PoNJA-GenKon 10 Years: A Presentation by Reiko Tomii

September 11, 2014
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Reiko is one of our biggest supporters, and when I say ‘our,’ I mean Asia Art Archive, and for those of you I haven’t met, Asia Art Archive is a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong. We are a library and archive focused on developing research and new ideas about contemporary art of Asia. Asia Art Archive started in 2000 in Hong Kong, and in 2009 we set up a registered non-profit organization in New York, and Reiko very nicely agreed to be on our board of directors.

Reiko Tomii (RT): All I do is just go to meetings!

JD: No, you don’t. You give us all sorts of ideas! Reiko has been wonderfully supportive. She’s also on our advisory committee and at the drop of a hat she will fly to Hong Kong to help us. She has worked with us developing key words for Japan, and she’s created a reading list on Japanese art which we have posted on our website. But today we’re here to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the PoNJA Society, which was co-founded by Reiko and Miwako Tezuka. Thank you Reiko for speaking to us tonight.

RT: Thank you for setting this up. It’s really a treat for all of us. It’s PoNJA’s tenth anniversary symposium. Because many of you are members online and because we exist mainly online, we rarely have a chance to get together. So I would like to begin by making sure all of you know what PoNJA GenKon means. It’s an acyronym for Post-1945 (Nineteen forty five) Japanese Art Discussion Group – Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai. It’s a long name, but the easy way to remember is PoNJA is Japon, Japan in French, flipped around. However that’s not how we came up with the name. We only discovered that afterwards. The abbreviation of GenKon is very nerdy, (Jane knows I’m a nerd.) It’s from Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai, an Osaka group in the 1950s, which is generally known as Genbi. It preceded the Gutai group. But the way we abbreviated it came from Akasegawa Genpei’s Sen’ensatsu Jiken Kondankai (1,000-Yen Note Incident Discussion Group) which they called SenKon. With that in mind, I just want to say that we are covering 1950s and 1960s art.

PoNJA Society was founded on April 2, 2003 by Miwako Tezuka and me. The reason for this date is I didn’t want it to be an April Fool’s joke. So we shifted the launch date one day to the 2nd. PoNJA is a listserv group for scholars, curators, and researchers interested in learning about contemporary Japanese art, although we cover modern Japanese art too. We presently have 150 members. I found this write-up in my file, which I wrote when we put together a brochure to promote our group. It says, ‘Since its inception, PoNJA-GenKon has grown to become a large international network of people. (We just moved to a new server, a Google group, and we now have 150 members) with shared interests and passions. We value the creative and intellectual input of individuals who can contribute to this sense of community and to the field of post-1945 Japanese art history, aka PoNJA.’ So when we say PoNJA, it could be a group or it could be a field. Our group motto is borrowed from Yoko Ono to represent the importance of collaboration: ‘A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.’

It’s been 11 years now and it’s more than a reality. We have 16 people presenting at our upcoming symposium, plus we have moderators coming from other fields, so we are growing and I’m very grateful for all of you. But in the beginning there was no field. The exhibition Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky and the related publication and scholarship it encompassed marked the beginning of PoNJA-GenKon.

This was when I started thinking more seriously about working on postwar Japanese art history. My motivation was [the question]: ‘is postwar Japanese art as exciting as postwar American art?’. American art was my major in graduate school, so it was a natural thing for me to consider this question. My answer after the publication and exhibition was yes, definitely, and perhaps Japanese post-war art was far more radical. I still believe so, although I’m kind of a partisan in that way but we need somebody like that! I received a very nice statement from Ming recently. I can’t say it better myself, so Ming would you read it? It’s from circa 2003 when PoNJA was founded.

Ming Tiampo (MT): There was no scholarly community to speak of in postwar Japanese art. We all toiled in fragmented obscurity, each reinventing the wheel and fighting the same isolated battles. Students were being discouraged from pursuing postwar Japanese topics, publishers were utterly uninterested, and no jobs were available.

RT: That was true. How different it is now! But around 2003, even though the situation was bleak, Miwako and I saw a small sign of growth. Miwako was doing a dissertation on postwar Japanese art, Ming was working on Gutai, and Midori Yoshimoto had already finished her dissertation and was about to publish her first book about performance art. So there were a few people around which led Miwako and me to wonder who else was out there? Why don’t we get together? Truth be told, when you work alone for such a long time you become nervous to share with the new people who are coming up. Seriously! It’s like ‘they’re coming after me!’ I’m not an overtly competitive person. Working together is an important part [of] my life. If you remember ‘Scream’, I worked with Alexandra (Munroe) and she worked with me. If two people work together, we can achieve something. If there’re three, ten, or fifty, we can do even more. That’s why we follow Yoko Ono’s dictum. That’s our motto. Again, Ming, could you continue reading?

MT: Once PoNJA was formed, a beautiful thing happened—this organization became a site for scholarly exchange, but much more than that. We took the time to work together, talk together, and learn together, for we knew precisely that a community does not spontaneously appear. Ponja became an intellectual home, a community, and a place for collective action and solidarity.

RT: That’s the spirit. Working together. We have to work together, students have to be taught, professionals have to learn the work of the trade, and rather than learning it on your own, we can all teach each other. So in that sense, it is a community and I really treasure what Ming wrote.

Our first collective action was the petition drive to support the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History. The background is that in 2003, a few months after we founded the listserv, we received news that due to financial problems, the city of Ashiya was going to close the museum, disperse the collection, and dismantle the cultural achievements that had been made. We were like ‘you must be kidding.’ For this project Midori Yoshimoto took the initiative because Miwako and I were at a loss. But Midori was proactive. Once she got this news she said ‘we have to do something,’ so she found this online petition site and we collected more than 1000 signatures. We printed the names and we submitted the list to the museum, who submitted it along with other positions to the city and the Ministry of Education. I have excerpted it here. You can find some familiar names on this list and some choice comments by well-known people. I translated all of these comments into Japanese so the Japanese officials could read them. We actually became newsworthy ourselves, once the museum told the press about our petition which included so many international people.

Our first symposium was in April 2005. It was spearheaded by Ryan Holmberg who was a graduate student at Yale University at that time. Basically our past projects were all collaborations with other institutions, because we don’t have our own funds, but we have a lot of ideas. The East Asian Studies Department at Yale University was the co-organizer. There’s a nice poster. The image is a manga by Tsuge Yoshiharu, picked by Ryan who wrote his dissertation on Garo, an avant-garde manga journal, and is a specialist in manga. These are some of the things that we established from the beginning: we want to talk with artists and we treasure artists’ voices, so Cai Guo-Qiang was invited to have a discussion with me. Also, the screening of films of experimental nature is very important because we don’t get to see many of them. For the Yale symposium, there were specialists of film studies, and we asked them to curate a program. A special event at Yale was an artist participation. Ei Arakawa is probably the only artist member of PoNJA. He didn’t know what the list was for at first and he posted a lot of artist-type questions at the beginning. But he actually has a very interesting take on art history, so I asked him to make a video to show at our Yale symposium.

This photo is Cai Guo-Qiang, Miwako, and me. In the slide, you can see me in the bathtub. Left of Cai Guo-Qiang is me. The photograph was taken by my husband Jeff Rothstein at the Queens Museum of Art.

Now, these slides are taken from Ei’s presentation. I asked him to do a video based on an independent study he had done with me, so he made a video work about On Kawara. Another tradition is that we usually ask people outside the field to participate in our program. That includes modernist or American scholars. At Yale we asked David Joselit to moderate the panel ‘Ephemeral in the 1960s.’ In retrospect, the panel was phenomenal – a whole field of scholarship developed from just one panel. In particular, there was Midori Yoshimoto’s work on post-Yomiuri performance art, which forms the second part of her performance study. Ming Tiampo did a paper on Gutai and nengajō (New Year’s postcards), which became part of her Gutai book. Mika Yoshitake talked about ‘Non-Art’ and that was developed into her Mono-ha dissertation and an exhibition. And I talked about the ‘Culture of Showing,’ which is an important component of my study of international contemporary.

Now let me go through our list of activities. We also did a two-day symposium in L.A. in 2005 in conjunction with the Getty exhibition Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art. We had one day at the Getty Research Center and another day at the Hammer Museum doing student panels, to hear the voices of students. That’s another important component; we want to be scholarly but scholarly means starting with graduate students, or maybe before. We have to have graduate students in our programs.

A CAA panel in 2006 on collectivism is outside of the list because it was done under the auspices of the Japan Art History Forum, but if you look at the members, they were basically the people on the PoNJA panel. We turned this into a special issue of positions which came out in Spring 2013.

In 2009 we organized a panel discussion about Gutai, which is one of the origins of the Guggenheim’s Gutai exhibition. The postcard announcement was produced in conjunction with Midori Yoshimoto’s gallery show on Gutai. We learned to tap into various resources to expand our programing.

In 2010 we organized a conference at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, again in conjunction with Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art which travelled from the Getty to Michigan. Ei Arakawa was again asked to do a performance (you’re going to see the video of that performance on Saturday evening). The symposium title was ‘Saying Yes to Say No.’

With ‘Collectively Speaking,’ we finally organized something in New York City with Miwako in conjunction with the Nara Yoshitomo exhibition. Tom Looser was a part of the panel.

In 2012, two years ago, ‘Voices of Mono-ha Artists’ was a major event for us, organized in relation to Mika Yoshitake’s exhibition of Mono-ha, which was opening at the Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles, at the same time as the annual conference of CAA (College Art Association). Miya Mizuta at the University of Southern California took the initiative to organize it. It was very timely, because practically everybody was in LA: artists were there for the opening, art historians were there for CAA. We modeled this program after the legendary February 1970 discussion of Mono-ha in Bijutsu techō. All the proceedings and the translation of Lee Ufan’s essay on Sekene Nobuo have been published in the Review of Japanese Culture and Society, an English language journal published by Jōsai University in 2013. Wherever possible, we try to publish our programs.

So now we are here, in 2014, and the symposium title is ‘For a New Wave to Come.’ What does a wave have to do with PoNJA? The first wave crested with Alexandra’s ‘Scream,’ preceded by Oxford MoMA’s ‘Reconstruction’ and the Pompidou’s ‘Japon des Avant Gardes’ and followed by my contribution to ‘Global Conceptualism.’ With the first wave, the idea was established that PoNJA can be a field or an object of scholarly interest, as well as something personally interesting. This is another discussion altogether, but at the time, inspired by ‘Scream,’ some people really wanted to collect Gutai and Mono-ha artwork, but I had to tell them that there was no work to collect. The situation has changed over the past 20 years. Mika’s Mono-ha exhibition was organized by a commercial gallery without losing scholarly characteristics. I think Gutai has a big market. I call this the second wave of interest, which is not only scholarly but commercial as well. But now the third wave will surely come, although we have to create it, we cannot wait around to see what happens; we have to activate it. That’s the thinking behind the 10th anniversary symposium.

JD: Well, thank you, Reiko for your great presentation, and we look forward to another successful symposium and to PoNJA’s exciting third wave.

Reiko Tomii is an independent art historian and curator, who investigates post-1945 Japanese art in global and local contexts. Long based in New York, she received her master’s degree from Osaka University and her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research topic encompasses ‘international contemporaneity,’ collectivism, and conceptualism in 1960s art, as demonstrated by her curatorial and authorial contribution to Global Conceptualism (Queens Museum of Art, 1999), Century City (Tate Modern, 2001), and Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art (Getty Research Institute, 2007). Her recent publications include Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades (2009) and contributions to Yanagi Yukinori: Inujima Note (2010) and Xu Bing (Albion Editions, 2011). As a co-founder of the listserv group PoNJA-GenKon (Post-1945 Japanese Art Discussion Group-Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai), she has organized conferences and panels with Yale University (2005), Getty Research Institute and UCLA (2007), Guggenheim Museum (2009), and University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (2010).

All images provided by Reiko Tomii. For more information about PoNJA-GenKon, please visit here.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.