The school of things: Simon Lee’s Five Decades exhibition addresses Japanese post-modernity
In 1965 the artist Tatsuo Kawaguchi brought together nine artists to dig a hole by the Nagara River in Kobe, Japan. ’Hole’ was one of the first ’happenings’ in the Far East and one of only six works by the collaborative group that called itself ’i’. By the end of the performance, the group would fill the hole back up making it indistinguishable from its earlier state. The process was key, the work ephemeral, leaving only a memory in the mind of the viewers - not that there were many.
Kawaguchi went on to become a proto-figure of the postmodern Mono-ha movement, a moment in Japanese art history lasting only three years. Because Mono-ha constituted only a brief flash of productivity, from 1968 to 1971, the London gallerist Simon Lee has called in works from five decades surrounding it, illustrating the movement’s origins and influence. This he’s done with input from Taka Ishi Gallery in Tokyo.
Only four artists appear in ’Five Decades: Sculpture and Works on Paper’, but they offer a decent primer on the School of Things, as the name translates. Each in his own way, the figures depict a fraught period in the country’s history, post-Hiroshima, pre-boom, during a time of rapid urbanisation and alienation from traditional forms of art, culture and domesticity.
Kawaguchi encapsulates the legacy of Mono-ha with works that investigates modern materials that escape their brutal purpose. In his 1989 work Stone and Light No.4, he pierces an organic stone form with an industrial neon tube. More elegant are the monochrome ’wall sculptures’ of Noriyuki Haraguchi: industrial polyurethane taken from a hospital floor. One perfect square is a rustic green that is, of course, the very antithesis of natural. His layers of rusted iron (’Untitled’, 2003) display the effects of weather on a precise, machine-cut block.
Noboru Takayama, who arrived at the Mayfair gallery this week to help with the installation, shows the latest and most affecting work. ’Fallen Wing - Headless Scenery’ (2015) encompasses 25 wood railway ties stained with creosote and piled in a pick-up sticks formation. They recall the soot-stained casualties of the Japanese railway but also allude to the bodies the artist witnessed being pulled from a collapsed mine in his youth. Suitably buried in the basement gallery, they are requiems for the sacrificial human pillars of Japanese modernisation and perhaps a lament for the ever-distant ’i’.