Suzuki Katsuo (The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) on Zero Jigen’s Rituals of Completely Naked Walks with Gas Masks
The latest offering at the National Gallery Singapore is the exhibition, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s. It is an ambitious exhibition, and curators from three important institutions worked together across a period of more than four years in order to pull the project off. Before it opened at the National Gallery Singapore, the exhibition was shown at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Korea and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT). This interview is the first in a two-part series on curating the groundbreaking exhibition.
Suzuki Katsuo is Curator at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT). He received his MA in art history from the University of Tokyo and has worked at MOMAT since 1998, specialising in modern and contemporary art of Japan and the West. His curatorial projects for MOAMAT include Brazil: Body Nostalgia (2004), Okinawa Prismed: 1872–2008 (2008), Experimental Ground 1950s (2012), Unconsciousness of the City (2013) and Art and Printed Matter from the 1960s to the 1970s (2014).
Intervening through Rituals
Suzuki Katsuo (SK): Zero Dimension (Zero Jigen) was founded in Nagoya, a huge city in the central region of Japan. It would take you an hour to get to Nagoya from Tokyo by Shinkansen express. Zero Dimension was led by Katō Yoshihiro, but he was not the group’s founder.
The Zero Dimension group performed in the streets of Tokyo during the 1960s. Their works were made in direct response to the fast-paced lifestyle typical of modern Japanese cities. For most of their rituals, the artists would perform nude in public spaces. Although a majority of their works were staged in the 1960s, I think there were still spaces for such artworks in Tokyo then. After the 1960s, we see a decline in the number of works that involve nude performers or artists. The spaces in which artists could hold such performances became increasingly limited.
This group of artists called their performances “rituals”, and this could be because they found the term “performance” rather neutral. The Zero Dimension artists used their bodies, as Japanese people themselves, to point other Japanese people towards considering how deep the roots of Japanese culture run. In particular, they were interested in pre-Modern Japanese ways of life and in blurring the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Through their performances, I think the Zero Dimension artists sought to rediscover or recreate these deep, subconscious levels of the Japanese psyche. This is probably why they preferred to call their performances “rituals”, because the idea of a ritual holds connotations of pre-modern or traditional culture.
Some art historians and critics such as KuroDalaiJee and Sarawagi Noi began rediscovering Zero Dimension and their works between the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. During the past twenty years since, scholars and curators have been rethinking how we understand the culture of 1960s Japan by considering the presence of groups such as Zero Dimension. Japanese art history has a tradition of favouring the study of objects, and this is probably why the practice of artist collectives such as Zero Dimensions fell to the margins. Zero Dimension and their performances were widely covered by mass media, so these artists would have been very well known at the time. It is also possible that the Zero Dimension artists did not see their actions as fine art. They might have actively denied this label, and if so, the museum or gallery would hardly be the ideal location for their works. Audiences enjoyed watching their performances, although some were surprised as well. Given the social climate of student protests, a burgeoning youth culture, and the onset of the hippie movement; Zero Dimension was part of this larger phenomenon. We didn’t go into this much detail during the exhibition, but more attention definitely needs to be given to how these collectives made use of mass media.
Inserting Performative Works into the Museum
SK: Despite their popularity with mass audiences, many critics and museum curators at the time did not think of the works by the Zero Dimension artists as fine art. Museums were concerned with collecting the art object, so there was little to no space for performative works. We didn’t have video recordings or photographs of these performances in the MOMAT collection until more recently too. We have since acquired materials from the Hi-Red Center archive. Hi-Red Center was another collective of performance artists, and they were active around the same time as Zero Dimension. The main difference between Zero Dimension and Hi-Red Center is that the Zero Dimension artists perform nude. The nudity in some of the Zero Dimension performances is so overt that it can sometimes be difficult to show these works in public spaces and museums.
Yet the reason we can even consider exhibiting these performance works in a museum today is because groups such as Zero Dimension and Hi-Red Center documented their works through photographs. It is important to note that Katō-san, the leader of Zero Dimension, used media to strategically document their rituals. Filming a performance was difficult and expensive, and so Katō-san was adamant that a photographer was present to shoot the entire sequence. At the same time, this is not to say that works by Zero Dimension were not documented on film. There is a video recording of one such work included in this exhibition, and it is clear that Katō-san was aware that the work would disappear as soon as the performance was over. There was a lot of thought put into how the Zero Dimension performances were recorded, and how these recordings would be passed onto the next generation.
Curating A Transnational Exhibition
SK: When I read books or articles on the history of contemporary Asian art, many of them would begin their narration from the 1990s. This can give one the impression that there were little to no contemporary artists working in Asia before 1990. The 1990s were undoubtedly a very significant time. The emergence of the Asia Pacific Triennale, the Chinese avant-garde and global mobility contributed to this rise. Yet I wondered why there was a gap in our knowledge, and became interested in the period of time immediately before the 1990s. Cultural historians have always been interested in the various student movements that happened in many cities across Asia during the 1960s and 1970s, so this felt like a natural place to begin this inquiry.
This exhibition is a collaboration between three museums in three different countries. We started preparing for this exhibition in 2014, and it took more than five years for us to realise this project. In order to ensure that the exhibition retained the same tone across its three separate iterations, the curatorial team sat down to craft a list of artworks that would be exhibited in across all three venues. This list formed the backbone of the exhibition, but each museum had the prerogative to include additional artworks into their own shows. This was important, as all three museums were working with very different spaces and audiences. Our museum, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, was the smallest in terms of physical space; so we had to work accordingly. For the exhibition in Korea at the MMCA, the curators included additional works by the minjung artists from the 1980s. In Singapore, I was very impressed by the inclusion of Huang Yong Ping’s colossal work, Reptiles. Seeing the exhibition in Tokyo might feel very different to seeing it here in Singapore, but the composition of the exhibition remains exactly the same.
During our discussions, all the curators were in agreement that local conditions and contexts should not be reduced. We’ve tried to relate these contexts through artwork captions, and encourage viewers to make comparative links between artworks. We also chose to frame this exhibition through questions. The exhibition has three main chapters — Questioning Structures, Artists and the City, and New Solidarities. By framing the exhibition as a transnational one, some nuances or specificities were inadvertently be collapsed. We’ve tried to reduce this tendency by foregrounding the artistic attitudes, strategies and spirits that were embodied by various artists at the time. When the exhibition was held in MOMAT, we included the nationality of each artist in an artwork’s label. A work by the Zero Dimension group would state the artists’ nationality as Japanese, and a work by Tang Da Wu note that the artist is Singaporean. We also made a free leaflet for audiences who saw the show at MOMAT. The leaflets contained in-depth artwork explanations, and provided viewers with knowledge of the various local contexts.
This is just one exhibition, and we can’t answer all the questions one might possibly have about this particular period in time. It is time to take a closer look at the variety of experimental artistic movements that were based here in Asia. We can create a cultural map of Asia by tracing the emergence of these movements and the resonances they had. There have already been major survey exhibitions put on by museums in the West, such as an exhibition at the Queens Museum titled Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s - 1980s. It is important to note that MOMAT, MMCA and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) worked together ten years ago on an exhibition titled Cubism in Asia. Following this exhibition, MMCA and SAM worked together on another show titled Realism in Asian Art. All of these exhibitions were concerned with transnational frameworks, but focused mainly on painting histories. It’s time to move forward, and to examine how Asian artists responded critically to Modernism. These artists went beyond Modernism to expand the very definition of what art would do within a social sphere.
Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s is now open.
The exhibition will run at the National Gallery Singapore until 15 September 2019.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.