artists’ group activities have been essential for advancing new art and for building new art systems. Artists could not avoid undertaking these two kinds of labor. Neither the state nor the market was capable of providing the platform to support them or their work: the state built an official infrastructure with one official salon, and those unsatisfied with it were on their own. The market was simply too nascent, with few collectors to actively support new art. While their artistic expression might be discussed as a practice of liberation, the idea that the artist or the artwork could be autonomous (that is, dissociated from society) never had much reality given that they themselves were constantly laboring to make their work public and otherwise socialize it by building their own systems of social connection. They simply could not afford social disengagement, with so few supports bestowed upon them. This institutional situation is different from Euro-America, although not rare in the non-West. If the first type of labor—“expressions”—typically take place inside the studio, this second type of labor—what I call “operations,” or the labor of making their work public and building systems to support themselves—must engage society outside the studio.

This essay should suggest, then, how autonomy, or the assumption that art making takes place in a studio disengaged from society, was a luxury for Japanese artists. But curiously the institutional deficiency motivated them to deploy the “do it yourself” strategy of collectivism and engage society in shifting ways. Along the way, this essay has also brought to light an unexpected narrative tangent linking the 20th century and the 21st century, from the rather rigid form of prewar salon-based dantai collectivism to a more agile style of postwar shūdan collectivism enabled by increased operational support from both museums and private sector, and from there to a wilderness-based collaborative collectivism beginning outside any existing institutional framework in the latter half of the 1960s.

It was precisely in the 1960s that the idea of “institution” (seido) entered vanguard consciousness on a few different levels and “institutional critique” (seido hihan) slowly developed in both theory and practice. What I have discussed can be recast as follows in terms of institutional critique. The multiplication of dantai during the prewar (that is, artists’ efforts to expand their sites of operation) kept happening in resistance to existing institutions. But when a group of artists formed a new dantai, they adopted the same institutional framework of salon exhibition, even while waging stylistic battles against the status quo. Postwar collectivism basically continued this prewar mode, antagonistic in expression but expansionist and imitative in operations. The major shift was when younger artists like those in The Play and GUN no longer adopted available institutional mechanisms but went outside of them, devising inventive strategies while merging operation and expression, mostly in a performative vein. In this sense, the postwar wilderness artists were counter-institutional in a mode of institutional critique, but their work was informed by a situation in which the infrastructure for art was still inadequately developed and artists prioritized taking countermeasures to the inadequacy of the system. This clearly sets them apart from their Euro-American counterparts whose institutional critique was, generally speaking, consciously anti-institutional, reacting to the constraints of a system that was much stronger, more developed, and harder to escape.

Although it goes beyond the main scope of this essay, explicit institutional critique was present in 1960s Japan, though rare. A forefather of Japanese conceptualism, MATSUZAWA Yutaka experimented with the exhibition system based on his mind-based invisibility principle,[32] while the activist collective Bikyōtō (short for Artists Joint-Struggle Council) theorized the “internal institution” (uchinaru seido), which manifested itself in the mind of an artist even when he or she operated outside the institutional space.[33] The latter position was part of a larger discourse on institutions (seido-ron) that arose in the mid-1960s. Especially significant was the postulation of “art as institution.” Derived from sociology, this particular formulation of the institution as not being limited to social infrastructures (such as museums, galleries, schools, and exhibitions) but, as the critic MIYAKAWA Atsushi observed in 1965, denoted a system that “governs not only the behavioral modes but also the cognitive and emotional patterns of members of a given society.”[34] The implications of this definition are far-reaching. Suffice it to say, one such cognitive pattern is the image of a solitary artist toiling in his studio.

In terms of expression, GUN and The Play were aware of the ephemeral nature of their performed expression-operations and consciously created what I call an “afterlife” or “second life” for each project, mainly in the medium of photography. In addition, they—especially The Play—created many discursive and graphic accompaniments such as posters and reports. Together these materials created another potential social interface that would generate publicity in the mass media, enabling them to reach a broader audience. In this respect, too, GUN and The Play anticipate socially engaged art, in which ephemerality has increased exponentially, such that documentation has become a vital component in the expressions and operations of 21st-century practitioners. Yet differences abound. For one, GUN and The Play devised a playbook for collaboration and social engagement where there was none, while contemporary artists have adopted a playbook inherited (partly) from 1960s art and an expanded repertoire in which they merged their expressions and operations. For another, the two Japanese collectives were mostly self-financed, securing in-kind support such as pigments (GUN) and the use of a fisherman union’s boat (The Play). Their projects constituted purely self-organized practices that aimed high for global relevance. In contrast, today’s practitioners are usually funded to create projects that focus on the local, frequently for visitor consumption in the form of biennales and other curated exhibitions. The proliferation of socially engaged public art today is no doubt an expansion of the postwar examples. Yet, one may wonder if what we see today is an institutionalized, though certainly not ossified, form of what was new in the 1960s and 1970s.

In this respect, we can draw an intriguing parallel between contemporary socially engaged public art and prewar dantai collectivism. Just as dantai helped acclimate the general public to modernism with their plurality and audience-friendly presence, today’s socially engaged public art helps acclimate a broader audience to contemporary art. This is no small feat in light of the fact that the attempted mainstreaming of contemporary art (gendai bijutsu) in the expanded 1960s generally failed to attract public support. We only need to look at Tokyo Biennale 1970, a critical and art-historical landmark of contemporary art, that nonetheless left a lasting impression among the general public as being incomprehensible.[35] Contemporary art in Japan has indeed come a long way from the days of The Play and GUN, whose social engagements remained a curiosity for the public and the art world alike. In this sense, we may find in today’s community-based practices in Japan the ultimate expression of social engagement that artists may offer to society at large.

Reiko TOMII is an independent art historian and curator who investigates post-1945 Japanese art in global and local contexts. Her research topic encompasses “international contemporaneity,” collectivism, and conceptualism in 1960s art, as demonstrated by her contribution to Global Conceptualism (Queens Museum of Art, 1999), Century City (Tate Modern, 2001), and Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art (Getty Research Institute, 2007). Having co-founded PoNJA-GenKon in 2003, she actively co-directs this scholarly listserv and an expanding community of scholarship (www. ponja-genkon.net). Her latest publication is Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (MIT Press, 2016), which has won the 2017 Robert Motherwell Book Award.


I am deeply indebted to the editors of FIELD and Justin Jesty for valuable feedback in completing this essay. In particular, I thank Jesty for his bold vision and heroic effort throughout this process from the symposium to this issue.


[1] I have treated this in more depth in Reiko Tomii, “Introduction: Collectivism in Twentieth-Century Japanese Art with a Focus on Operational Aspects of Dantai,” Positions 21, no. 2 (spring 2013): 225–67.

[2] See Ming Tiampo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[3] Reiko Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).

[4] For GUN and The Play, see Reiko Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).

[5] For the nature of collectivism in Japan, see Reiko Tomii, “After the ‘Descent to the Everyday’: Japanese Collectivism from Hi Red Center to The Play, 1964-1973,” in Collectivism After Modernism, ed. Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 44–75; and “Introduction: Collectivism in Twentieth-Century Japanese Art with a Focus on Operational Aspects of Dantai.”

[6] “Introduction: Collectivism in Twentieth-Century Japanese Art with a Focus on Operational Aspects of Dantai.”

[7] See Figure 1 in Alicia Volk, “Authority, Autonomy, and the Early Taishō ‘Avant Garde,’” positions 21, no. 2 (spring 2013): 452.

[8] See Volk, 451–3; quoted from 452.

[9] For the importance of Yoshihara’s dantai experience in the history of Gutai, See Reiko Tomii, “An Experiment in Collectivism: Gutai’s Prewar Origin and Postwar Evolution,” in Gutai: Splendid Playground, ed. Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe, exh. cat. (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2012), 248–51.

[10] “Introduction: Collectivism in Twentieth-Century Japanese Art with a Focus on Operational Aspects of Dantai,” 242-246.

[11] See INOKI Takenori, ed., Senkan-ki Nihon no shakai shūdan to nettowāku: Demokurashī to chūkan dantai [Social organizations and networks in interwar Japan: Democracy and intermediate organizations] (Tokyo: NTT Shuppan, 2008).

[12] AOKI Tamotsu in “Aoki Tamotsu kanchō ni kiku 10 no shitsumon” [Ten questions addressed to director Aoki Tamotsu], Shin bijutsu shinbun [New art newspaper], no. 1429 (January 21, 2017), 1.

[13] KITAZAWA Noriaki, “Kindai Nihon bijutsu no seiritsu: Bunten no sōsetsu” [The formation of modern Japanese art: The beginning of the Bunten], in Nihon yōgashō-shi [The history of JADA], 1st ed. (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1985), 222.

[14] For more on the politics of the Yomiuri, see William Marotti, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). On leftist and cold war politics in art see Justin Jesty, “The Realism Debate and the Politics of Modern Art in Early Postwar Japan,” Japan Forum 26, no. 4 (2014), 508-529.

[15] See Tomii, Radicalism, especially chapter 1, “Introduction to ‘International Contemporaneity’ and ‘Contemporary Art.’”

[16] I have defined the “expanded 1960s” of Japanese art in Radicalism in the Wilderness, 26–33.

[17] For the most detailed history of Japanese performance art, see KuroDalaiJee (KURODA Raiji), Nikutai no anākizumu: 1960 nendai Nihon bijutsu ni okeru pafōmansu no chika suimyaku/Anarchy of the Body: Undercurrents of Performance Art in 1960s Japan (Tokyo: Grambooks, 2010).

[18] For details on Hi Red Center’s Cleaning Event, see Tomii, “After the ‘Descent to the Everyday,’” 54–57.

[19] GUN members went on to mix lawfulness and subversion in their mail art works. See Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness, 117–26, 130–36.

[20] This more broadly applies to Non-Art (Hi-geijutsu) that followed Anti-Art in the expanded 1960s, both the mainstreaming factions of contemporary art, such as Mono-ha and Expo Art, and what I called the “wilderness” factions, such as GUN and The Play, with conceptualism straddling the mainstream and the wilderness.

[21] The wilderness as outside the mainstream is but one aspect of the multivalent definition I have given to the term in Radicalism in the Wilderness, 6–8.

[22] For greater detail on these independent exhibitions, see Kajiya Kenji’s article in this issue.

[23] For Matsuzawa’s imaginary exhibition, see Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness, 1–3.

[24] See Andapandan āto fesutibaru nyūsu, dai 2-gō: Nagara kahan no shiyō jō no mondaiten ni tsuite—Unei keika to seisakujō no imēji [Independent Art Festival news, no. 2: On the issues concerning the use of the dry riverbed of the Nagara River—The discussion and administrative proceedings and production visions], blueprint brochure [published by Festival Organization Committee, 1966].

[25] See Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness, 209–10.

[26] HIRAI Shōichi, “Gurūpu ‘I’: Sekai o meguru shikō” [Group “I”: Thought about the world], in Gurūpu “I” [Group “I”], exh. cat. (Kobe: Hyōgo Prefectural Museum of Art, 2004), 5.

[27] KAWAGUCHI Tatsuo, quoted in ibid.

[28] IKEDA Tatsuo, “Nagaragawa no zen’ei matsuri” [An avant-garde festival at the Nagara River], Geijutsu Shinchō (October 1965): 82–83; Akane Kazuo, “Geppyō” [Monthly review], Bijutsu techō, no. 258 (October 1965): 131–32.

[29] Membership page of Play (Paris: Bat; Osaka: The Play, 2014), n.p.

[30] For the chronology of The Play’s annual summer projects, see Table 3.3 in Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness, 93.

[31] Peter Osborne, “Theorem4: Autonomy—Can It Be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?,” open! | Platform for Art, Culture and the Public Domain, https://www.onlineopen.org/theorem-4-autonomy, May 1, 2012 (accessed May 7, 2017).

[32] Matsuzawa’s conceptualism is extensively discussed in Tomii, Radicalism.

[33] See Tomii, “The Impossibility of Anti: A Theoretical Consideration of Bikyōtō,” in Anti-Museum, ed. Mathieu Copeland and Balthazar Lovay (Fribourg: Fri Art and Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther, 2016), 467–79.

[34] MIYAKAWA Atsushi, “Kaiga to sono kage” [Painting and its shadow], Me, no. 6 (November 1965).

[35] For Tokyo Biennale 1970, see Reiko Tomii, “Toward Tokyo Biennale 1970: Shapes of the International in the Age of ‘International Contemporaneity,’” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 23 (December 2011): 198–201.