Broadcasts: Reading with Mono-ha

Blum & Poe Broadcasts presents free and public access to scholarship and writerly ponderings from our publications archives and network.

In focus this week—an essay by Mika Yoshitake from Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha (Los Angeles: Blum & Poe, 2012), the catalogue accompanying the award-winning 2012 exhibition at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. This catalogue is the most comprehensive study in English to date on the postwar Japanese movement Mono-ha (School of Things). It examines the group's practice in Tokyo between 1968-1972 at the height of the nation's political upheaval against the US-Japan Security Treaty, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the oil crisis. The Mono-ha artists—including Nobuo SekineLee UfanKishio Suga and Susumu Koshimizu—all distinguished themselves through an aesthetic detachment and renewal of matter in response to the immanent loss of the object as a sun in Japanese postwar art practice.

Nobuo Sekine, Phase—Mother Earth, 1968/2012, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © Nobuo Sekine Estate.

Mono-ha: Living Structures
By: Mika Yoshitake

Introduction: Phase—Mother Earth

On a crisp February morning in 2012 in Blum & Poe’s outdoor garden, I watched a crane slowly lift a steel cylindrical mold out of a hole dug nearly seven feet wide and nine feet deep into the earth. Just in front of the hole stood a freshly unveiled, earthen mass of the same shape and volume that had been hardened with cement in a separate mold over several days. Rays of sunlight sparkled through the leaves of a purple fernleaf acacia amid succulents and perennials and cast a shadow of the cylinder towards the hole. A re-presentation of a 1968 work titled Phase—Mother Earth (Isō–Daichi) by Sekine Nobuo, the earth had been raised above ground so that its layers were visible, echoing their stratification underground. Having previously witnessed the demolition of this work, I knew this mass of dirt would eventually be returned back into the earth at the end of the exhibition, allowing for a possible “re-creation” in another time and place. In essence, each cycle of the work’s production and eventual destruction seemed to manifest as a living structure that defied any notion of permanence or static existence. These experiences were pivotal to my understanding that this idea was at the core of an artistic practice that came to be known as Mono-ha: a lived experience of matter through the disappearance and renewal of perception.

Prior to its appearance in the current exhibition Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha at Blum & Poe, my first encounter with Phase—Mother Earth was in 2008 as part of Tama Art Line Project in Den-en Chōfu Seseragi Park, Tokyo. The work was originally presented in October 1968 at the 1st Contemporary Sculpture Festival at Kobe’s Suma Rikyū (Detached Palace) Park. The show was sponsored by Asahi newspapers, which had given Phase—Mother Earth an award, granting the show a great deal of publicity and bringing Sekine instant recognition. Shortly thereafter, the monumental work graced the January 1969 cover of Geijutsu shinchō magazine, which included a feature on seven contemporary artworks selected by renowned critic Nakahara Yūsuke. [1] Phase—Mother Earth was a peculiar choice among the predominantly Op, light, and kinetic artworks. In fact, many saw its play of mass and void, positive and negative, as an extension of the optical play or trick (torikku) art so popular at the time. Just prior to making this work, Sekine served as an assistant to Takamatsu Jirō, former member of the 1960s performance group Hi Red Center and a pivotal figure whose explorations of shadow and reverse-perspective (i.e., three-dimensional representations of two-dimensional space) had triggered critical debates regarding the reevaluation of vision and opticality among art critics such as Nakahara, Ishiko Junzō, and Miyakawa Atsushi during the mid-1960s. [2]

During this period, Sekine developed his concept of isō (phase) derived from topology (isō kigagaku); isō imagines that form can be continually twisted, stretched, and condensed until it is transformed into another state. As reflected in his series of study drawings, Sekine’s concept was distinct from Takamatsu’s experiments in optical distortion in that it entailed a constantly evolving spatial permutation. In fact, Phase—Mother Earth was conceived by imagining carving into the earth until the interior was completely hollow and its outer crust became a shell, then turning the crust inside out so that it became inverted—“a negative earth.” [3] By bringing the underground layers of sedimentation to view above the horizon, time would be experienced as a coexistence of past and future.

Sekine’s work was significant not because it emphasized the creation of an object, but because it simply isolated and displaced what already existed. By utilizing the earth as both a means and an end, Sekine demonstrated the inseparable relationship between material, process, and site, revealing a flux that is analogous to the fluctuations of daily life and a stasis that is analogous to death. [4]

Artist, critic, and philosopher Lee Ufan saw Phase—Mother Earth as marking a revolutionary shift. Instead of perceiving its positive-negative spatial relationship purely optically, the viewer had a corporeal encounter with the phenomenon of the earth’s existence and disappearance. [5] “Encounter,” which Lee later defined in his landmark essay “In Search of Encounter” (February 1970), was “the place and moment of self-awareness (spiritual enlightenment) when man, transcending modern ‘man,’ touches and is held spellbound by the vividness of the world as-it-is.” [6] Affected by Lee’s ideas, Sekine himself voiced a concern with the impossibility of “creating” new objects in the historical context of the current moment. In a conversation with contemporary art critics, Sekine raised the importance of questioning what it meant to create in his own time:

Once one admits the existence of a thing, humans twist and make ways to convert them to one’s own desires, and the foundation of a thing’s existence is lost. That is, we may no longer be able to “create,” but what we can do is to wipe the dust off the surface of things and let the world that it is a part of appear. [7]

Sekine’s concern with the impossibility of creating new objects was a response to the profound sense of failure that had cast its shadow over cultural producers at the time. This stemmed in part from the collapse of the student movement and the New Left, when a form of anti-elite nationalism failed in its attempt to challenge the Japanese state—most notably on the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, its complicity with the Vietnam War, and the oil crisis—that complicated the artists’ own cultural position and relationship to the nation itself. This movement resonated with worldwide political unrest as manifested in the May 1968 student riots, anti–Vietnam war protests, and responses to various environmental crises. Phase—Mother Earth thus served as an impetus for artists to fundamentally reevaluate the viability of art during this critical moment in the development of Japanese modernity.

The exhibition title Requiem for the Sun refers to the death of the sun as emblematic of the failure of the object as an expressive, symbolic, and permanent entity in postwar Japanese art practice, as well as to an emerging attitude of aesthetic detachment and renewed interest in matter. It represents an art-historical turning point that paralleled Japan’s political upheaval. [8] This exhibition aims to reconsider that historical moment in a contemporary international context.

Installation view, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © the artists.

Mono-ha (school of things) was an artistic phenomenon centered in Tokyo from 1968 through the early 1970s that featured a growing tendency by artists to present transient arrangements of raw and untreated natural and industrial materials—such as canvas, charcoal, cotton, dirt, Japanese paper, oil, rope, stones, wooden logs, glass panes, electric bulbs, plastic, rubber, steel plates, synthetic cushions, and wire—often laid directly on the floor to interact with their architectural spaces or outdoor sites.

Mono-ha’s beginnings can be traced back to February 1970, when six artists were featured together for the first time in the art journal Bijutsu techō. A black-and-white photo depicting Sekine and his art school colleagues unraveling large plywood boards from Phase—Mother Earth appears on the title page, alongside a heading boldly announcing the arrival of a new generation of artists: “Voices of Emerging Artists—From the Realm of Non-Art." [9] Sekine—along with his Tama Art University colleagues Koshimizu Susumu, Narita Katsuhiko, Suga Kishio, and Yoshida Katsurō—were featured in the issue’s roundtable titled “Mono Opens a New World,” moderated by Lee. The term mono (thing, matter, material) [10] was written in Japanese hiragana (もの) to distinguish it from the idea of substance or physical object associated by its Chinese characters (物, also read butsu). Their agenda was distinct from that launched by Gutai’s leader Yoshihara Jirō, which identified the tactile substance of matter (物質 busshitsu) with the human spirit. [11] The term was also distinct from obuje, derived from the French word objet, used widely in the Anti-Art context of the early 1960s to connote the elevation of found or appropriated objects to the status of art by their transposition into the aesthetic context. [12] Rather their discussion relied on affective sensations arising from matter, which they expressed through colloquial words such as dokitto (“jump of heart”), zokutto (“chill in the spine”), or shibireru (“thrill”), indicating a temporary discovery and engagement of matter in the structures of daily life. Mono thus would constitute a passage or phase that attempted to locate the work not in its objective form, but in the structure through which things revealed their existence.

The term “Mono-ha” was never officially claimed by any of the artists but applied retroactively by critics in 1973 as a pejorative, referring to their lack of fabrication and tendency to merely present objects. [13] Mono-ha was a temporary phenomenon that developed out of close relationships between Lee, a Japan-based Korean national who immigrated to Tokyo in 1956 and graduated with a philosophy degree from Nihon University in 1961, and Sekine, a master-of-fine-arts graduate in painting from Tama Art University in March 1968, along with fellow students at the university such as Koshimizu, Suga, Yoshida, Narita, and Honda Shingo. At Tama the artists studied with Takamatsu, whose own practice began to shift and align closely with the work of his students and the pre-eminent abstract artist Saitō Yoshishige, a pioneer of Constructivism in Japan from whom they learned that “the operation of phenomena, rather than their appearance, is the subject of art.” [14] Sharing Saitō’s conviction that illusionism and individual expression were obsolete, the artists used materials to articulate impermanent sites (ba) and situations (jōkyō). Enokura Kōji and Takayama Noboru (both graduates of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, now Tokyo University of the Arts) and Haraguchi Noriyuki (a Nihon University graduate), though possessed of a more political, industrial, and darkly material aesthetic that often involved saturating surfaces with waste oil, grease, and railroad ties, also began exhibiting in many of the same galleries and group exhibitions. One characteristic these artists shared involved a continued interrogation and investigation of key phenomena through recurrent series and materials developed over time. Series titles include Oneness, Takamatsu’s investigations into the infinite possibilities between two opposing qualities such as absence and existence, fragment and whole, front and back; Phase, Sekine’s spatio-temporal experiments in “topology”; Relatum, Lee’s ongoing pursuit to activate the relation between visible and invisible structures; Release and Situation: Suga’s setting up materials and leaving them in their bare state to illuminate their expanse and interdependence with the surrounding space; Cut-off, Yoshida’s bracketing off the object from its conventional structures; Surface to Surface, Koshimizu’s engagement with the fundamental qualities inherent to sculpture while emphasizing the materiality of their surfaces; Sumi, Narita’s investigation into the bare phenomena of charcoal; Symptom, Enokura’s visceral interventions into space; Underground Zoo, Takayama’s interest in the underground as a literal accumulation of the past; and Matter and Mind, Haraguchi’s dual engagement with the physicality and perception of industrial materials, including steel, tent canvas, and waste oil.

Materials were carefully configured to activate the surrounding space, often through gestures or acts such as dropping, stacking, slashing, breaking, ripping, suspending, propping, or floating—emphasizing a “phase” of experience during which the object was to be displayed temporarily (limited by the timeframe of an exhibition), subsequently discarded (due to lack of space or interest in collecting such works), and re-created for future exhibition. This process points to an iterative structure at work in which there was no beginning or end but only the activation of the viewer’s encounter with the work at each given site. Their works often defied linguistic signification and focused instead on perceiving a perpetually passing present in which all elements (subject, object, and site) are inseparable and non-hierarchical, opening the materiality of the work beyond what is simply seen. The artists produced a prolific amount of work between 1969 and 1971, which they presented at numerous galleries in Tokyo [15] and at major annual and biennial museum exhibitions of contemporary art throughout Japan and abroad. Most significant was Tamura Gallery, a rental gallery that showcased Mono-ha’s early site-specific works of the period. These include Suga’s Soft Concrete (1970), comprising four steel panels in a precarious open cube structure wedged inside a mound of gravel and concrete softened with motor oil; Takayama’s cut-out floor installations and 8mm films; Haraguchi’s first oil pool, Matter and Mind (1971), a large flat container filled with thick waste oil and paired with an oil-soaked steel panel on the wall; and Enokura’s Quantity of Intervention (1972), a thick mortar wall constructed around the entire glass entrance of the gallery, either appearing to have been ripped open or caving into a spatial vortex. Tamura Gallery helped facilitate artists who were developing their work site-specifically in outdoor spaces such as Space Totsuka ’70 at Takayama’s studio. Museum exhibitions included the 9th and 10th Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan in 1969 and 1971, respectively (Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum); Trends in Contemporary Art in 1969 and 1970 (Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art); August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art (National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo); Between Man and Matter at the Tokyo Biennale ’70 (Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum); and the 6th and 7th Youth Paris Biennales in 1969 and 1971.

Installation view, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © the artists.

The February 1970 Bijutsu techō feature—along with the booklet Ba-Sō-Ji OPEN (Place, Phase, Time), published by Sekine and the artists in May 1970, which included black-and-white reproductions of works by Lee, Sekine, Yoshida, and Honda as well as critical texts by Lee and Tokyo-based American art critic Joseph Love—further positioned the artists, revealing their shared interest in exploring the contingency of the material and spatial structures of objects. One of the works included in the booklet was Honda’s No. 16 (1969) at Tamura Gallery, in which the artist suspended a piece of canvas from all four corners of the gallery space and dropped a stone in the fabric’s center to reveal the gravitational pull and tension on the materials.

The editors of Bijutsu techō chose Phase—Mother Earth to represent the chihei (literally, the earth’s horizon) of a new artistic terrain elusively labeled “Non-Art” (hi-geijutsu) that shifted away from art as a product of individual artistic expression towards an art that explicitly rejects the willful act of creating and declared a radical reconception of art’s aesthetic and institutional foundations. Based on the artists’ own insistence that Japan’s avant-garde had not gone far enough to transgress art’s ideological and institutional frameworks, Non-Art was distinguished from the 1960s “Anti-Art” (han-geijutsu) generation. Centered predominantly in Tokyo, Anti-Art encompassed a plethora of performance-based collectives that attacked the institutionally sanctioned categories of the dominant mainstream (i.e., conventional Japanese painting and sculpture). Often characterized as negative or nihilistic, critics positioned Mono-ha’s practice as recognizing the impossibility of circumventing not only the museum but the ideological institution of “Art” itself.

This attitude resonates internationally with Process and Post-Minimal art of the 1960s and early 1970s—in particular, the ways in which questioning the autonomy of the art object in turn prompted a reevaluation of the practice and function of art. By rethinking categories and institutional frameworks and shifting inquiry about the basis of art from the ontological to the epistemological, artists undertook a critique of modernism. In the case of Japan, national and international political pressures during the late 1960s resulted in a critique that was inscribed by its cultural differences with the U.S. and Europe. Critical of both western intervention and its own cultural nationalism, Japanese literary, artistic, and political circles reconsidered the nation’s own modernist development, including the adoption of western enlightenment philosophy—in particular the subject/object dichotomy, which was not part of any Japanese philosophical tradition. Japanese modernism involved the emergence of cultural nationalism and the political oppositions between progressive left and right state ideologies concurrent with the nation’s drive for economic prosperity and political power. Some cultural practitioners determined that these structures only worked to reinforce the “self” or “state” in relation to an “other.” They sought to open up a critically expansive third space that evaded dichotomies such as Japan versus the west and left versus right. In this spirit of critique, many cultural practitioners engaged in a fundamental revision of perception to encompass aspects of traditional Japanese philosophy and contemporary thought.

At this moment when Mono-ha is being reexamined today within the international critical milieu represented by this exhibition, it is essential to consider how the movement originally presented and contextualized itself and how its concept of the object’s iterative structure—that is, its disappearance and potential renewal—operates in the present. Several key works and writings, such as Lee’s notion of the work of art as a “living structure” and Suga’s renewed activation of existence, offer important clues.

Installation view, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © the artists.

Living Structures

The artworks I create are all tapestries of intimate breathing between me and the world. Therefore, seeing is not the confirmation of an object but a quiet concert of breathing between the work, the world, and the viewer.

—Lee Ufan [16]

In May of 1969 Lee staged a “happening” employing three large square sheets of Japanese paper each measuring roughly two-by-two-meters that fluttered in the wind in front of the steps of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Initially given the title Things and Words in homage to Michel Foucault’s epic book Les Mots et les choses (1966), the work was later retitled Relatum (the name given to all of his three-dimensional works through the present). [17] Photo documentation of the work captures the immense size of the sheets against the thick Doric columns of the building and the artist who can be seen running past. A breeze appears to lift the sheets off the ground, shifting them away from the sunlight cast on the asphalt towards the dark shadow of the building. The thin yet enormous papers have a ghostly presence. The ephemerality of this event brings to light both the modernist critique of the permanence of the work of art as well as the object as a symptom of its surrounding environment. The work was presented as part of the 9th Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan (April to May 1969) in the juried section Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

The following summer, thirteen artists were selected by critic Tōno Yoshiaki for the exhibition August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. (Tōno was best known for his active role in introducing American art, particularly the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, inviting them to Japan in the 1960s). As the word “aspects” suggests, the works operated as one spatio-temporal phase or fragment of a larger structure. Almost all of the works were placed directly on the floor to activate gravitational weight or interacted with the existing architecture of the museum. The actual processes of these works were conceived as temporary “events” specific to the spatial parameters of the museum, signaling the viewer’s engagement with the phenomenon of the materials and its direct implications on the viewers’ sense-experience.

Lee’s Relatum I, II, and III (A place within a certain situation) (1970) comprised three works interacting with the space, eliciting both order and disorder through the use of steel plates, leaning against the wall and falling flat onto the floor like a stack of dominos, and wooden beams propped against the wall or assembled around a pillar suspended together by thick rope. In Narita’s 6mm from the Surface of Plywood, thin steel poles were stacked in a grid, suspending a sheet of plywood. In essence, Narita attempted to dislocate the stability of the ground by “raising” the floor five feet off the ground. The title points to the surface of this new plywood “ground,” which is 6mm (a fifth of an inch) thick. For August 1970 – Splitting a Stone, Koshimizu cracked a massive granite boulder using traditional methods, an act that took place at the opening of its exhibition. Suga’s Unnamed Situation featured plywood boards attached in a vertical line alongside the exterior of the museum building from ground to roof, and for his Thing-Situation, he wedged thin plywood beams diagonally along the museum’s window blinds. [18] In each case, the works are formally determined by the physical structures and natural conditions of their site; thus meaning is derived from the relationship between the viewer’s engagement with each gesture or act (process) as it is manifested in real time and space. These works inhabit the phenomenological model of site-specificity akin to western Minimalist sculpture in the way they reverse the modernist sculptural paradigm, which seeks to sever the work from its site and situate it in an idealized aesthetic space by asserting its autonomy and self-referentiality. [19]

Critic Okada Takahiko’s October 1970 review of the August 1970 exhibition in Bijutsu techō further emphasized the works’ capacity to make viewers aware that opticality and tactility are experienced as equal elements. In addition, the work is predicated on the idea that creation is tied to a network of correspondences (the correspondances that Charles Baudelaire speaks of in his poem of the same name), which represents a radical departure from previous artistic standards of mimesis and self-reflexivity. [20] In this way, artistic labor came to be redefined—in fact replaced—by a set or field of relations.

The following year, in 1971, Miki Tamon and Haryū Ichirō, Japan’s preeminent socialist art critic, organized the biennial survey exhibition 10th Contemporary Art Exhibition with the theme Man and Nature. The show presented work in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, prints, drawing, and video and was divided into four sections named with subtitles: Landscape (Nature as Image), Abstraction (Nature as Structure), Situation (Dialogue between Matter and Action), and Information (Nature as New Language). Among the eleven artists included within Situation were Enokura, Haraguchi, Honda, Koshimizu, Lee, Sekine, Suga, Takayama, and Yoshida. (Highlights of this show included Lee’s Situation and Honda’s No. 49 [1971], for which he installed plywood boards on the floor, lifting some of the ends up with short square beams. At night after viewers had left he would enter the galleries and change the location of the beams beneath the boards, thus seamlessly altering the work over time.)

In a symposium in conjunction with the exhibition, Haryū referred to this exhibition as a follow-up to the 1970 Tokyo Biennale show Between Man and Matter, which in his view insufficiently addressed the fundamental relation between man and matter, choosing rather to address the theme of man and nature. In an effort to reconsider the constructed opposition between nature and artifice and the increasing role of mass-produced images in Japan’s information society, Haryū attacked those who “think that by seeking a nameless entity beyond image and meaning [through the one-time contact between man and raw materials] they will reach a site of nature in which there is a pre-established harmony between man and the world.” [21] Haryū instead urged artists to discover and build “a new language through matter, color, sound and form beyond theoretical language.” [22] Lee, who was both an exhibiting artist and a symposium participant, countered Haryū’s critique, stating:

I oppose your description of our work...as simply displaying natural objects without manipulation. I’d like to ask if there has ever been a time when one claimed this to be nature...Nature is about overcoming one’s confrontation with artworks. Experiencing art is about our desire to be surrounded by this environment of a shared space with artworks. To confront only leads to projecting one’s own image of what one wants to see out of the work by objectifying nature and the world. [23]

Haryū’s attack presents a characteristic critique against Mono-ha, based on a misrecognition related to the artists’ use of found natural materials. What he did not realize was that Lee’s and Suga’s practices were also based on the limits of linguistic mediation and thus were working towards the mutual goal of a new aesthetic ethos.

Lee’s response stems from one of his central philosophies, laid out in a series of articles published in journals such as SD (Space Design), Dezain hihyō (Design Review), Bijutsu techō, and Japan Interior between June 1969 and February 1970 [24] that called for the radical collapse (瓦解 gakai) of the art object as a site of objectification (対象 taishō; German Gegenstand). This was especially the case in “World and Structure: Collapse of the Object [Thoughts on contemporary art])” (June 1969), in which he wrote,

When humans interpret the world before us, objectify the world, and affirm objects objectified by consciousness, a rational dualism is born. This theory of placing humans on one side, and objects on the other, involves a circumstance that informs the essence of the process of signification by consciousness...We must learn to see all things as they are without objectifying the world by means of representation, which is imposed by human beings. [25]

Taking the Heideggerian concept of a “nonobjective” world from which the work emerges, Lee cites from the German philosopher’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935),

The world is not the mere collection of the countable or uncountable, familiar and unfamiliar things that are at hand. But neither is it a merely imagined framework added by our representation to the sum of such given things. The world worlds...World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen. World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject. [26]

Sharing Heidegger’s concerns over the threat of art by the effects of modern rationalism, Lee’s aim to collapse the object (an objectified entity we confront) involves breaking the subject-object dualism by locating the viewer’s encounter with the work within a larger structural relationship that comprises the artistic/viewing subject, the object, and the work’s surroundings (“the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject”)—and thus, the world. An encounter may occur at any moment within this structure and serves to open up each relational element. Like Haryū, many critics misinterpreted Lee, and by extension Mono-ha, as a pure and unfettered engagement with the unmediated physicality of matter itself. However, as Lee knew well, there is no such thing as “unmediated” physicality:

Structure…is a great mediator that carefully visualizes gesture and its condition as a state of the world…. A structure is a visible aspect of the site where the world is manifest vividly as it is…For a structure, how it succeeds in reflecting the times is an important issue that will help decide whether it will be a vital, living structure or become simply an object. [27]

Here, Lee breaks from the static subject-object dualism and sets up an alternative to art as merely an objectified image. For the 1971 Man and Nature exhibition, Lee presented a work titled Situation, in which he placed three natural stones at different intervals on stretched white canvases laid directly on the ground. The placement of the three stones on the canvases subverts their self-contained forms and allows for a sense of continuity with the actual space of the viewer. As Lee stated, the internal tensions of the materials serve to mediate the encounter:

Man will try and think up of ways to turn nature into art. However, it is impossible to turn nature itself into art. Let’s attempt to create something that can be communicated, or opened to the world like a window with great circulation, in which we build a relationship between man “and” nature. Let’s call this “structure.”...The tense tautness of the canvas from the heavy stone shows a situation by which nature is a mediation. This is just one of many meanings that can be interpreted through structure. [28]

Kishio Suga, Infinite Situation II, 1970/2012 (detail), photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © Kishio Suga.

Setting the Conditions of Mono 

Like Lee, Suga Kishio has contributed both works and writings that set the conditions of mono. In particular, his practice elucidates a multiplicity of methods that can be seen in the work of other artists associated with Mono-ha—in particular, the activation of the potential conditions of experience through the object’s disappearance. In Jōkyō-ritsu (Law of Situation) (1971), ten flat stones sat in a line on a twenty-meter- (approximately sixty-five-foot) long rectangular bed of woven glass fiber [29] that floated on the surface of a lake in Tokiwa Park, located in Ube City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Reflecting the blue sky and smoke-white clouds above, the shimmering fiber was camouflaged. The weight of the stones caused the fiber to sink just below the water’s surface. In this way, the water mediated between the two materials as a third substance signaling their mutual dependence. Suga showed this work as part of the 4th Modern Japanese Sculpture Exhibition in 1971 under the theme “Materials and Sculpture—Based on Reinforced Plastic,” and works were either exhibited inside Ube City’s Open-Air Museum or in an outdoor area adjacent to the museum. [30] The formal configuration of the stones on the reflective fiber and the interaction of the elements closely recalled Lee’s stone and glass series Relatum. Where the two differ is in how each perceptual structure is articulated. Lee’s Relatum seeks to sustain one’s perception through the tension activated in the contact between two static objects (stone and glass). This tension is contingent on actions such as dropping and breaking performed by the artist, which take place prior to exhibition and are repeated again and again for each presentation. For Suga, the work “begins” after the artist has arranged his materials. By releasing them to the forces of time and gravity, Suga creates a situation in which the work destabilizes the relationship of the objects to their context and is activated by an external force—the water, which disrupts the balance of the rocks on the flatbed surface.

In his text “Existence Beyond Condition” (1970), [31] Suga distinguishes between two aspects of the object within the idea of art: its “presence” (有る aru) versus its mode of “existence” (在る aru). The former involves actual physical presence arising from the intentionality and realization of a concept. This corresponds to a subject-oriented model in which human thought is instantiated. The latter constitutes an object-oriented model where such ideation has been eliminated, emphasizing the object’s ontological existence in actual space and time. The ultimate example of “existence” would be an untreated natural object that exists as an unnamed condition [32]: “‘Existence’ means…nothing more or less than that which is seen is in fact there.” [33] Suga is seeking ways to maintain this nameless entity that extends beyond linguistic signification and the subject’s fundamental desire to “produce” objects. His project involves displacing the idea of “presence” by showing the process by which an object exists within a total field, i.e., “existence.” Here he does not apply meaning to specific objects based on their distinction from other objects (as in Lee’s Relatum series), but subsumes all objects, including those that extend beyond the range of one’s visual field, which he would call jōkyō (situation).

These principles are evident in Infinite Situation II (steps), a site-specific installation first presented at Trends in Contemporary Art, an exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art in 1970, for which Suga laid sand on a flight of stairs inside the museum, smoothing its right angles into flat diagonal inclines, with the stairs’ edges remaining slightly visible. While the sand interfered with the stairs’ function, the work’s relationship to the museum’s existing features allowed the material to bring the quotidian passageway into focus. While the “presence” of the sand functioned to conceal the staircase, the work simultaneously heightened awareness of this architectural feature as an “existing” condition that gives the formless sand its shape. This attempt to bring nature into an overlooked/unconventional interior site eschewed the conventional display of a work on the gallery walls or floors.

While sand relies on the physical boundaries of the stairs to give it form, the action of obscuring the stairway creates a continuous plane. While it is not possible to ascend or descend the sand-filled stairs, the incline transforms one’s kinaesthetic perception of the structural limits of the space. Unlike the lake in Law of Situation, which affects the work, the sand creates an in-between condition that expands the limits of the existing structure by both concealing and exposing. Yet just as the water simultaneously mediates the weight of the stones, shifting their “presence” towards a state of “existence,” so too the sand both hides and heightens one’s awareness of the quotidian passageway. Suga’s ontological principle of “existence” is transformed into a dynamic and potentially infinite “situation.”

The most extreme aspect of mono that Suga theorized was the condition of hōchi, or release. In “The Condition of Being Released” (July 1971), he remarked,

Sometimes, things (mono) speak more eloquently and so much more imaginatively than humans that the imagination the things themselves possess must first be smashed. Consequently, I have no choice but to leave things and their situation alone...The first step is to stop “placing” and “presenting,” as is common practice in the display of artworks. Instead, we have to “leave things alone” (hōchi). Leaving things alone need not entail scattering whatever is actually visible…What I mean by “left alone"...seeks to remove any idea of things (mono) and situation from existing systems of art. [34]

Installation view, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © the artists.

Hōchi begins with the act of stripping the object of any preassigned meaning that would confine its linguistic or aesthetic signification. This eliminates any differentiation between materials that exist in nature and their appearance or appropriation within an artistic context. This radical defiance of symbolic meaning, traditional modes of display (“placing” and “presenting”), and differentiation from the natural environment point to a critical stance against conventional notions of artistic identification and meaning. Suga’s radical approach of “leaving the object alone,” consistent with Sekine’s idea of “not creating,” reveal the relative and interdependent nature of existence. [35] 

The idea of hōchi is perhaps best articulated in another work in the same exhibition sharing the same main title, Infinite Situation I (window) (1970), in which Suga propped wooden beams of different lengths diagonally across each of several open window frames of the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art. From the outside, the wood acted as a border between the interior and exterior space. The material made itself simultaneously present and absent by inhabiting the space of the window, pointing to the liminal zone between actual and virtual space. By detaching the wood from its function and asserting its role as a “border” in relation to its surrounding elements, Suga created a relational structure through which the work appears in a state of release. Suga listed “wooden beams, window, landscape” as the media for this work, reflecting that it operates with an expansive field that exceeds the museum’s interior. De-emphasizing subjectivity and authorship and presenting materials in a relatively raw state highlights the object’s interdependence with the surrounding context or “expanse,” what Suga terms jōkyō:

Just as the word mono distances itself from a realm of stabilized meaning—although mono is in the company of everyday signifiers, some of which have strong conceptualizing tendencies, such as “water,” “soil,” and “grass”—so, too, does the word jōkyō, which rather than signifying a certain condition or state embodies a holistic view of the world. It encompasses not only the sign, concept, epistemology, and Buddhist theology, but also temporality and spatiality. In this context, even consciousness of mono is reduced to one aspect of present jokyo’s reality in its entirety rather than the essence of individual mono. [36]

For Suga, jōkyō is an unbound totality through which mono passes. The concept of mono is identified not in its isolated concrete state (i.e., the wood blocks or compacted sand), but as a temporary phase that exists as part of a larger spatio-temporal totality. Thus, one begins to see, for example, how the “existence” of mono in Law of Situation becomes activated through the mediating element of the water. So in addition to the materials, the works are also affected by elements such as water, wind, air, trees, etc. Thus, the concept of mono expands into a fluctuating entity, given form by and through the total structure of jōkyō. [37] The passivity of Suga’s terms aru (existence, presence), hōchi (release), and jōkyō (existing condition) in fact are principles that work to activate the dynamic flow of phenomena.

In his essay “The Start of Disappearance”—published in SD in 1969 (under the penname Katsuragawa Sei) and appearing elsewhere in this volume—Suga asks the fundamental question: How do we become conscious of objects? He begins by explaining how we have come to perceive objects simultaneously through both their form (“optical matter”) and idea (“abstract linguistic space”). He challenges us to seek the point at which form and idea begin to disconnect and lose identification. For example, in Sekine’s Phase of Nothingness, a large four-meter wide boulder weighing fifty tons rests on top of a tall, reflective, stainless-steel column. While Sekine’s aim is for the stone to look as though it were floating like a cloud in the sky on top of a mirror reflecting everything in its path, Suga noted that when one stands beneath the work and looks up at it, there is an impending sense that the massive stone will fall to the ground. The potentiality of falling that arises within the experience of the work itself produces a gap between the idea of the stone as a thing that is usually on the ground and its current form in which it exists as a floating entity. The floating stone then critiques its own natural state of resting on the ground, and thus our instant recognition of the stone (where form and idea are linked) begins to dissolve. The “start of disappearance” is activated in this sense of potential.

Installation view, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com. © the artists or Estates.

Conclusion

In exploring the operational parameters of Mono-ha, we have witnessed how some key works have been engaged with disappearance and renewal. Sekine’s Phase—Mother Earth, for instance, remaps perceptions not only through spatial inversion but through a cycle of production and eventual destruction. In Lee’s Relatum, the viewer’s encounter transforms the object from a static body to a living structure. Whereas Sekine takes up the disappearance of a self-enclosed object, Lee takes up the radical collapse of subject-object dualism. Both expand the perception of matter itself through a rigorous activation of time. In Suga’s case, the principle of disappearance is the site at which we can regain a new experience of the object. Recalling Haryū’s call for the discovery of a new language, Suga sets up the work as a liminal space for a transformative shift or gesture. While many of these concepts may be familiar to the western art historical narrative through the Minimalist emphasis on the contingency of the object in relation to the viewer and the site and the Post-Minimalist opening up of material and temporal processes of the work’s production, Mono-ha’s emphasis on contingency and process is based on a context where disappearance (rather than production) is the critical site and precondition for experience.

[1] “Hihyō-ka no me 1: Nakahara Yūsuke shijō gyararī. Geijutsu to iū kokyō ” (Critic’s eye 1: Nakahara Yūsuke magazine gallery. “A national border called art”), Geijutsu shinchō, no. 233 (January 1969).

[2] I am referring in particular to the experiments with three-dimensional representations of two-dimensional space in optical illusions by the group Genshoku (active 1966–71) using distorted perspectives of shadows and mirrors.

[3] In the artist’s words, “If one were to open a hole into the earth, and from there, dig the dirt out for a lengthy period of time, eventually the earth would turn into the shape of an eggshell, and when one takes out its outer layer, the earth would become reversed into a negative earth.” Sekine, Fūkei no yubiwa (Ring of nature) (Tokyo: Tosho Shinbun, 2006), 56. All translations of Japanese texts are by the author except as noted.

[4] Scholars have often linked the 1965 performance Hole by Group I (a conceptual art group comprising nine artists from Kobe) as a local precedent for Phase—Mother Earth. Unbeknownst to Sekine at the time, Group I’s performance’s took place at the artist-run Gifu Independent Art Festival in August 1965 and consisted of digging a hole ten meters in diameter for the duration of the festival and filling it back in. While Hole engages performance to communicate the “rewardless” act of artistic labor, Phase—Mother Earth activates time and space as coexistent entities. Therefore, while both works critique the modernist ideal of artistic “creation” (production), their critical terms differ significantly. 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, 2005), 59–60; and “‘International Contemporaneity’ in the 1960s: Discoursing on Art in Japan and Beyond,” Japan Review, no. 21 (2009): 134–38.

[5] Lee Ufan, “Sonzai to mu o koete: Sekine Nobuo-ron” (Beyond being and nothingness: Thoughts on Sekine Nobuo), Sansai, no. 245 (June 1969): 51–53; “Chokusetsu genshō no chihei ni: Sekine Nobuo ron-1” (The horizon of immediate phenomena: Essay on Nobuo Sekine, no. 1), SD, no. 74 (December 1970): 92–96; and “Chokusetsu genshō no chihei ni: Sekine Nobuo ron-2,” SD, no. 75 (January 1971): 119–23. A revised and expanded essay was published in Lee’s book of collected writings from 1969 to 1971, Deai o motomete: Atarashii geijutsu no hajimari ni (In search of encounter: At the dawn of a new art) (Tokyo: Tabata shoten, 1971), 117–74. A revised version appears in the 2000 edition of Lee’s collected writings, Deai o motomete: Gendai bijutsu no shigen (In search of encounter: The sources of contemporary art) (Tokyo: Bijutsu shuppan-sha, 2000), 105–57.

[6] Lee Ufan, “Deai o motomete” (In search of encounter), Bijutsu techō 22, no. 324 (February 1970): 17.

[7] Sekine Nobuo, “Zadankai: <dai 9 kai Gendai Nihon Bijutsuten o megutte> Ashita no geijutsu o kangaeru, <Tsukuru to iu koto, Tsukuranai to iu koto>” (Symposium: 9th contemporary Japanese art, contemplating the art of tomorrow, “The meaning of creating, the meaning of not creating”), conversation with Tōnō Yoshiaki, Ikeda Masuo, Sugai Kumi, and Horiuchi Masakazu, Bijutsu techō 21, no. 315 (July 1969): 180–81.

[8] While the title reflects the sun as a national symbol of Japan as indicated by the national flag, it does not indicate a holistic “return to nature,” tradition, or Japanese uniqueness. For many of the Mono-ha artists especially, identity itself was defined by a condition of ambiguity.

[9] “Hatsugen suru shinjintachi - Higeijutsu no chihei kara” (Voices of emerging artists: From the realm of Non-Art), Bijutsu techō 22, no. 324 (February 1970): 12–53. Sekine enlisted his art school colleagues at Tama Art University in Tokyo: Koshimizu Susumu, a sculpture major who served as technical advisor; Yoshida Katsurō; and their wives to assist him with Phase—Mother Earth. Yoshida and Koshimizu were introduced to Sekine through Tama Art University professor and artist Saitō Yoshishige, and eventually the two moved into studios next to Sekine in Yokohama. Like Sekine, Narita Katsuhiko also worked as Takamatsu Jirō’s assistant during Takamatsu’s Perspective series. Lee Ufan met Sekine in 1968, through whom he met the others, and the artists began to meet regularly at Top, a coffee shop in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Lee, Sekine, and Koshimizu, interviews with the author, May 2008.

[10] Cultural critic Noi Sawaragi argues how the problem of articulating mono in Mono-ha’s practice is closely tied to the Japanese phrase “mono no aware” (the pathos of things). Referring back to the writings of Edo-period cultural theorist Motoori Norinaga, mono was understood as a site of transience and ephemerality, and thus could only be articulated through metaphorical poetic structures. Sawaragi sees a correspondence between Mono-ha’s strategy to “open up a new world via things” and this historical tradition of metaphorical language. See Sawaragi, “‘Mono’ to ‘Mono no aware’” (“Things” and “The pathos of things”), in Nihon · Gendai · Bijutsu (Japan · contemporary · art) (Tokyo: Shinchō-sha, 1998), 142–71.

[11] Yoshihara Jirō would advocate that the “human spirit and the material shake hands with each other” so that the “material never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the material.” Yoshihara, “Gutai bijutsu sengen” (Gutai art manifesto), Geijutsu shinchō 7 (December 1956): 202; translated by Reiko Tomii and published in Alexandra Munroe, Scream Against the Sky (New York: Harry Abrams, 1994), 370.

[12] See Minemura Toshiaki, “The Realism of Tactility: Another Japan That Erupted,” in 1953: Shedding Light on Art in Japan, trans. Reiko Tomii (Tokyo: Tama Art University, 1997).

[13] The earliest published mention of “Mono-ha” to date is in 1973. See Fujieda Teruo, “Mono-ha no sakugo” (Mono-ha’s mistake), Bijutsu techō 25, no. 365 (March 1973): 8–11, and Minemura, “<Kurikaeshi> to <Shisutemu>–“Mono-ha” igo no moraru” (“Repetition” and “system”—The moral after “mono-ha”), Bijutsu techō 25, no. 375 (December 1973): 170–75.

[14] As characterized by Alexandra Munroe in “Mono-ha: The Laws of Situation and Beyond the Sculptural Paradigm,” in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream against the Sky (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 259.

[15] Such galleries include Tokyo, Muramatsu, Tsubaki Kindai, Ogikubo, Pinar, Tamura, and Walker galleries.

[16] Lee Ufan, Lee Ufan (Tokyo: Toshi Shuppan, 1993), 60.

[17] Though the Japanese translation of Foucault’s book was published five years after Lee staged this work in 1974, Lee had prior access to a Korean translation of the original 1966 French publication. Lee’s reversal of Foucault’s title “Words and Things” to “Things and Words” points to both his preference for the examination of “things” and his skepticism towards language. Based on Lee’s writings during this period, his concerns were deeply resonant with tying structural linguistics and phenomenology primarily drawn from his studies on the Continental philosophies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Kyoto School philosopher Nishida Kitaro.

[18] In the current exhibition at Blum & Poe, planks of Douglas Fir have been wedged within the frame of one window on the second floor of the gallery overlooking the back garden, where Sekine’s Phase of Nothingness and Phase—Mother Earth are installed, alongside Koshimizu Susumu’s Splitting a Stone–February 25, 2012, 2:40pm.

[19] See Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 12. The Mono-ha artists were exposed to Minimalism through black-and-white reproductions in the catalog for the seminal Primary Structures exhibition, which took place in 1966 at the Jewish Museum in New York. In March 1969, Bijutsu techō dedicated an issue to Robert Morris with translated sections from his “Notes on Sculpture, Part 1.” See Robert Morris, “Chōkoku ni tsuite no nōto – kankaku no shikakuka” (Notes on sculpture: Concerning the visualization of the senses), trans. Yamaguchi Katsuhiro, Bijutsu techō 21, no. 310 (March 1969): 62–65.

[20] Okada Takahiko, “1970-nen hachi-gatsu—gendai bijutsu no ichidanmen’ ten ni furete: michi naru monono sakidori to jujutsu to no hazama” (Commenting on August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art: The gap between the unknown path of things and magic), Bijutsu techō 22, no. 333 (October 1970): 91–104.

[21] Haryū Ichirō, “Tokushū: gendai bijutsu arugamama. ‘Ningen to shizen’ shinpojiumu zenshūroku, Ningen to shizen o megutte” (Feature: Contemporary art as-it-is. Full transcript of ‘Man and nature’ symposium. Concerning ‘Man and Nature’), symposium with Sugaya Kikuo, Nakamura Yūjirō, Haryū Ichirō, and Miki Tamon, Bijutsu techō 23, no. 344 (July 1971): 108.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Lee in ibid., 122–23.

[24] See the selected bibliography at the end of this volume for a listing of these articles.

[25] Lee, “Sekai to kōzō: Taishō no gakai (gendai bijutsu ronkō)” (World and structure—Collapse of the object [Thoughts on Contemporary Art]), Dezain hihyō/The Design Review, no. 9 (June 1969): 130.

[26] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935), quoted in Lee Ufan, “Sonzai to mu o koete: Sekine Nobuo-ron” (Beyond being and nothingness: Thoughts on Sekine Nobuo, 1969), reprinted in Deai o motomete (In search of encounter, 2000), 152.

[27] Lee, “World and Structure,” 130.

[28] Lee, “Tokushū,” 123.

[29] The complete measurements of the fiberglass are 45 cm deep by 200 cm wide by 20 m long (1.5 by 6.5 by 65.6 feet long).

[30] Taking place every two years, the Modern Japanese Sculpture Exhibition began in 1961 with the opening of the Open-Air Museum in Ube City (Yamaguchi Prefecture). The biennial took place as part of the city’s urban renewal initiative for artists to reengage with nature through sculptural projects (along with landscaping and horticultural programs) amid reconstruction efforts after the city’s devastation from World War II. Other artists associated with Mono-ha included in this exhibition were Yoshida Katsurō, Kawaguchi Tatsuo, and Inumaki Kenji.

[31] Suga, “Jōtai o koete aru” (Existence beyond condition), Bijutsu techō (February 1970). My translation is forthcoming in Postwar Japanese Art, 1945–1985: Primary Documents (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012).

[32] In one of his earliest texts, Suga makes a clear claim against the epistemology of language, stating that in the process of linguistic expression, “Words are the ruin of an unseen space of the world.” For Suga, words are concrete signification of something that cannot be perceived, and in this moment of naming an object, one loses the ability to perceive the unseen aspects of things such as the “temporality of space” of a natural stone or tree. See Katsuragawa Sei (Suga Kishio), “Mienai sekai no mienai gengo” (The invisible language of an invisible world), SD no. 59 (October 1969): 77.

[33] Suga, “Jōtai o koete aru” (Existence beyond condition), 29.

[34] Suga, “Hōchi to iu jōkyō” (The condition of being released), Bijutsu techō 23, no. 344 (July 1971): 147.

[35] Suga, “Yorikakaru mono no shikō/Thoughts on Interdependent Things,” in Suga Kishio/Kishio Suga, exh. cat. (Tokyo: Tōkō Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), cited in Munroe, Scream Against the Sky, 265.

[36] Suga, “Mumesei-sei no kanata no mumei: Naze ‘mono’ nanoka?” (Nameless beyond namelessness: Why mono?), Bijutsu techō 24, no. 355 (May 1972): 301.

[37] This is in reference to Suga’s characterization of Mono-ha in 1995 as a “form made from indefinite form” (mukeishiki no keishiki). See Suga, “Ba no mukei ni sotte iku” (Treading along a formless site), Bijutsu techō 47, no. 707 (May 1995), 265.

 

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