Howls of laughter, howls of rage

The second world war familiarised many Japanese with all the varieties of trauma, mutilation and unnatural transformations that the human body can endure. Months before Hiroshima, two days of relentless Allied bombing levelled Tokyo, killing at least 100,000 people and stranding millions more. Later, as the war slowly slunk into the past, the recollection of disfigured bodies lingered in the nation’s art, a sign of latent horror.

A powerful but chaotic exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo 1955-1970: a New Avant-Garde, covers the years when Japan’s veil of shock lifted, yielding a slew of movements, abstractions, experiments and howls of laughter and rage. It didn’t happen immediately: in the immediate aftermath of the war, art was strictly pragmatic and informative. The luxury of avant-garde experimentation would have to wait until the end of the US occupation, and the ensuing years of reckoning and rebuilding.

That’s where the show picks up – and where it quickly gets lost. Curated by Doryun Chong and Nancy Lim, it’s at once too comprehensive and too compressed, incoherent in its storytelling and overwhelming in its organisation. Yet a few works blaze through the barrage, and the body – or its agonising absence – hovers everywhere.

A crop of artists steeped in symbolism and outrage dominated the late 1950s. Okamoto Taro filtered atrocity through surrealism, painting bright, trippy scenes of horror in a manner inspired by Picasso. “Guernica” fixed a coruscating beam upon a screaming horse; Okamoto’s “Law of the Jungle” spotlights a red shark-like animal with a zippered mouth and a cartoon eye. The beast dives menacingly into the foreground, scattering anthropoid cats and other monsters.

‘Baton Twirler’ by Daido Moriyama (1967)

Okamoto also photographed the primitive pottery of the prehistoric Jomon era, in which he saw a suddenly timely meld of barbarism and grace. In one of the pictures, Okamoto emphasises the dynamic freakishness of a figure whose inflated nose, bugged-out eyes and honed chin eerily herald manga obsessions with apocalypse, gore, cuteness, sex and surrealism.

Okamoto’s paintings were equally prescient. In one masterpiece, sadly missing from this show, he depicts the tragedy of a Japanese fishing boat caught off Bikini Atoll as the hydrogen bomb erupted. Okamoto encrypts his rage in a comic-book code of floating eyeballs, squiggles and stylised streaks of flame.

He was not alone in wrestling publicly with memories of war. Ikeda Tatsuo plumbed the Bikini fishing boat incident for his haul of deformed, humanoid fish squirming and gasping in a huge net. Hamada Chimei’s etchings of impaled heads, suicidal soldiers and wartime atrocities also used a dialect of Goya-esque surrealism to express profound disgust.

As the war receded, its legacy of violent imagery endured. Competing art movements effloresced in the 1960s, and the show’s curators vainly try to corral all that vigorous creativity into a cogent narrative. There was the exuberant Gutai group, whose adherents dedicated themselves to innovation for its own sake. They danced on canvases in bare feet, shot at them with paintballs and ladled tar on them in great black goops. At the same moment, but following a dramatically different aesthetic philosophy, a coterie of composers, photographers, painters and performers cohered into Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), espousing a severe modernist rigour.

‘Sheets of Vagina (second present)’ (1961/94) by Akasegawa Genpei

Still other young artists rallied to the cry of anti-art, tackling the body in ways that warped and twisted it. Arakawa Shusaku evoked nameless, faceless dead with a series of “coffins”, casket-shaped boxes lined with deluxe fabric and topped up with a corpse-like ooze of cement and gauze. Other artists broke the body down into constituent parts. Akasegawa Genpei worked with blood-red inner tubes, cutting, pleating and sewing them together into a vaguely anatomical relief that he titled “Sheets of Vagina (second present)”. Meanwhile, his pal Kudo Tetsumi amused himself with male genitalia. He shaped duct tape, bulbs and electric chord into hundreds of mini turd-phalluses and suspended them from walls and ceilings.

Kudo’s passion for body parts endured to the end of the decade. In 1968 he made “Homage to the Young Generation – the Cocoon Opens”, a disquieting monument to human reproduction. A cast-off pram contains a peanut-shaped pod that cracks open to reveal a brain inside. Another, larger brain sits on the floor, connected by an umbilical tube to the rest of the throbbing pink ensemble. The piece is funny, awful and disgusting, a tale of trauma passed along from one wizened generation to another just being born.

Photography is one of this period’s great triumphs, but at MoMA it gets short shrift. The work of Tomatsu Shomei and Daido Moriyama, still as poetic as it was decades ago, is shunted on to a dim wall in the final gallery. Tomatsu cultivated a self-consciously arty style that sifted together surrealism, Cartier-Bresson and Japanese lyricism. He could be compassionate, as when he sensitively recorded the scarred faces of Nagasaki survivors. But most of his photos have the debonair elegance of cool jazz.

Moriyama is the brasher of the two. A half-generation younger, he deploys sharp contrast, speckled texture and off-kilter composition in scenes like “Baton Twirler”. A majorette in white go-go boots capers before a glowering crowd and seems to be floating above a grainy abyss, like a cartoon character about to plummet. Moriyama catches a pregnant moment: Japan’s metamorphosis from a defeated nation into a frenzied, urban and alienating place.

‘Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde’ continues until February 25

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