Before the flash of the atom bomb over Hiroshima cast an extraordinary anxiety and distrust over technology, science and technology. . .offered discoveries and methods useful for art, inspired courage in the human spirit, and itself became the dream for a new society, while at the same time recognizing, resisting, and confronting the violence brought about by its double-edged quality.26
From the moment Gutai was formed, its artists were interested in moving art off of the gallery walls. Gutai members moved art to outdoor spaces, such as parks, so that the public could engage with it. They incorporated sound, motion, light, and everyday objects and spaces to create works that were not static in time or place.
By Gutai’s second phase (1962–72), the interest in environment art grew even more innovative. Through participation in international exhibitions in 1965 and 1966 with artists from Germany and the Netherlands, as well as those active in Happenings in the United States, Gutai’s members were inspired to be more radical in their experimentation and began trying kinetic, light, sound, and installation art. Gutai members also took part in international discussions about the intersections between art, science, and technology. Rapid industrialization, the rise of robotics and computers, and the Cold War space and nuclear arms race were of interest to artists with “dreams for a new society.”27
In 1967, Gutai’s second phase artists organized Gutai Art for the Space Age in a suburban amusement park outside of Osaka. There, artists reflected on the future of humankind in light of rapid technological progress and the space race. They humanized the new space-age aesthetic and technologies by animating them. Their throbbing, blinking, rotating sculptures were like alien organisms. The materials reflected the new space age— plastics, rubbers, and reflective metals—and allowed artists to explore optical illusions, light projections, and motorization.
Japan’s first World’s Fair, Expo ’70, was held in Osaka. Organized around the theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” it was designed as a festival to showcase advanced technology, urbanism, and internationalist trends from Japan and around the world. Perhaps the work best suited to the fair was a collaboration between Nasaka Senkichiro (b. 1923) and Yoshihara Michio (1933–1996)—an environment art piece called Work (1970). Its snaking aluminum pipes, piping out Yoshihara’s concrete music, transformed the whole space into an art environment. Other works by Gutai artists were hung along its length. The Guggenheim Museum commissioned Nasaka, now in his late eighties, to recreate the work in its galleries for this exhibition.
Show: Nasaka Senkichiro and Yoshihara Michio, Work (1970)
- Ask students what they notice about the work. This work is comprised of almost five hundred feet of aluminum piping that zigzags along the Guggenheim’s ramp. From the pipe, recorded music by Yoshihara plays, while along the pipe, artwork by other Gutai artists is displayed. If you are visiting, describe these sounds and sights. If not, imagine what it would be like to walk through an exhibition like this.
- Work was a part of Expo ’70, Japan’s first World’s Fair, held in Osaka in 1970. In this exhibition, Gutai artists reflected on the future of humankind in the context of rapid technological progress, the Cold War, and the space race. Ask students how they think Nasaka and Yoshihara’s piece reflects, responds to, and addresses some of the issues of their time.
- In 1970, Gutai artist Imai Norio (b. 1946) wrote that it was the “task for individual artists to answer this question: ‘What, then, is the role of art in a commercial or public space?’” He went on to say that “their answers can only be given in the form of their works. . .their answers must provoke direct experiences, encourage unmediated encounters. They must offer not illusory but real communication.” He continued, “In a larger sense, whatever we do, it concerns the everyday. Whether making art or having a meal, it’s an aspect of everyday life. They are not that different.”28 Ask students to think about this quote. What do they think the answer is to his question? How does Nasaka and Yoshihara’s work address this question, or the everyday, if at all? What questions do they think today’s artists should answer?
- Nasaka’s work was a part of Japan’s first World’s Fair, held in Osaka in 1970, called Expo ’70. Its theme was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind.” Ask students to submit something to a classroom expo on this same theme. They can write a poem, essay, or monologue. They can make a drawing or sculpture. They should explain how their piece fits the theme. Discuss as a class: What do the works have in common? How do they each address the theme?
English Language Arts
- In its second phase, Gutai artists reflected on the future of humankind in the context of rapid technological progress and the space race. Specifically, they thought about what the city of the future would look like. Many artists and architects have tried to envision a “future city.” Look at some examples together, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867–1959) Broadacre City, or designs by the Metabolist School of Architecture, a young group of Japanese architects in the late 1950s. Ask each student to focus on an aspect of city life they would like to improve and propose one or more possible solutions. Their ideas can be documented with drawings and text. When finished, students should present their ideas to the class.
- Gutai artists were interested in experimenting with the futuristic materials of their day—such as rubbers, plastics, and reflective metals. These materials and others let them explore optical illusion, motorization, and light projections in their works. What materials would be considered new and “futuristic” today? Have each student research a new material in today’s world and create a plan for a sculpture or other artwork that uses this material.