from 1986 catalogue of Mono-ha exhibition at Kamakura Gallery
The word MONO-HA, whose literal meaning is ‘school of things’, designates a group of artists in Japan who were active both before and after the year 1970, and who attempted to bring out some artistic language from “things” as they stood, bare and undisguised, by letting them appear on the stage of artistic expression, no longer as mere materials, but allowing them a leading part.
Although it was in the first half of the seventies that these artists ferst found acceptance, their popularity spreading like wildfire, it can be said that the original form of the school dates back to the autumn 1968 to May 1969 (or to the beginning of 1970 at latest) period, when the forerunners of the movement first became active. As far as the movement is concerned, the main artistic group instrumental in the evolution of its development were the following: (1) A group that one may call the ‘Lee + Tamabi Connection’, comprising the artists who were to graduate from Tama Art University, Tokyo, by March 1969 (SEKINE Nobuo, YOSHIDA Katsuro, HONDA Shingo, NARITA Katsuhiko, KOSHIMIZU Susumu, SUGA Kishio) and LEE Ufan, Sekine’s intimate friend. (2) The Geidai Connection, agroup of artists around ENOKURA Koji and TAKAYAMA Noboru who, both graduates of Tokyo University of Art, appeared towards the end of 1969, including also FUJI Hiroshiand HABU Makoto who were to frequently participate later. (3) The Nichidai Connection, students from Nihon University Fine Arts Department, whose central figure was HARAGUCHI Noriyuki. This group is also known as the ‘Yokosuka Group’ With the exception of SEE Ufan, a Korean who had moved to Japan in 1956 and had studied philosophy at Nihon University and was in his thirties then, all the other protagonists of the movement were youngsters around the age of twenty who were to graduate or finish their postgraduate studies around the time of the student riots towards the end of the sixties. To say that these artists were to get a trauma by the events of the student unrest of those days would be untrue. Rather, it would be more correct to say that they belonged to a generation that could fine in them any positive sign for the historical change.
The name MONO-HA didn’t come into existence at the start of the movement at the free will of those artists. Rather, it was at the beginning of the seventies that the word with some connotations of contemptuous indifference came to be used among people-- this author confesses to being one-- who took to examining the MONO-HA phenomenon, especially that of the Lee + Tamabi Group with critical eye. It was for this reason that until quite recently the name sounded quite unpleasant to the ears of the majority of that group, not to mention those of Enokura, Takayama, Haraguchi and others blonging to the Geidai and Nichidai groups who maintain to this day that the term is rather questionable as it was coined to refer to the artworks of the Lee + Tamabi Connection rather than their own.
It might be remembered, too, that the name ‘Impressionists’ outlived its original invidious connotations, and, what’s more, that it was by no means restricted to the original band of artists who joined that now historical group that exhibited at the Nadar Gallery. In the same way, the term MONO-HA has come to encompass a larger group of artists than the Lee + Tamabi Connection for whom it was originally coined. In fact, the term gas come to refer to a more comprehensive and yet more intrinsic tendency that is now historical fact, and which began by a ‘spilling over’ from the Lee and Tamabi framework.
As I explained before, the MONO-HA appellation designates ‘a group of artists, who, before and aafter the year 1970, in Japan, bentured upon bringing out some artistic language directly from ‘things’ (hence, the words MONO and HA that stand respectively for ‘things’ and ‘school’ in Japanese), as they syand, bare and undisguised, by letting them appear on the stage of artistic expression, no more as mere materials but allowing them the leading part’. Hence it is better to hold the view that the term MONO-HA includes all the artists, with out exception, who subscribe to this mode of artistic expression.
The points of similarity between MONO-HA, taken in its broader sense, and ‘Arte Povera’, a movement that emerged a little earlier in Italy, are not without coincidental elements, though most of these have to do with background. To explain, there were at the time an ambivalent feeling of both fascination and repulsion towards the products of our industrialized society, a presentiment of the annihilation of pictorial art concomitant with an impending sense of the collapse of the modern society, a heritage of anti-art and anti-formalism from the early sixties, some influences of American Minimal Art, especially its yearning for the state of ‘objecthoodness’ of art work, and a general conviction that the recovery of art could be achieved through that of nature. Such were the elements that went to form a common background ripe for the emergence of the MONO-HA school in Japan, and enabled it to become a common phenomenon spreading over several groups.
That’s why we may reasonably infer that the movement itself began as a reaction, quite coincidentally and yet contemporaneously to a common social and artistic background that was to engender similar movements in the art of ‘Arte Povera’ in Italy, around the St. Martin’s School of Art in London, within the Joseph Beuys circle in Germany, and as Process Art in the United tates. In a similar vein, it was not that the Geidai Group set out to be MONO-HA under the influence of the Lee + Tamabi Connection, nor that the latter embarked on their venture because they knew about the Arte Pvera, but rather that the close relationships of the several groups derive from a common and contemporary background.
Having reached this point, Ifeel that some explanation should be given regarding the meaning of my definition that MONO-HA “makes ‘things’ appear on the stage of artistic expression, no longer as mere material, but allowing them a leading part.”
With the exception of Koshimizu, all the MONO-HA artists took a specialist course in painting at university and experienced the same process of having to rush into ‘things’ because they had the premonition that painting was dying. Then, when we look at the way they visualized ‘things’, we find that, unlike a Donald Judd, for instance, who, as the final outcome of reducing the pictorial illusion by sheer force of logic, yielded an artificial product that he called himself ‘Specific Obfect’, the MONO-HA, having renounced at an unjustifiable moment a positive manner of making works as artificial product, chose to introduce things that exist in their natural condition and ventured in the direction of relying upon them for their artistic expression. The choice of such an orientation Ifor sure have no mind to criticize. Ishall merely observe that MONO-HA art, which was produced during such a course of events, when pictorial art had not been entirely erased from ther minds--their official denial of painting notwithstanding-- found itself substantiolly provided for by a pictorial vision together with a fair amount of that MONO-HA peculiarity that finds its expression in somehow in harmoious relationships between that vision and ‘things’.And there resides the contradiction of a pictorial vision having negated painting to choose ‘things’. The substance of such a contradiction, however, was by no means uniform, for the Geidai Connection and the Lee + Tamabi Connection carried out their evolution along lines of thought that seem to me completely different. As a resuly, it appears at first sight that both groups present such different features that it would even seem unjustified to deal with them under the same label.
in which case ‘things’ were endowed with an almost concep-tualized sensuous quality.) Enokura’s oil blots, leathers, walls, ground crevices, and so forth, are ultimately pictorial surfaces materialized through the surfaces of things as well as through the properties of them, and it is that feeling of quality and permeating action that calls forth memory and presentiment, so to speak, to form an acting subject. While being pictorial subjects, they are also the surfaces of actual things. That very arnbivalence constitutes definitively the distinguishing mark of an Enokura, a trait that a number of times brings to mind Alberto Burri, the Italian Pre-Arte Povera artist., Fundamentally the same thing could be said about Takayama. Takayama however, unlike Enokura, disregards the surfaces of things; he rather concentrates on the parts of darkness lurking behind and beneath them. Those railwaysleepers, for instance, that the artist seems particularly drawn towards, appear to be themes chosen out of such visual and psychological inclination, as well as mediums to be used toconstruct a ‘rearward’ and an ‘underneath’ in the real space. Contrary to Enokura who loved so much mediums that have plane we can trace a difference in what made Takayamashow more or less a structural profile by means of his sleep-ers. Still, what appears to be of greater significance lies in their point of similarity in using things as subjects. <<Rattraps>>,for example, one of the earliest works of Takayama, which he made in 1968, attaching three rattraps on the painted tableau surface, is not worthy of note because it reminds us of someworks with birdcages made by Jannis Kounellis around 1967, but because, in both artists, such living things played the part of medium and subject at once. When ‘things’ are worthy tobe raised to the dignity of subjects they inevitably soak themselves deeply in the realms of memory and life itself, Ietting ‘oat around them countless indications and presentiments. Asa matter of fact, Enokura and Takayama, who were admirers of the folklorist Kunio Yanagita, claimed that behind and on the surface of things, one could see villages and their festivi-ties as they were in the past. This is why the things of Enokura and Takayama permit no substitution. Against this, it may be asked now, what were the specific characters that differentiated the MONO-HA of the Lee + Tamabi Connection? As for me, I hold that the singularity of that group resides in the fact that while making a medium of things secured in their natural state, they kept seeking the theme at a different place, that is to say, at thevery point of encounter with existence. It is true that it was at that group, more than any other, that people threw the appellation MONO-HA. As a matter of fact, none of the othergroups released, in such vast amounts as they did, iron plates, timbers, ropes, papers, stones, glass panes, cotton, paraffin, cement, earth, etc., i.e. things in their barest and simplest forms. Nevertheless, the subject of their art did not reside in MONO (things) themselves nor in their evocative power of any memory or fantasy. In a way, one may even venture to hold the view that no other artistic group has ever neglected the irreplaceable quality of things as they did. Contrary to Enokura and Takayama the ‘things’ of the MONO-HA of the Lee + Tamabi Connection were mostly abstract, rude materials that in the majority of cases would not involve the least trouble in replacing with ones of the same quality.
However, even so, their ‘things’, far from being mere material, were given the starring role all the same. Even after having cracked stones or glass, never did they try to extract another shape or form another object. Even with Narita’s <<sumi>>(Charcoal), it was not that charcoal was produced out of wood as a raw material, but that wood itself vecame charcoal; i.e., that the imposed subject was the ‘qualitative metamorphosis of an object of the same genus’.The very thing that brought about the paradox consisting of giving the leading role to things, while, at last, acting as if their specificity was neglected, was the theme of ‘exstence’. For those artists that chose as theme not the things themselves but the disclosure of their ‘existence’, art had to be conceived, as a result of this choice, only in the presence of things and in line with their everyday’s life and demeanor. At the same time, and, in the final analysis, the most subtle delicacy of the problem did not reside in the ‘things’ themselves, but in the disclosure of existence along with or at the expiration of them.
This notwithstanding, although they were so different in age and cultural background, a merging was made possible between Lee and Tamabi MONO-HA, from the point where they could reach a mutual understanding about this very subtle problem centering around things and their existence. As far as one is capable of forming a judgment from their works, it wasn’t Lee’s comprehension of the phenomenon that occured first. Infact it is fairly reasonable to estimate that both almost simultaneously grasped the definite and concrete means available to them to solve the problem of the advance ‘from things towards existence’. Should I venture to put a date to this event, Iwould say around autumn 1968, when Sekine’s <<Phase-Earth>> just made its appearance.
‘Existence’ however was, fundamentally speaking, a matter of exclusive right belonging to philosophy and sculpture. Though only natural it may be for Lee, who had the advantage of a specialised university course in philosophy, to hold the point of view that the object’s overemphasis in modern Europe had to be criticized in favour of an aspiration that seemed more desirable, towards the transparency of the existence, one may wonder how did the MONO-HA of the Tamabi Connection manage to secure a foothold into the insight of a problem of that kind. Curiously enough, and the funniest thing being that it will turn out to be the most signficant peculiarity of the MONO-HA of the Tamabi Connection, it dates back to a very particular movement about pictorial thought that was challenging the most intellectual faction of Japanese artistic circles in the last half of the sixties. To introduce that peculiar pictorial thought, let’s say that all things are connected somehow to a strange phenomenon lavishly showing predilection for intellectualistic manipulations of the vision, a concept that started from the first half of the sixties and was promoted through the medium of events like Jiro Takamatsu’s Shadow Pictures, the separation-culture experiment of concept and reality organized by the ‘Hi-Red-Center’ group of three, including Takamatsu, aroused tremendous interest and concern around the image and substance interchangeability as it was advocated by Jasper Johns and Pop Art, and so forth, which then following a swirling motion gradually came into shape, in April 1968, when the press unanimously gave a more than favourable reception to a trompe-l’oeil exhibion of Geoffrey Hendricks, a minor painter. This gave the affair a tremendous jump in popularity, for close on the heels of this that peculiar pictorial thought was to reach its peak with the ‘Tricks and Vision’ Exhibition. That intellectualistic vision, which even turned out quite a number of times to be metaphysical speculation, consisting in detecting evidence of the absence -- I mean the suppresion of the genuine existence -- within shadows or, more generally, images and configurations (here it must be said that in his youth Takamatsuwas an ardent admirer of De Chirico) --spread broadly among the younger generation through the good offices of Takamatsu and the critics around him. This phenomenon was most conspicuous among students of Tama Art University, where Takamatsu once was a lecturer, where a current built up around the theme of “Absence/Existence”, and also in the Shizuoka district where it gabe birth to a group called ‘Genshoku’(i.e. Illusion Touch). To show just how popular artistic expression based on intellectualistic visual manipulation had become, it should be remembered that in the year 1968 one could find almost the full complement of the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA who were later on to take a position at the antipodes of intellectualism, busily engaged in the production of works of that kind, as if dealing with a ‘Takamatsu Seminar’ homework.
However puerile and frivolous these exercises in visual manipulation appear to be to our eye, for the MONO-HA of the ‘Tamabi Connection’ who were all students at that time, they were far from being a mere plague that could be done without. For we have the right to assume those exercises to have been a school for sharpening their scrutiny of ‘existence’ whichturned out to be the most distinctive mark for the MONO-HA of the Lee + Tamabi Connection. As I have already stated, Takamatsu’s visual manipulations called into question the discrepancy between vision and real existence, between ‘to see’ and ‘to be’. If, starting from that discrepancy, one directs one’s steps towards a distrust in reality, a skepticism for the established balues and all their systems, it could amount to opening the way to an active and practical application of the treacheous visual sense to a mentally subversive deed. (The ‘Genshoku’ Group walked along that road for some time). On the other hand, if one turns oneself in the direction of looking squarely at that ‘to see’ and ‘to be’ discrepancy, after habing first swept away the dust covering the actuality such as habit-forming preconceptions like outward appearances, images, virtual images, epidermis, attributes, and so forth, this attitude evidently should open the way towards a new artistic action that directly encounters the way things are, by clearing, on the critical level, the current intellectualism that makes it a principle to manipulate the sight. Besides, that way ought to fit Takamtsu’s primary aim to take a grasp at existence through the medium of absence, while at the method level, it could have been a significant jeap forward.
Infact, when Nobuo Sekine, who, owing to Takamatsu’s influence and a fairly good knowledge of phase-geometry, produced, earlier than anybody else, tricky paintings and solids out ot virtual images in the shape of reliefs, released in October 1968, at the Open Air Sculpture Exhibition in Kobe’s Sumarikyu Park, and in particular a work in the form of a huge earth cylinder standing beside a cylindrical hole dug in the ground with exactly the same shape and with the same earth volume (<Phase-Earth>), he succeeded in making that tradition of intellectualistic sight manipulation realize, by means of introducing things, a most brilliant conversion from the “ambiguity of seeing” towards the “discovery of to be”.
That <Phase-Earth> of Sekine was to bring about a decisive, peremptory awakening to all the other MONO-HA of the Lee + Tamabi Connection, not to speak of Koshimizu and Yoshida who did assist the artist in the production of his work. It is thus reasonable to consider that from that point on they became MONO-HA within their consciousness. Howeber, I think that had they not gone, like Sekine did, through those periods of drilling themselves in the manipulations of intellectualist vision, that is to say, had they not experimented with the separation of ‘to see’ and ‘to be’, they would never, at the end of 1968 or after, have directed their actions toward ‘existence’ with such a lucidity of forms nor with such unison. Thus, one may affirm that, as the seedbed for the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA, the intellectualist tradition of vision since Takamatsu has shown itself instrumental.
Having arisen from such a background, it is not surprising that within the MONO-HA of the Lee + Tamabi Connection, especially in their early works, and to some extent in later ones, depending on which artists we look at, we can find a certain amount of intellectualism still present. In particular, the early works of Sekine, Yoshida, Lee and Koshimizu were quite often commented on for being quite similar in conception to Surrealism, especially with the ‘depaysement’ of Magritte. Be that as it may, they grew up very swiftly and intensified their cognition in quite a short time, and according to the degree of that cognition, some of them went on prospecting and discovering new directions, some deepened and developed the MONO-HA Art and some others, simply for having reached their limits, dropped out of the movement. As we have no time here for disserting on the dropouts, let us try to grasp in a very broad sense the group evolution that took place within the MONO-HA for a relevant period of time after the exhibition of Sekine’s <Phase-Earth>. We shall consider for this purpose, the three following steps.
First step: antithesis of allosubstances---
First, there is a method that consists of becoming aware of the reality of existence through the impact caused by the relativization of a ‘thing's’ accidental quality, aspect, mode, attribute, etc., and reducing these to nothingness, by means of encounters with things that contrast with its heterogeneity. As things were summoned to appear on stage instead of pictures, the former necessity to perform those visual manipulations had of course already disappeared; however, as one kept one’s eyes fixed upon the specific characters things have imbedded in term --- for instance softness and hardness, lightness and heaviness --- there is a tendency to trail in a more conceptual manner that manipulative method of separating ‘to be’ from ‘to see’ which was prevailing in the previous period. This is a kind of exfoliation though it hardly goes as far as the depaysement advocated by Surrealists. The fact that the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA made their appearance with this method proved to be the very reason why they were misunderstood. As a concrete example, Sekine’s sponge and steel plate, megalith and mirror post, Yoshida’s iron pipe and cotton, rectangular timber and lighting, Lee’s cotton and iron plates, cotton and stones, glas panes and stones, Koshimizu’s paper and stones and so forth, are quite typical of that kind of assemblage. And the fact that Narita and Suga kept away from this method should be worthy enough of deserving attention. The Narita of the early period, as his interest shifted towards space variable structures from things variable structures, briefly kept away from his colleagues’ manner. Likewise, the Suga of the first half of 1969, who had just escaped from his period of visual manipulation, however recklessly --- probably due to the fact that he wasn’t acquainted enough yet with real space --- engaged himself in such experiments as trying to grasp immediately ‘existence’ through examining intently the way pillars were standing.
Second step: aspect differentiation from monosubstance or monospace ---
To be concerned only with things that are congenerous (i.e. of the same kind) and homogeneous, thereby depriving the artist of his power to manipulate things on a conceptual basis from a third party’s standpoint, he becomes prone to extract the naked truth from things from a mode of positive involvement with them. This was indeed what was regarded as the most characteristic style of the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA’s. Again, according to a former example, I’ll quote Sekine’s <Phase of the Void - Oily Clay>, although the works of this style, being multifarious and prolific, should not be mentioned in the same breath. Very roughly, however, one may classify them as follows; (1) Works emphasizing the relationships through the gestures of man and things (Sekine kneads clay mixed with oil, Terada chops wood, Koshimizu spalls megalith). (2) Jobs involving position and stance metamorphosis in things (Lee juxtaposes rectangular timbers and steel plates, Yoshida suspends a rectangular timber or lays four steel plates laying on a timber, Shingo Honda splits wood. Here the point aimed at was obviously to bring about discrepancies in the positions of things). (3) Jobs involving metamorphosis on a time scale (Narita who makes charcoal), and (4) The ramification of things and the articulation of space (Suga who shows us a phalanx made out of paraffin, or a besiegement out of cement).
Interestingly enough, method (1) in itself, although retaining quite a smack of ‘happening’, owing to the fact that its structures can’t be sustained continuously, judging from its merit to directly associate with genuine material, should be regarded as being the nearest to the art of sculpture. And as a matter of fact, Sekine like Terada and Koshimizu, through their acknowledgment of concepts such as ‘object’ and ‘handiwork’, fairly soon worked their way towards sculpture. Quite in opposition stands Suga, who, without caring a bit about concepts of objects and sculptures, extracts the polysemy (viz. Multiplicity of meaning) of space, the aspect differentiation of space, directly from the intervention of man toward things; i.e. monosubstance, which is quite a unique manner to work things out. And from that point of view it should be said that he thrust before us the most meaningful production theory, and the most genuine one at the same time, of the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA.
This second step, owing to it’s superficial distinctive feature of being only concerned about monomaterial, and perhaps also because it brought about the MONO-HA to the zenith of it’s influence, engendered swarms of imitators, plagiarists and followers. Typically representative of that trend was the earnest and rapturous fascination the artists had for using lumps of material of singular composition, such as wax, earth, lead, tar, slag, and so forth, and for using them in a way that would exhibit as much as possible their minimal form.
By the way, the MONO-HA aspect Haraguchi started offering then corresponded more or less to the ‘second step’ of the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA. Before this, amidst the turmoil of campus agitation at Nihon University, Haraguchi, then a student there, had the opportunity to change his course from a pictorial art that was crudely realistic and brutally materialistic, to a plastic art that was three dimensional, and he acquainted himself with the sophistication of plastic applications of industrial materials of a new kind. In those days he was steeped in an environment that bore no relation to the somewhat passionate and ethnic movement that purported to raise things to the dignity of subject that was then prevalent within the Geidai Group. Nor was he familiar with the traditions of intellectualistic visual manipulations that prevailed within the Tamabi Group. Toward the end of 1969, however, or at the latest, in the middle of 1970, materials that seemed more to suit his tastes, like steel, tent canvas, oil, water and clay, came to be displayed almost without transformation by the artist. And this came about, not out of sensuous quality of those kinds of things. The artist’s eyes that were examining things at that time, were extremely sensuous, voluptuous even. Unlike the MONO-HA’s minor followers, Haraguchi certainly possessed plenty of mental strength to conceptualize the sensual osmotic powers of matter, as if they were spatial occurrences.
Third step: genesis of place ----
Not things, but the existence of things, and further, toward the modes of connection between things and man: This was the travel diary of the MONO-HA’s as they went deepening their cognizance, to be ultimately confronted with the problem of deciding the mode of existence in which such things are confined i.e. ‘in the field of what do they exist?’ (situation/ location), or ‘according to what do they exist?’(causality). And here we can find the theoretical and ideological groundwork of Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA taking shape. That such a Question was immanent in the entire MONO-HA School from it’s very beginning, goes without saying. This notwith-standing, it took a Lee or a Suga to establish the MONO-HA School as an independent art full of possibilities, by starting a conscious quest for it.
It is true that looking at the works themselves one could say that such an attention directed by Lee to the field, which stressed the positional relationship rather than things, was highly liable to somehow become a schematic expression. But it gradually developed toward those sculptures out of steel plate and stone of the late seventies (in which rather than any inspiration from the Western tradition of statuary or sculpture, one can ascertain a re-exploitation of a highly condensed far-eastern landscape gardening art), to finally culminate in a fine achievement of a very peculiar efflorescence.
On the other hand, Suga; having comprehended, through his <Paraffin>, the art of mingling with space, and in or after 1970, comprehended circumstances and co-subjective events, etc., as determinants to existence, proceeded to produce a quite unparalleled and unique form of art. Above all, that attention directed toward “face” and “border”, as an ambivalent point of contact between things and space, (i.e. towards the face’s obverse and reverse, this side of the border and the other side, which are the articulations of space and play the role of a spring that triggers phase commutations), appeared as absolutely trailblazing, as it afforded a methodic system that made possible the revelation of the pluralistic aspect of existence. ‘According to what do things exist?’ and ‘According to what do we see them?’ are questions that usually lie dormant within Suga’s works. This is opposite to Jasper Johns, who tends to closet tightly and with sheer intellectualism thesesame questions into abstruse pictures or objects, Suga, more flexible to things and space to the point of playing himself with them, performed out this philosophical drama with an altogether physical and spiritual cheerfulness. There is, of course, no reason why the answer to the question of existence should be found within the things, the works or the concepts; Impossible to grasp with the static concept of ‘relation’, the question of existence of structures and man’s articulation upon things and space, his demeanor, etc. That is the great teaching that one learns from Suga’s works. Commenting on Suga, one can say that with him the MONO-HA truly acquired flesh.
Usually regarded as the most homogeneous and the most sharply outlined, a closer inspection of the Lee + Tamabi Connection MONO-HA reveals in fact just how multifarious the whole MONO-HA in a larger sense were. It is indeed largely for this reason that we have coined our definition of the movement as being a group of artists who ventured to bring out the artistic expression of things and their functions, bare and undisguised, giving those things a starring role.
One should not, however, overvalue such a group phenomenon. Should their members not have succeeded in establishing through direct contact with things, a new artistic language that is fundamentally new and unique, not merely as ‘parole’ but also s ‘langue’, then their adventure would have remained confined to the numerous and ephemeral gesticulations of resistance, if not sheer deviation or escape from the excruciating problems imposed by artistic creation. Such phenomena of resistance are often invented by youthful ardour to escape art’s requirements, and should we find them within so called New Art (Shinko Geijutsu) or even within Avant-Garde Art (Zenei Geijutsu), two of modern Japan’s forte, they shouldn’t be allowed to be put forward as suitable representatives of Japan’s modern and contemporary arts. In this country’s republic of critics there is a tendency to rate excessively high, as evidence of their being avant-garde, or a warrantable expression of unwestern sensibility, those artistic irresponsibilities or, at best, those naivetes that disregard form, and which were a must for the “GUTAI” group around 1960 or the MONO-HA movement around 1970. Such a way of looking at things, however, is tantamount to measuring Japanese art against a Western yardstick by echoing, without being aware of the harm that’s being done that Euro-American inclination to appraise only non-western elements Japanese art. None of these general symptoms, like, for instance, unconcern or indifference to the techniques or forms flaunted by the MONO-HA’s, a passive attitude towards the processes unifying craft and imagination, an excessive reliance upon nature, a sort of conceptualism in formula, or a systematic banishment of colors and hues, were embracing in themselves any positive or valuable element.
If one looks at the MONO-HA’s with the synchronic eyes and sees in them only a transient group phenomenon, one may regard them as belonging to one of the quite numerous air pocket phenomena doomed to oblivion that came wedging not infrequently into the stream of Japanese modern art as it strove for maturity. Air pockets of that kind, rather similar to the violence of war, while ruining plenty of things history has built up, or was about to build up, modify completely the relationship between things by bringing about a revolution within people’s awareness. Whether or not art that accompanies such turmoil necessarily gives birth to forms that are new is another question.
If that is the case, shouldn’t the MONO-HA possess the slightest element allowing a positive assessment? Of course not! For those people who tried to ward off that air pocket phenomenon, be it MONO-HA should have enough momentum to change positively their orientation by, as the case may be, tapping new relationships or redeveloping old relationships. The molding of a new artistic language that truly can stand on it’s own legs within a frame work that is genuinely MONO-HA, as I already pointed out before, has been carried on by Kishio Suga, and even now is still in progress. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the undertakings aimed at the re-exploitation of traditional languages are in any way insignificant. Let’s take Susumu Koshimizu, for example, who, thanks to an awakening to the thinking of historicity, broke a trail leading to a deeper understanding of the absolute necessity of the handwork, the manual labor, by fastening together in very close relationships the things as a theme of “existence” and “existing being”, which always remained isolated during the MONO-HA period. It wasn’t so much that he went back to the old forms of sculpture, but rather that he brought about to Japanese sculpture’s history a new degree of awareness by letting his MONO-HA’s personal experience acquire flesh through a critical approach. What’s more, the fact that an authentic group of sculptors were able to criticize, some ten years later, at the beginning of the eighties, ignorance of manual technique, the quasi monistic inclination towards nature and the erasure of the vision, which were all MONO-HA mottoes, should be welcomed as a “Post-MONO-HA”, in short, a kind of Post War maturity. And it is correct to regard those sharp critics as the authentic MONO-HA heirs, much more so than those practicians of ‘installation art’ who are their mere followers, blind and incontinent.
Besides this, if one goes to the trouble of looking with diachronic eyes (i.e. not from the viewpoint of evolutionary theory) at the course followed by each artist and the course of Japanese artistic circles as a whole, it is quite clear that the MONO-HA period was one pregnant with deep significance, but only for these people who tried to live while criticizing it internally. And this is a sign that while it meant an eruption of consciousness, it also meant its severance, while being inspiration, it also meant disaster, divisions that had to be broken through, spells and falsity and above everything, it meant that a fair amount of violence had to sweep through the domain of art. This should be reason enough why MONO-HA should not be mistakenly transformed into a myth as was GUTAI. Even now, this is a challenge for us, and we must deal successfully with it.
August 15, 1986
translated by Jean Campignon