The school of things: Simon Lee's Five Decades exhibition addresses Japanese post-modernity

A green coloured image
Simon Lee's exhibition 'Five Decades' explores the postwar movement Mono-ha through the artistic eye and productions of four crucial Japanese figures: Koji Enukora, Noriyuki Haraguchi, Tatsuo Kawaguchi and Noboru Takayama
(Image credit: press)

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'.

A tube light passing through the stone

Deeply engrained within the broader movement of conceptualism, the ephemeral phenomenon of Mono-ha was concerned with the relationship between the industrial and the natural, as exemplified by this rock pierced by a neon tube,

(Image credit: Tatsuo Kawaguchi)

A partial image of crane on road

Other overarching ideas and concerns for Mono-ha included the fear of rapid modernisation, entailing a sense of alienation. The series of photographs portrays precisely this: a sense of nostalgia and detachment from the physical world

(Image credit: press)

A black abstract image

The show moreover focuses on what surrounds the movement of Mono-ha and the contextual history supporting it. In this perspective, artworks from the 70s as well as more contemporary pieces are featured, in an effort to demonstrate the historical and artistic evolution which took place after the 70s, but also the diverging paths which were independently undertaken by the four artists

(Image credit: press)

'Fallen Wing - Headless Scenery,

'Fallen Wing - Headless Scenery,' achieved in 2015 by Noboru Takayama, is perhaps the most evocative piece of the show. Its wooden composition and elongated shape reminds of the Japanese wood railway ties which evoke, in turn, the tragic collective memory of soot-stained casualties

(Image credit: press)

An image of curtain with stains

Koji Enokura's stained curtain attached to the wall metaphorically represents the tendency to place barriers between man and matter. It evokes tension and frustration, further developing the sense of alienation he had worked on with his photographs

(Image credit: press)

An orange and black image

The intrinsic relationship the industrial and the natural share through Mono-ha is exacerbated here, as the materials used to fill the canvas are not the traditional paint or pastel but rather rope and polyurethane

(Image credit: press)


12 Berkeley Street
London W1J 8DT