The exhibition A Colossal World has a lofty goal. The first of a project called EXODUS, which maps immigrant artists from certain geographic areas to New York City, it takes a look at the continuing legacy of Japanese artists in New York for the past 50 years. Through no less than 55 different artists, the exhibition looks at post-war Japan and US relations not through a historiographic or moralizing view, but rather through the eyes of individual creatives who carry strong creative visions and have much to express. In many ways, this exhibition traces a lineage of the avant-garde. The media used in the show range from painting to sculpture to video to event. Even artists such as Makoto Fujimura, who practices a more traditional nihonga-style painting, brings a new sensibility to his work through the act of live performance with Susie Ibarra Quartet at renowned contemporary music venue Le Poisson Rouge, shown through a video placed alongside the work.
New York is not only an immense cultural inspiration, but an always-changing landscape. Through this exhibition, it is clear that the direction of influence was not one-sided. This is not only an exhibition about how artists were shaped by their transcultural experiences, but about the lasting impact that Japanese artists had on New York City. Artists in the exhibition took place in international movements including Fluxus and Neo-Dada—Ay-O, Kubota, Ono— are listed on a flyer designed by George Maciunas for “Fluxfest”. Duchampiana by Shigeko Kubota, video screen mounted on a turning bicycle wheel, is both an homage to the famous Dadaist and a foray into a form of sculpture both visual and kinetic.
Throughout the exhibition the artists are shown interacting with and responding to the New York art scene. The earliest artist featured in this exhibition, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, was the subject of the first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1948 – only a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War. Along with a nude drawing by Kuniyoshi is a photograph of the artists with students from the Art Students League. A series of photographs by Tom Haar on view at the entrance to the space shows Japanese artists interacting and collaborating with artists and spaces in New York. In one, Ushio Shinohara paints in his signature “boxing” style with an image of Angela Davis. In another, married video artists Shigeko Kubota and Nam June Paik take a photo with their works. A painting by Kenzo Okada is accompanied by a set of artifacts that documents a commission the artist completed for David Rockefeller for the lobby of Chase Bank. A photograph shows Mark Rothko and Betty Parsons in Okada’s living room. The artists are active working participants in the developing artistic community in the city.
Quite unusual for large group shows, 20 of the featured artists are women, among them legendary figures Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama. Perhaps due to this representation, sexuality is a theme explored by many of the artists in the exhibition. A photograph shows Yayoi Kusama next to Accumulation no. 1, one of her signature phallic sculptures. Next to it is the largest work in the exhibition—called Nyotaimori, by KAORUKO, the painting shows a woman lying in a field of clouds and flowers. On her body are trays of sushi, both for the viewer to consume. A blown-up photograph-painting-drawing by Kunié Sugiura on the far wall shows the act of intercourse. Downstairs, The Reason of Life, Shannon shows a woman simultaneously scrutinized by male gaze and participating in the utilization of her body.
A significant aspect of A Colossal World is its site-specific installationsIn the inside stairway is a mural by lady AIKO. Done completely in black spray paint, the work draws upon histories of Japanese shunga, or erotic art. However, the women of AIKO’s mural are transformed from object to subject—some of the women wear masks, others stare or pose for the viewer. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell where one person begins and the next ends. . By artist Oscar Oiwa, the façade features a tree on the brick overhang of the space. The roots of the tree cover the storefront window, where they turn into the trails of bombs. The work demonstrates the tensions between growth and destruction, appearances and realities.
Sound is an integral aspect of the exhibition. From the moment you walk into the space, Star Trek-esque beeps and whistles can be heard, part of the sound track to Inside Track by Momoyo Torimitsu, in which robots styled as American, Japanese, and European businessmen crawl along the floor. Further in, a recording of Roadrunners by Yasunao Tone consists of vaguely exotified sounds from viola and piano with an overlaid narration of Chinese tales. Downstairs, the mood changes, as an upbeat melody accompanies a video of a dancing skeleton by Motoko Wada. Alarming Trash Can by Yoshimasa Wada, operated on request by WhiteBox’s staff, opens with a deafening siren that immediately brings to mind associations with bombs and war. Though the show is not heavy handed in its references to war, the artists are not afraid to make political statements.
Never pedantic but always intentional, A Colossal World provides a gateway into the views of Japanese artists as they navigated the city and their relationships with it.
“A Colossal World” features works by AIKO, Noriko Ambe, Ei Arakawa, Shusaku Arakawa, Ay-O, Eiko & Koma, Makoto Fujimura, Tom Haar, Toru Hayashi, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Ken Hiratsuka, Yasuo Ihara, Takahiko Iimura, Gen’ichiro Inokuma, KAORUKO, Emiko Kasahara, On Kawara, Takeshi Kawashima, Kenji Kojima, Miwa Komatsu, Tatsuo Kondo, Shigeko Kubota, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Yayoi Kusama, Sebastian Masuda, Tomokazu Matsuyama, Takashi Murakami, Nobuho Nagasawa, Rakuko Naito, Naoto Nakagawa, Toshiko Nishikawa, Masaaki Noda, Oscar Oiwa, Kenzo Okada, Yoko Ono, Takako Saito, Masaaki Sato, Hiroshi Senju, Noriko Shinohara, Ushio Shinohara, Mieko Shiomi, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Kunié Sugiura, Mayumi Terada, Yuken Teruya, thousand pictures, Yasunao Tone, Momoyo Torimitsu, Toyo Tsuchiya, Motoko Wada, Yoshimasa Wada, Yukinori Yanagi, Yoichiro Yoda, Minoru Yoshida.
A COLOSSAL WORLD: Japanese Artists and New York, 1950s-Present
Curated by Kyoko Sato
Exhibition: March 6 – April 14, 2018
Writing by Iphigenia Seong
Photographs courtesy of the artists and White Box.