Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (3rd execution). Courtesy Amagasaki Cultural Center


Conversation with Reiko Tomii

September 6, 2011
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Jane DeBevoise in conversation with Reiko Tomii (on the occasion of a historical investigation of Shiraga’s work, Challenging Mud, as re-staged at MoMA NY on July 23 2011)

In October 1955, Shiraga Kazuo, a prominent member of the group Gutai, executed his signature performative work, Challenging Mud, in the front yard of the Ohara Kaikan hall in Tokyo, as part of the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition. Although his radically violent act of rolling in the mud has since entered the history of performance art, little detail has been known about it.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (2nd execution). ©Shiraga Fujiko and the former members of Gutai Art Association; courtesy Ashiya City Museum of Art & History

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Last summer at MoMA you re- enacted, or investigated by re-staging, a performance called Challenging Mud, by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga. The issues that this re-staging raises are fascinating.

Reiko Tomii, Challenging Mud, 2011. ©Ming Tiampo

Reiko Tomii (RT):  Nowadays not only installations are reconstructed or remade but performances are re-enacted, based on different conditions in different contexts. I think our discussion is very timely.

JD: As an archive, and obviously a new archive, we have been thinking a lot about these issues, particularly in Asia, where performance forms a significant part of what emerging artists do, particularly [those] in under-resourced or politically constrained areas or those who have limited access to materials or a supportive infrastructure. We have been concerned about documenting this practice or activity.

RT: Documenting performance art in Japan [in the] 1950s and 60s was an even bigger issue. Back then, owning a camera was a big deal. Cameras were still not easily accessible in the 1960s, and filming was even more rare. However, Gutai was far better documented than other artists and collectives.

JD: Let’s talk a little about the original work. When I was rereading the materials that you put together, I saw that it was photographed. As I understand it, there were three events, and one was even filmed.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (3rd execution). ©Shiraga Fujiko and the former members of Gutai Art Association; courtesy Ashiya City Museum of Art & History

JD: What strikes me about these photographs is how composed they look, or how self-consciously the artist seems to have performed the piece. In fact, the group invited the press to record and report on the work. Can you talk a little about the documentation of the work? Who did it? How was it done? Where is the documentation now? How has it been passed down?

RT: There are two aspects of the documentation. First, the Gutai members staged certain painting demonstrations for the press, say Life Magazine photographer or Mainichi Newspaper. Second, the artists themselves would take photographs. In Shiraga’s particular case, he actually created a scrapbook of the documentation and included in it a sequence of photographs that he felt best represented this work, Challenging Mud. The set he chose was taken from the third act he executed. There are other photographs from the first and second acts. Interestingly, Gutai was usually very good at collecting and gathering these photographs, so there is a rich photographic archive. What we are relying on now for research is in fact the materials collected and preserved by the Gutai members. It’s more difficult to locate the press materials, for example the MainichiNewspaper film. We just located its footage made into a newsreel, the kind that was shown in movies theaters. This newsreel showed maybe five or ten seconds of Shiraga at work, and in total only two minutes of the whole exhibition. Film archives in Japan are not that accessible, and photographs taken by [the] press may or may not be found in the archives of the newspaper or magazine companies. So generally, unless the artists themselves kept prints, we can’t see them.

JD: Does the independent documentation differ from or challenge in some way Gutai’s own documentation and presentation of the work?

RT: For example, in Shiraga’s scrapbook, some photographs he included show the best ‘views,’ taken from above, from the ladder. By contrast, the photos taken from a horizontal view give a greater sense of movement. The photos taken from above certainly look great, and he knows that! That set was also published in the Gutai Journal.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (3rd execution). Courtesy Amagasaki Cultural Center

JD: These are fascinating photographs, the way they show Shiraga’s body twisting, almost like a reptile squirming in the muck along a riverbank.

RT: These photos correspond closely to his later account of how he twisted his body and then gave a ‘flourish.’ This is quite a feat, in fact, because the mud is quite heavy. It is heavy to move wall plaster (kabetsuchi) mixed with cement, so he had to use his shoulders to move it around. He then gave it a flourish, much like a painter would apply paint to a canvas, first spreading the paint and then twisting the brush to give it a flourish. It really corresponds to how I envision a painter might paint; Shiraga was actually painting with his body and using mud as his material.

JD: To me his actions seem quite theatrical. But you are saying he used his materials – mud and his body – much like an expressionist painter might wield a brush, to create expressive gestures.

RT: The gestural, performative part of his work has been emphasized because of the documentation, and because what he did is amazing, so we tend to think about this work as ‘action art.’ We talk about the physicality of his act and the materiality of mud in relation to his body, its resistance and gestures, and so on. But here we see two photographs of the final product. In one he was posing with it. That was made into a Gutai postcard.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (1st execution). Reproduced from Gutai shiryōshū/Document Gutai, 1954–1972 (Ashiya: Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1993)
Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (3rd execution). Postcard Reproduced from Gutai shiryōshū/Document Gutai, 1954–1972 (Ashiya: Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1993)

RT: [So we also need to recognize that] he made two kinds of painting, one made with his feet on canvas and one made with his body outdoors. They are of equal value.

JD: So this is an object created as a result of an action, and both the action [the process] and the painting [as object] are valid.

RT: Oh, yes. When he demonstrated his foot painting for the press, the result was hung on the wall and stayed there for the duration of the show.

In the mud painting, he mixed cement in wall plaster. Do you know why? Because the object had to stay on view for the ten day duration of the exhibition. If he only used soil, the piece would have crumbled by the second or third day. So mixing in cement in wall plaster was crucial to keep the painting intact and on view for ten days. Of the three acts he performed, he didn’t mix cement in the second one, probably because the first mixture he used got too hard. I imagine he did the second one without it, but that didn’t work out either, so he went back to using cement in the third act. The experimental process is very interesting.

JD: One of the things that I really liked about your commentary [as you were explaining the performance to the audience at MoMA] is how you brought into relief the materiality of the medium, the difficulty of the exercise, the challenge of physically making the work. One wouldn’t have understood this by just looking at the pictures, nor would you have necessarily thought about it as an integral part of the performance. So when you were saying that cement is actually very heavy and hard to manipulate, versus making a mud pie or working with wet sand, we can begin to appreciate that the physical strength needed to move this ‘mud’ the way he did was an important part of the piece.

Reiko Tomii, Challenging Mud, 2011. ©Ming Tiampo
Reiko Tomii, Challenging Mud, 2011. ©Ming Tiampo

RT: The way I staged this piece and demonstrated the act was almost like a lecture. I showed the consistency of the mud. By watching me play with mud in my hands or kick it, the audience could actually see the physicality even though they were not playing with it themselves. When I moved it, I would sometimes have to grunt, so they could ‘hear’ the weight by watching me. In this situation, it was important for me to make it clear that I was not the artist doing his act, but rather an art historian trying to figure out what the act was. In a sense the audience became my accomplice.

JD: Another interesting aspect of your commentary was how you self-identify as a woman during the course of the performance. Going into this act, you explained who you were and what you were versus who he was and what he was. That self-definition may have allowed the audience to better understand, interpret, or translate the piece. For example, when you said that he was a macho-man [laughter]…

RT: He was. [laughter]

JD: But I think [it] is important that you showed that executing the work required a certain muscularity and a certain aggressiveness which [was] perhaps an important part of the work. By contrast, when you approached the mud, I must say you seemed to approach it somewhat gently [laughter] or gingerly [more laughter]. I also liked when you expressed your fear as you approached the act, because it makes me wonder what was going through his mind.

Reiko Tomii, Challenging Mud, 2011. ©Ming Tiampo

RT: Yes, you are right. I have no idea what he was thinking although we have some interviews in which he talked about this work. I wish we could channel him here because now that I have had this experience, I have lots of questions. How did you actually feel? Was it different from doing painting? Was it really that heavy?

But going back to my self-identification before the audience, I thought it was important that the legitimacy and authenticity of the work that he had made was not undermined by what I did without really knowing what had actually happened. It was really an historical reconstruction.

One audience member, an art historian, commented to me later that my commenting on my being a woman, a middle aged woman [laughter] was an interesting way to bring in the gender issue. At the same time, I could comment on how much I could move compared to how much he could move. That contrast, I thought, was very interesting.

JD: Yes, your self-identification opened up the discussion and raised questions about how to re-enact a work, even interpret it, as well as aspects of the performances that might not have been so apparent if you had not self-identified as a woman.

RT: Right. Normally, if I were to commission a re-staging of this performance, I would not have thought of a woman; this would be inauthentic because he was a man. I don’t think I would have thought of an historian either. Normally historians can’t paint [laughter]. I would have thought about a male in his 20s or early 30s, close to Shiraga’s age at the time, because I would want to try to create as authentic a situation as possible, but maybe that’s not enough. Conversely, as you pointed out, when I identify myself and made the differences so clear, the investigation actually became more authentic.

JD: By describing the mud as wet, heavy, and scratchy, and by expressing the fact that you didn’t want your body to get mauled, you emphasized the challenge of the act.

RT: Yes, the word challenge in fact is very apt. In his case Shiraga did not really care about getting hurt.

JD: To go back a little, why did you do this performance?

RT: This is actually a performance within a performance. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) commissioned Ei Arakawa and his group Grand Openings to stage a thirteen-day performance program. The way he envisioned this series was to interact with the functions of the museum as a collecting, research, and educational institution. He wanted to explore each aspect. He positioned this re-staging of Challenging Mud in the context of archiving. He seemed to somehow start with the idea that performance is impossible to archive. He kept telling me about creating metaphor for archiving. To me it was very hard to think about metaphors, as an historian who is very fact oriented. So we had some exchange about how to do it. He suggested this or that, but my response was always that what he suggested was not authentic, that was not what Shiraga did. In the end, Arakawa decided I had to do what I had to do, or what I can do best.

Grant Openings, Grand Openings Return of the Blogs, 2011. Courtesy of the artists

The program that day was divided into three parts. I went first and staged the act. In the second part, MoMA’s archivist talked about archiving ephemeral materials, using such examples as the Fluxus archive. In the third part an archivist from Tokyo (Sen Uesaki) tried to sort out what I did. In a metaphorical sense, archivists always have to think about how to sort things out, after what an artist does, or what an art historian excavates. He was charged with demonstrating these theoretical issues, by clearing the mud.

MoMA's archivist Michelle Elligott and Ei Arakawa talking about archiving performance. ©Ming Tiampo

JD: So he was in charge of archiving your act? By chopping it up, putting it into bags and labeling them?

Reiko Tomii, Challenging Mud, 2011. ©Ming Tiampo

RT: Actually he didn’t bring any labels. He regretted that [laughter].

JD: Did he preserve these pieces? Did he ‘collect’ them?

RT: Theoretically speaking, it should be MoMA’s property, because MoMA commissioned the performance. He only did the metaphorical sorting out. Once the Museum took over, I have no idea what happened.

JD: Some day you might find it somewhere. Or maybe they just scanned it and put it on a disc…

RT: Maybe. [laughter] One artist of the group wanted to use it later for some other purpose, to recycle the relics for his own performance.

JD: This could go on and on. Perhaps it’s in a plant somewhere, helping it grow…

RT: No, no, it is not usable. Maybe they could use it as a doorstopper, but not much else [laughter].

JD: How authentic or how close were the materials you used at MoMA to the original materials used by the artist? How does it matter?

RT: The mud was prepared by Arakawa and the museum staff. They procured garden soil and cement because they were most readily available. I think they went to see wall plaster, but I don’t even know what type of wall plaster Shiraga used. And naturally the Japanese kind and the American kind would have been different.

JD: What kind of wall plaster did Shiraga use, the kind to fill the cracks in old wooden farmhouses, like wattle?

RT: I actually don’t know what type of wall plaster he used, and that is one of the questions that became quite vexing for me. Shiraga never talked about it in detail, he always used the Japanese word kabetsuchi, which is used in houses but could be used in the interior or on the exterior. So using garden soil and cement was as good an approximation as we could get, especially considering availability and cost.

For me another major issue was what I should wear, because Shiraga was basically naked with shorts. We first thought about a bathing suit, but I said no way. I don’t feel comfortable in a bathing suit in public. We also wanted to avoid the association with mud wrestling as much as possible. Arakawa definitely didn’t want that. So I just decided on a simple pair of yoga pants and t-shirt. That was easiest for me.

One of the most difficult issues was how to mix the mud. We had two people (Arakawa and a group member) doing that. I thought maybe we should make a dry mix first because garden soil is basically dry, and cement is basically dry. That’s what you do when you make pasta or cake, right? Mix the dry ingredients first.

JD: Do you know how he did it?

RT: We know the ratio he used: 1 to 3 parts, with 1 being cement. When he procured the wall plaster, it was probably already wet, unless he had to mix it himself.

Even that, I am not sure. So we started with the dry mix. We tried the 1:3 ratio, but it didn’t look right. We added more soil, then we had a mound of dry mix. It was really like cooking.

JD: I liked your description of cooking muffins versus bread dough.

RT: We didn’t know how fluid or dense it should be, so we looked at the documentary photographs, and then discussed how our mud should look. In this photograph the mud looks looser, it was the second performance; the next one look thicker; it was the third one.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (2nd execution). ©Shiraga Fujiko and the former members of Gutai Art Association; courtesy Ashiya City Museum of Art & History
Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (3rd execution). ©Shiraga Fujiko and the former members of Gutai Art Association; courtesy Ashiya City Museum of Art & History

JD: How big was the space was he using?

RT: He used the front yard of the headquarters of a flower arrangement school. It is a very big yard, a big outdoor space, as you can see, so putting down mud there was not an issue.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955 (1st execution). Reproduced from Gutai shiryōshū/Document Gutai, 1954–1972 (Ashiya: Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1993)

At the MoMA, on the other hand, the floor [of the Sculpture Garden] is marble so spreading mud there was more of an issue. The curator said it was OK, but they made a shallow box.

JD: Like a child’s sand box.

RT: Exactly. So that was my space. Originally, Shiraga’s work was about three tatamis in size, meaning slightly less than three meters long. MoMA’s box was smaller than the original piece, probably about three-quarters of the original size. In fact, after spending 30 minutes to get to the right consistency, I realized we needed twice as much mud. But that would have taken another 30 minutes. Preparing the mud was really laborious. Preparing it takes real physical labor. I know he didn’t have an industrial mixer. So he would have had to do it manually.

JD: Do you think he mixed the mud by himself?

RT: I think other Gutai members helped him, because they always helped each other. That’s another thing that we can ask, or could have asked.

JD: When you look at these photo documents, it looks as if he was acting alone. Do we know how many people assisted him or were present?

RT: Here we have photographs of him being filmed by a cameraman. So we do know that at the time he was acting for the camera. But to answer this question accurately, we would need documentary photos of the overall scene, which I haven’t seen yet.

JD: What other kinds of questions came to your mind as you were doing it? Or issues that you have thought about in the process?

RT: Because he was actually making a painting, I would love to ask him what he was thinking when he was making it. I know that when Pollock did drip paintings, he worked on it for a while, then left it alone, and then he came back to look at it again before he decided what to do next. It was a painter’s process. Even though Shiraga’s performance was very short, 15 to 20 minutes, I wonder what he was thinking. Was he looking at the composition? I certainly did. Especially because I am not a particularly athletic type, I really had to think what the next move was. Obviously I was also conscious of being watched, I didn’t want to bore the audience by doing the same thing. So I was thinking things like what was the next stroke, whether I should use a big brush or a small brush. I was very conscious of making a painting. So I became very curious what he was thinking. When we see him rolling around in the mud, it doesn’t seem he was very conscious of what he was creating; but if we look at the result, we see a composition.

JD: Yes. When you look at the ‘finished product’, it almost looks like a starburst or sunburst. There’s a sense of an axis and centrality to it. You have a sense of it dispersing and shattering, with ragged and splayed edges. It looks pre-conceived to me.

RT: To some extent, that’s due to the physical restriction. You start with mud in a mound, as we see in some of the pictures, and then you spread it out. Also, he usually put the paint on canvas at the foot painting, and then spread it out. That was his basic maneuver, if I can use that word. Whether he used a big mound or a small mound, his basic maneuver was to place a primary substance and move it out.

JD: These mud paintings tend to have a somewhat circular feeling to them. Is this kind of composition typical or would he sometimes drag the paint or mud, to make it asymmetrical.

RT: Earlier works were more condensed. He actually started in a very systemic way of making marks with his feet, almost like quasi-minimalist, serialized patterns on the canvas.

Shiraga painting with his feet for Life magazine, at the Nishinomiya factory of Yoshihara’s salad oil company, 1956. ©Shiraga Fujiko and the former members of Gutai Art Association; courtesy Ashiya City Museum of Art & History

Then he gradually unpacked it. Juxtaposing the mud painting of 1955 and his demonstration painting from 1956 is interesting. After the mud painting, his gestures on canvas became much broader. You begin to see more slipping strokes and more complex waves. In terms of the whole development of his painting, I believe Challenging Mud was crucial for him to think in terms of body instead of just making marks with his feet.

Shiraga Kazuo, Challenging Mud, 1955. Reproduced from Gutai shiryōshū/Document Gutai, 1954–1972 (Ashiya: Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1993)

JD: Before Challenging Mud, had he experimented with materials other than paint?

RT: Say, he sliced meat and spread it on a plate. That was a kind of painting, too, right? Challenging Mud took place in October 1955. In the summer of the same year Gutai had their outdoor exhibition, for which he created a mound on the ground in an oval shape, like a sea cucumber, that was covered with plastic or something. That was another use of dirt. But for his works on canvas, paint would probably be the only material he used. As you know, he started with nihonga painting, which is a hard, slow process, but he loved the fluidity, the viscosity of oil paint. For his outdoor painting, he wanted to use something as fluid as possible. He first talked about using his body with actual paint, but thought it would be too messy. Actually he thought mud would be better to use outdoors. He then thought about covering the wall with mud-like wall plaster and then slashing into it. But he realized that was Fontana so he didn’t do it. These are different ideas with different types of materiality.

JD: As you know, I come from a Chinese art background and there were artists in China, particularly in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, who engaged their bodies with materials to create work, but the material these artists used tended to be ink. It seems like ink was a natural, even a default decision for Chinese artists, perhaps because of its availability and cost, perhaps for practical reasons, but perhaps also because of its cultural connection. Anyway, ink seemed to have been the material of choice, even when the artists were not trained as traditional [Chinese] painters. It’s interesting that Shiraga didn’t work with ink or more traditional Japanese or Asian materials.

Wang Peng, 84 Performance, June 1984. Courtesy of the collector and the artist
Wu Shanzhuan, Public Ink Washing, 1987. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive and the artist

RT: He had started as a traditional Japanese painter. The discovery of oil paint was a major breakthrough, a departing point for him.

JD: When you think of oil paint, its properties are so different from ink. One is water-based, which gets absorbed into the paper; oil does not. It has an identity of its own, its trace is very obvious. While it’s possible to layer ink to build bulk, it takes a long time, and its own physicality disappears in most cases, merging with the paper. In a sense ink isn’t insistent on its individuality and becomes part of the thing that is being made, whereas oil paint maintains itself in some way. It insists on its own materiality, its own substance and property, and so by definition it’s more sculptural and more tactile.

RT: His paintings throughout have always been very physical. Viscosity and fluidity is also important to him throughout. At one point in the mid 60s, when he got a little tired of using only feet, he used a stick of wood to scrape the paint on the canvas into a fan-like shape. Viscosity, fluidity, and tactility all came into play for his choice of what he could do next.

JD: As a viewer you can see that, but did he write about it?

RT: Yes, Gutai had a journal. Actually the first collective activity the group did was publishing the first issue of its journal Gutai in January 1955. The first group exhibition was not until October 1955. Shiraga himself really appreciated the fact that he had to write for the journal; writing helped him to think further about what he was doing and why he used his feet. Articulating that led him to use his whole body to create painting. So the journal helps us understand in retrospect what he was thinking.

JD: Who was the audience for all this, who was he speaking to, writing for? What was the rebellion and what was the message that he and his group were trying to convey through these writings and actions?

RT: Rebellion is actually an interesting choice of words. Compared to a traditional avant-garde movement like Dada or Surrealism, I wonder whether Gutai was about rebellion as such. They were very hungry for something new. They wanted to create a new art. It was postwar Japan, unshackled from the previous authoritarian repressive regime. The dream for democracy was coming in; they all hoped for something new. Creating something new was a mandate, especially for this particular group. We also have to acknowledge that Jackson Pollock’s influence was pretty big. That came both via print media and actual works. The Gutai leader Yoshihara Jiro knew about the Lifemagazine article. In 1951 the work of Pollock as well as some other American abstract painters was shown in Japan. Most importantly Yoshihara noticed how important Pollock could be, as opposed to French painters. In Tokyo at the time, French painters were more appreciated than Pollock. Shiraga, too, acknowledged that he saw Pollock and recognized his importance. That was a shared sentiment between Yoshihara and Shiraga. So there was a dogged pursuit for something new with Gutai. Their mission was not so much about creating the ground for rebellion but the ground for something new. As the leader, Yoshihara encouraged the members to challenge, not imitate. If that idea was dogmatically exercised, it could be counterproductive, but when Yoshihara saw new kinds of art, like Shiraga painting with feet, he encouraged him to extend that idea and explore more. That was an interesting way to develop experimentalism.

JD: Again, some things going on here remind me of China the 1980s, which as you know was just emerging from the Cultural Revolution. But the impulse of many young artists at the time was against the constraints of the previous regime or previous dogma. There was a destructiveness, even nihilism in their intention, which was repeated in the manifestos of the time, in which they said: we have to destroy something before we can make something new. What you are describing is not so much about revolt or destruction. It’s not about destroying an old tradition, but rather about an aspiration for something new, such as freedom, if you want to put it that way. It’s more an active aspiration and hope rather than an active refusal or revolt.

RT: It’s very interesting to compare the 1980s in China with the 1950s and 60s in Japan. You are right. In Japan it was not so much about destroying the old, but about departing from the old. That’s why I said it was an aspiration for the new. To some extent, in an ideal world, the old could have already self-destructed. In comparison, the Chinese avant-garde artists in the 80s had something to destroy. In Japan while these artists opposed European-based modernism, which started in the late 19th century, there was a sense that you didn’t necessarily have to destroy the old. Each can live his life in his own way, while a new forum for new practice could be developed. In a sense, that has always been the way in which the Japanese art world expands. There are always new artists or groups in addition to the old, and some of these become stable, with their own forums, their own styles and their own voices, finally becoming the next face of the art establishment. You can see this chain of events leading up to the beginning of the war in the 1940s. After the war, that was already the pattern. That is not to say there weren’t people who tried to smash the old establishment. There were. Take the Yomimuri Independent Exhibition, for example, which tried to create a non-hierarchical art system, where anyone could show what they wanted. While it may have worked to create a new art, it didn’t work to dismantle the old system. Based on experience, it seems destruction doesn’t work well in Japan.

JD: What you are saying is interesting. You are pointing out a cultural pattern in which power struggles are resolved. In China it might have been harder for alternative systems to co-exist.

RT: In a way it’s all about how culture evolves in Japan; it is frequently additive. There is Kabuki as well as modern theatre. We have old style modernism too – we don’t write about it, but it’s there. Other types of contemporary art, like those coming out of the 60s and 70s, are present too. Then we have Morimura, who might actually be a little old by now, especially with newer generation artists like Murakami and Tabaimo. And then there is Ei Arakawa. They all have their own forum for exchange in Japan. They all have their own outlet for discourse; sometimes some are stronger than others, but they all have a place. They all co-exist. Now, we have to think about other types of visual culture: anime, manga, and experimental or independent films…to me it is mind-boggling to think about how many types of visual culture co-exist, and how available they are through communication. If you want to be conservative, you certainly have somewhere to go, and if you want to be new, you have a place to go too. China is similar too, it seems.

JD: Yes and no, but it is true that things are changing quickly. With rising wealth, particularly in the real estate sector, we see opportunity for the development of forums independent of the establishment, independent of both the academy system and the government. So there are an increasing number of outlets, but ultimately, because power is still so centralized, joining the establishment still holds a lot of appeal, providing a lot of opportunities. I don’t know if there are parallels in Japan – of artists who in their youth try to break away, but end up later being drawn back in.

RT: We do have some parallels. For example, Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku [Tokyo University of the Arts], which is the equivalent of Central Academy of Fine Arts [in Beijing], started hiring several of the 60s, 70s artists and now, other contemporary artists too.

JD: Let’s move away from China. Were there any women in Gutai?

RT: Yes, there were several. Atsuko Tanaka, Yamazaki Tsuruko… there were women artists in the younger generation. While Tanaka made Electric Dress, Yamazaki had an interesting use of materiality. I think there was a shared interest in materiality and performance among the female artists. A cohesive kind of femininity.

I think Yoshihara was very shrewd to set up situations for experimentalism. If he had not engaged the artists in these particular situations, I’m not sure they would have been as experimental on their own. It’s almost like being given an assignment from a mentor, and you’re given time to think about how to work through it. For example, the fundamental ‘assignment’ he gave to the members was ‘to come up with something that never existed before,’ which got Tanaka thinking. While at the Osaka station she looked up at a neon sign and voila! ‘That is something I may be able to use,’ she thought. Yoshihara was a great mentor in that sense, constantly encouraging a growing vocabulary of contemporary research and ideas through new material and performance. Through his ‘assignments,’ he directed the artists’ attention to new practices and environments. If you came up with a good idea, you would be granted his approval – his nod. [laughter]

JD: Why did he have so much influence?

RT: He was at least two generations [twenty years] older than most of the members. By the time he founded Gutai with them, he was already a prominent modernist painter in Japan. This meant he knew what was happening within the establishment too. At that time, he was greatly inspired by postwar Japan, and wanted to pursue the possibility of creating a new art, comparable to things that were taking place elsewhere in the world. From around the early 1950s, I have a feeling Yoshihara decided that if he wanted his creative aspirations realized, he would have to work with the younger generation of artists. Shiraga graduated from the Painting Department at the Kyoto University of Fine Arts. Tanaka went to the Kyoto school as well as Art Institute of Osaka Municipal Museum of Art. The artists in Gutai had different degrees of artistic training [ranging from academic training to being self-taught]. In a sense, these artists gravitated to Yoshihara to become his students because the education he could provide them was something they could not get elsewhere.

JD: So what you’re saying is that they all had a propensity to experiment and were thus attracted to Yoshihara’s methodology, because he enabled their experimentation.

RT: Or, rather, those who were inclined to experiment stayed with the group, while some initial members who wanted a more conventional career left the group. Yoshihara was a stern teacher too, which I think was good. An interesting thing is, his art may not look as ‘new’, especially his modernist paintings. Yet, because he had to create his art by learning from others, he knew the limitations of that kind of process, especially in a new environment. He became his own counter-example, and was able to encourage young artists to experiment. Before the mid-60s, some Gutai artists would be brought to his home to help Yoshihara prepare for an exhibition – and they would be scolded if they could not come up with good advice! [Laughter] I could talk about him for a long time – he was a fascinating figure who lay the foundation of Gutai.

JD: Had he traveled overseas at that point?

RT: Not until after the war. Yoshihara was the son of a president of a vegetable oil company, and was thus financially secure. The important thing is, because he was an heir to the family business, he was not allowed to travel abroad to study art before the war. He didn’t travel abroad until Gutai came to New York.

JD: Interesting. Maybe we can end on New York. And the famous exhibition there that was panned for its ‘derivative-ness.’ As you know well, art from Asia is still widely described by Western critics as derivative. Did you see the recent Lee Ufan review in the NY Times? Can you talk to me a little bit about the issue of the ‘influence’ when it comes to Gutai artists? How do you talk about this when you are teaching or writing about the group?

RT: There are two kinds of issues we face. If we look at Japanese art in this time period – the 1950s and 60s – they were really doing something new – we can recognize that in retrospect. For example, let’s take their onstage performances of 1957. These were a kind of Happenings, but there was no language to understand it or set it apart from anything else. One of the fascinating things about Gutai’s 1958 New York debut was that these performances were called by Dore Ashton ‘staged art’ or ‘theatrical art’ not ‘performance art’ because performance art was a term and concept devised much later. Maybe Gutai was too new. Being new was really important at that time – even more so than now. There was competition for the new, subconsciously or consciously. In the eyes of critics, American art was on top of the world, but for the Japanese, art had to be new so that maybe someday artists around the world would be ‘imitating’ Japanese art, not just American art. Speaking of influence, everyone had his or her own influences. Throughout the history of art, artists make something new based on something old. But, because we come from Asia, we are criticized for being derivative, perhaps because we belong to a different chronology and that’s not readily understood outside Asia.

JD: Do you think that Westerners call [art in Asia] derivative because it challenges the idea of progress, threatening the integrity of the grand narrative?

RT: I think threats come in different ways. You described it as the desire to protect what you have or what you know of as your cultural legacy. But we have to make an effort to learn or re-learn that which we think we already know. The lack of knowledge is not necessarily the problem; it’s that we have to take further steps to learn more about things we think we already understand.

I can totally understand the insecurity of Westerners looking at Asian art, because when I first studied American art, I was also insecure and second-guessed myself often. But there is no way of getting around that [insecurity] by saying ‘I don’t’ understand.’ If you work in the field of modern and contemporary art, it is mandatory to understand American art. You can say you don’t like Pop or Abstract Expressionism, but you should be able to discuss it and explain why you dislike it. You should be able to discuss in order to dismiss. In order to understand Shiraga’s decision, or Lee Ufan’s decision, Murakami’s decision – you need more effort than with Klein or Warhol or Pollock.

In my mind, saying something is ‘derivative’ is not the biggest obstacle, because you can prove that is not the case through discursive strategies. But to say ‘I cannot evaluate a work of art because the context is unfamiliar’ is a bigger problem, especially within the art or art historical community, which affect large audiences and has wide influence – it’s a project I have always in mind.

JD: That’s a very large project, educating the Western community of the myriad obstacles to their learning. [laughter]

RT: I’ve been working on this for about twenty years by now. I laugh because it is indeed a challenge but it is crucial in moving forward.

JD: But since Gutai’s 1958 debut in New York, there has been a gradual but increasing recognition of the importance of their work. That’s progress.

I am impressed how your re-enactment excavated new information and questions about the original act. I also think your prose reaction helped, in a very unorthodox way, to reveal how you felt, which is an important art of the interpretive process. Without your text I may have disengaged earlier. It is lively, emotional, and personal, providing another approach to effective teaching.

Please click here to read “I challenged mud, after…” by Reiko Tomii

RT: That’s why I wrote the text the way I wrote it after the MoMA performance; in terms of art historical information, I had already published an essay about Shiraga, including this work. But it was still important to note that I only did one of the three sets [as first performed by Shiraga] – and my work was immediately destroyed by the way! [laughter].

It was an educational opportunity. I used the didactic strategy during my act, but the act itself was quick. It was fifteen to twenty minutes of rolling in mud for Shiraga, and for me, it was three minutes. I was kind of scared, because I can give a lecture anytime but not a performance! The interesting thing is, mixing [to create mud] is really helpful. It helps concentration. Needless to say I did my homework prior – I had seen the film long before my performance. So, by the time we talked about dry mixing and consistencies of the mud, the people who helped me had thought I had done it once before. Mixing the mud helped me gain a certain confidence and inspired a confidence in others too.

JD: I find this issue of re-presenting and installing artworks, whether ephemeral or otherwise, an interesting part of the process of understanding artwork. It also raises important questions about the role and responsibilities of archiving. Thank you Reiko, for taking the time to educate us. We have a lot to learn.


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 masters 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 executions of Challenging Mud were presented at 1st Gutai Art Exhibition, Ohara Kaikan, Tokyo
All works by Shiraga Kazuo © Shiraga Fujiko and Shiraga Hisao
All photos of Reiko Tomii’s performance © Ming Tiampo