Ei Arakawa’s new installation “Tryst” explores the commercialisation of Japanese art history.
Art Radar takes a look at Japanese artist Ei Arakawa’s recent exhibition “Tryst”, which ran until 11 March 2017 at Taka Ishii Gallery in New York.
This is performance artist Ei Arakawa’s third solo exhibition project with Taka Ishii Gallery and sees the artist once again turning to musical elements. For the exhibition, Arakawa chose five famous paintings by the Japanese Gutai Group artists, each of which was shown through a hand-made LED screen. These screens were displayed in a kind of scenography that borrowed the visual marketing language of the Art Basel fair. A series of musical compositions weave a narrative that seeks to offer a re-reading of the paintings (seminal in the Japanese postwar art scene) as markers of the commercialisation of vital questions. The exhibition “Tryst” saw the performance artist once again turning to the “musical” to communicate ideas of celebrity, image, commercialisation and circuits of production of value in the art world.
Arakawa, the Gutai Group and commercialisation
This is the second work in which the artist has made a direct reference to the Gutai group: his 2011 performance See Weeds also includes moments in which the same paintings used in “Tryst” flash up on a series of screens, while songs and conversations between them serve to develop a collage narrative. The Gutai Group was one of the most important artist collectives in postwar Japan. Founded by Yoshihara Jirō in 1954 near Osaka, its name translates as “concrete”, a reflection of the artists’ desire to push beyond the abstract painting of the day with experiments in pure materiality. Early experiments, such as Kazuo Shiraga‘s calligraphic paintings made by smearing paint around on a canvas evoking the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock or Art Informel, were soon followed by an emphasis on performances, immersive installations and video. For a nation emerging from the shadow of totalitarianism, Gutai’s call for vitality, play and new artistic frontiers served as a jolt to a culture of consensus.
All the paintings referred to in both See Weeds and Tryst were produced around 1959, and thus represent a selection from a significant turning point in Gutai’s history, when artworks had been gradually exported to nations such as France as examples of Art Informel in Japan and the group was garnering international attention. Arakawa’s decision to focus on this period seems to reflect an interest in, on the one hand, the timelessness of questions surrounding the relationship between the body and representation (which stand at the heart of both Arakawa’s and the Gutai group’s artistic practices) and on the other hand, the commercialisation of these vital questions through their distribution among the commercial art circuit.
“Tryst” and the Art Basel aesthetic
“Tryst” thus departs from what Arakwa sees as the moment in which the Gutai group began to seek global success and he connects this with the commercialisation of the art world in general. The artist expresses this idea through his choice to frame the installation using the marketing literature (logos, parafenailia, typeface) of Art Basel, one of the most well-attended, international art fairs across its Basel, Miami and Hong Kong editions. The digitalisation of the original paintings in the exhibition (through its LED display) further questions how our current digital condition and networked society influences the state of painting.
“Tryst”: the musical as means of exploring “augmented authorship”
Arakawa has appropriated numerous avant-garde artists from Japanese art history in his works, which have referenced predecessors such as Jikken Kobo, Gutai, and Fluxus members who served as pioneers in creating forms of collaborative and interactive artworks. Arakawa’s interest in appropriation, reinvention and collective authorship over time has led the performance artist to settle on the musical form in recent years, which requires the necessary assembly of a cast and a re-reading of the original score or script at every new moment of presentation.
Much of Arakawa’s recent work has veered into musical production, namely his 2016 work How to Disappear in America, which premiered at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in Chinatown New York. How To Disappear in America: The Musical (2016) is based on a book with the same title by US artist Seth Price. The adaptation of the work continues Arakawa’s practice of translating previous artistic works into musical form. Published in 2008, Price’s elliptical handbook alludes to 1960s countercultural guides but uses material taken almost entirely from the internet, updating methods of disappearance for the current digital (and highly surveilled) age. Developed in collaboration with writer Dan Poston (who also wrote the lyrics for “Tryst”) and composer and artist Stefan Tcherepnin, the musical and installation form a lip sync performance using the pre-recorded voices of the performers – showing how shifts in context can reframe previous artworks to produce radically augmented meaning.
“Tryst” as an installation work not only offers a creative and irreverent re-contextualisation of postwar Japanese art by reaffirming the Gutai group’s place not just in the history of art but in the history of the commercialisation and distribution of art. It also plants wider questions about how any artist can possibly balance the drive for success with the development of creative practice and critical thought. Arakawa suggests that in the digital age it is practically impossible, suggesting instead that we should perhaps give in to the music and dance.
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