Translated by Reiko Tomeii
In May 1970, exactly half a century ago, Tokyo Biennale 1970: Between Man and Matter was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. The tenth iteration of the biennale (initially known as International Art Exhibition, Japan) has been remembered to this day as an earth-shattering event akin to the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry on the black ship in the mid-nineteenth century, which led to the opening of Japan to the West. Yet, in retrospect, if we merely understand it as an occasion in which the Japanese archipelago was swept through by the cutting-edge practices of Euro-American art, we miss a whole lot. One thing we must remember is that shortly after the Tokyo Biennale, the full scope of Mono-ha (School of Things) would be revealed through the Trends in Contemporary Japanese Art exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (July–August 1970) and August 1970: Aspects of New Japanese Art at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (August). With this in mind, we can reexamine the Tokyo Biennale as an occasion that prompts us to see three distinct movements—North American post-minimalism, Italian Arte Povera, and Japan’s Mono-ha—that had emerged from their respective circumstances and converged in a broader international context. Above all, we must direct our attention to an intriguing episode of resonance among some unique practitioners in these movements.
Now, at the Tokyo Biennale—in the early morning of May 9, one day before the exhibition’s opening, a Japanese cedar tree, some eight meters high, was brought from a nursery in a nearby prefecture to Ueno Park, where the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum stood, by an art ninja. That was Richard Serra, who was particularly keen on installing his work at a specific site among the American post-minimalists who emphasized materiality and production process. That day, his covert action was witnessed only by a nurseryman and Shigeo Anzai, then a would-be photographer who assisted the artist in the process and left valuable documentary photographs. After the planting was done, nothing was indicated there to differentiate his cedar tree from other trees around it. Since the artist did not want a label to identify it as his work, nobody other than those involved in organizing the exhibition knew it was there. Even for those who knew about it, some of them might have been disappointed to see it, because the transplanting of a cedar tree was such a mild act in comparison with his intense interactions with materials he had demonstrated in House of Cards and Casting, both from 1969. I suspect that Serra himself was also not so satisfied with this work, Sugi Tree, which has been completely absent from his massive bibliography.
However, Serra’s Sugi Tree has continued to live vividly in my mind. Certainly, unlike other sculptures by him, it lacked plasticity and left no legacy of sculptural language. Above all, it was somewhat problematic in that it demanded the viewers perform a conceptual exercise on their part. Decades later, when the park was redeveloped, the tree was removed. It is thus not easy to appreciate this work as a viable sculpture. Yet we have to admit that the work has no literary, episodic, or pictorial dimension, let alone an illusionistic dimension. Like any other work by Serra, it showed the whole production process and revealed itself as a thing in its immediacy. What, then, made this work so appealing? I wonder if that was because it enabled us to realize the duality of the simple act of seeing a thing: seeing the visible and seeing the invisible. Although this duality is a necessary condition for perception that always lies between the person who sees and that which is there (an object of seeing), it is not always recognized. This is a facet of the world that is not ordinarily perceived. It becomes evident only when the artifice of art enters the equation.
Thankfully, Serra also left a more illuminating work in front of the museum, some one hundred meters away from Sugi Tree. The work consisted of two conjoined semicircles of L-shaped steel, which were buried in front of the museum in such a way that its “edges” were aligned with the surface of the ground. One semicircle revealed its top edge, drawing a semicircular line on the ground, while the other showed its bottom, creating a semicircular band there. Needless to say, what was visible to our eye was only one-half of the structure; it was nonetheless easily understood that the other half, in an upside-down state, was hidden in the ground.
Serra himself drew a plan for this work, titled To Encircle Base Plate (Hexagram), and directed the steel fabrication. So much so that it materialized the structure of “visible and invisible” far more saliently than Sugi Tree, enabling those who saw it to immediately understand the yin-and-yang logic of ancient China. Indeed, it cast a light of yin-and-yang interpretation upon Sugi Tree, one hundred meters away in the park, which was enveloped by nature as such. I imagine Serra himself wanted to give this work a greater exposure. In the end of 1970, he installed a similar structure, in a larger scale, on an abandoned street in the Bronx, New York, giving it the finalized title To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Angles Inverted.
This title more literally describes what the work is, though slightly differing from the one for the Tokyo Biennale, except for the first part. I found it curious. Certainly, Serra emphasizes the aspect of an act in his work. Yet I believe this is one of the few instances in which he began his title with an infinitive. He typically gave titles in a noun form, such as the gerunds Splashing and Casting, to those works in which he most intensely demonstrated performativity. I even speculate that when he produced this unique structure that would manifest the duality of “half visible, half invisible” for Tokyo, the freshness of his experiment perhaps might have summoned the use of an infinitive. My speculation is not baseless. In 1967–68, when he decided to work primarily as a sculptor, he composed that famous handwritten Verb List, which encompasses some one hundred transitive verbs (and a few abstract nouns). All verbs are given in their infinitive forms. The first entry, “to roll,” was immediately realized in 1968 as a series titled Lead Rolled Up. Still, not many were turned into his works, for the list was likely a playful concoction. Notably, after sixty entries or so, a small set of verbs abruptly appear—to enclose, to surround, to encircle, to hide, to cover, to wrap, to dig, to tie, to bind, to weave, to join, to match—as though anticipating an iron-ring work that would embody “half visible, half invisible.” That is, it anticipated To Encircle Base Plate (Hexagram), which conjoined the ground surface and the belowground. I make such an argument because I strongly felt an aura of Verb List in To Encircle Base Plate (Hexagram) at the Tokyo Biennale.
It is reported that some of the Mono-ha artists, who formed an informal study group in 1969, were at one point obsessed with a game of listing verbs that have a strong association with materiality. Since Serra’s Verb List did not become known through publication until 1972, Mono-ha’s verb game must have been a coincidence. Yet it is significant to find such a resonance on the other side of the globe, for this means that the similar game was invented by the same generation of artists—a generation immersed in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology—who aspired to create a new civilization in which humans would have direct interactions with matter (nature) without being dictated by imagery and forms.
Also one day before the opening of the Tokyo Biennale, Jannis Kounellis, a daring practitioner of Arte Povera visiting from Rome, was struggling at the entranceway to a large gallery in the museum. His initial idea was to install several gas burners on the interior walls there and burn them until all the fuel was used up. His second idea was to modify the walls by embedding pebbles in them. Having tried both ideas at his solo gallery exhibitions in Italy, he knew they were safe. However, the museum, which was rented for the Tokyo Biennale, would not agree to such ideas. The artist was thus trying his third idea, to pile a massive amount of rocks at the entranceway in order to close off the gallery. Unfortunately, he had just found out that the floor would not withstand the weight of the stones, and he had to give up on this idea by sunset. What would he do? According to the record, “On the morning of the opening, he purchased an iron bar and used it, instead of stones, to close off the gallery.” A brilliant stroke, perhaps? Or more like a desperate measure? In fact, this iron bar that the artist used to close off the gallery exposed something unexpected. (Coincidentally, Kounellis subsequently spent a few days in Kyoto; when he returned to Tokyo, he made an adjustment to the bar by attaching a spring at either end. He returned home with the knowledge that the work was properly completed.)
You may say, what’s the big deal about a single iron bar? I tell you what: by articulating the inside and the outside of his assigned gallery, this single stick exposed the fact that space is multivalent. Or, more precisely, that space has at least two aspects. Like Serra’s single cedar tree planted in a grove of the park, Kounellis’s iron bar had little value to be seen as a work of art on its own. Instead, the artist had it function as a catalyst or a signal that would lead the viewers to recognize the duality of space and further see the surrounding environment.
Before the Tokyo Biennale, Kounellis had been known as a pioneer of Arte Povera who in 1967 displayed a live parrot and a cactus field at his solo exhibition in Rome. Interestingly, also in Rome, in 1966, Serra, then on a Fulbright fellowship, showed Live Animal Habitat, in which he encased a live and a stuffed rabbit in the same cage, among other things. From early on, Serra and Kounellis did share similar ideas. In the case of Serra, he must have seen not just life but “life and death” in a single cage, an idea that prefigured his yin-and-yang approach in Tokyo. In the case of Kounellis, he went on to make his name worldwide in 1969 by exhibiting twelve live horses to inaugurate a new gallery space sited at a former garage. People interpreted it as an extension of the live parrot, that is, a more radical manifestation of his “reality as art” philosophy. Still, I suspect that his concern could have been shifted from the literal presence of horses to the environment, or site, occupied by them. Similarly, in his first idea for the Tokyo Biennale, he must have moved one step beyond literally showing fire à la Yves Klein and intended to see the entirety of a gallery and burning fire as a single reality. Although Kounellis was far less eager than Serra to move out into the outdoors and urban spaces, he followed a path not so different from Serra’s in that he, too, became aware of the importance of environments and sites. Therefore, it was no coincidence that a single iron bar of Kounellis presented a facet of the world similar to one revealed by Serra’s single cedar tree, both at the Tokyo Biennale.
When the Tokyo Biennale traveled to Kyoto, Serra buried a variation of To Encircle Base Plate (Hexagram), this time a square in form. After its installation, he spent a few weeks in Kyoto, frequenting Myōshinji, a famed Zen temple, to avidly study its temple structure and stroll-style garden, which he recalls inspired him to develop a new decisive direction in sculpture that would induce the viewer to at once take a shifting incremental sight and hold a full view of a single work. However, this is a topic for another discussion, which I would like to examine elsewhere, particularly how the “half visible, half invisible” articulation of space evident in the two works in Tokyo affected his subsequent majestic development.
In July 1970, after Serra returned home, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto held its annual Trends in Contemporary Japanese Art. In this survey, we were stunned to see Kishio Suga, who had not been included in the Tokyo Biennale, daringly place thick square lumbers aslant in some of partially opened windows of the second-floor gallery. Looking at this work, Infinite Situation I (window) (Mugen-jōkyō I [Mado]), through which one could see a vast fascinating view of the old city, nobody seemed to have thought of Kounellis’s iron bar at the Tokyo Biennale. However, the two works were unmistakable siblings that spatialized the logic of “half visible, half invisible.” This goes beyond Suga making a simplistic reference to Kounellis’s work, for Suga certainly went on to internalize this visible-invisible logic as a central component of his artistic vocabulary. It was evident from his Law of Situation (Jōkyōritsu) of the following year, which he presented at the Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture at Ube, in Yamaguchi Prefecture. In this work, he placed stones on a plastic plate in such a way that it was kept half afloat on the water thanks to the buoyancy created by the stones. The most notable work in this direction was An Aspect as a Whole (Zentai-no-nakano-ichisokumen), shown at the 1978 Venice Biennale. In this installation, Suga erected vertically split cedar trees in the whole room and laid some more on the floor, transforming the space of the Japanese pavilion into a playful site in which infinite shifts and exchanges would take place between positive and negative, front and back, mirror and silence. It was as though Serra’s Sugi Tree gained another body in an evolved form of the visible-invisible logic.
The logic of half visible, half invisible is a kind of metaphysics. However, Serra, Kounellis, and Suga were never corrupted by mysticism, because they all belonged to a post-phenomenology generation.