Dystopia Man

Tetsumi Kudo: Culitvation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1970, plastic, artificial hair and soil, toy mouse, transistors and mixed mediums, 19 3/4 by 18 7/8 by 18 7/8 inches. Aomori Museum of Art, Japan.


It is an ugly body of work. Snot green and biohazard orange are its flagship colors, feces and dick its main forms. The work is intentionally cheap-looking, dominated by lacquered plaster and inexpensive consumer plastics. Through its base materiality and lurid subject matter—characterized by a kind of dystopian science-fiction kitsch it aims at repulsion. Inside a small hemispherical terrarium work from 1970, for example, is a lemony swampland of lacquered acrylic mucus and spongy lime colored growth. Circuitry diagrams are visible beneath the effluent, from which sprout small straight transistors, cylinder—topped like cattails. Picturesque in a fashion, the landscape is punctuated with outcroppings-not of rock, but of fat, discolored, plaster noses, their nostrils dark caves of black bristly fur. A nappy toy mouse is stuck in the muck, and a penis crawls through it, slow as the plumpest slug. Or consider a work from 1966: Two striped deck chairs, laid outbeneath a parasol for a beachside holiday, glow a caustic fluorescent orange and green under black light. Along the backrests and seats are smears of what looks like waxy flesh, among the leftovers of a melted woman and a melted man. Polyester foot soles dangle off the end of one chair. Each sitter has one remaining hand, and each hand holds a birdcage. One houses a brain, and the other a bloated and splotchy heart: the couple’s organ pets.

The work of Tetsumi Kudo (1935–1990) has had a marginal presence in North America. From time to time, individual pieces have appeared in group shows on abjection or in the rare survey of postwar Japanese art, and in summer 2008 Andrea Rosen in New York presented his first one-person gallery show in the U.S. But Kudo has been by no means obscure. In Japan and Europe, his work is recognized for being as singular as it is outlandish, and since the ’60s he has been the subject of numerous exhibitions abroad, both large and small. “Garden of Metamorphosis,” the survey of Kudo organized by Doryun Chong for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, thus aims to introduce a celebrated unknown to a broader North American audience.

As its title suggests, the exhibition presents “metamorphosis” as the prime trope of Kudo’s oeuvre. Kudo claimed that the chrysalis best symbolized his philosophy of art. Indeed, the sculptures are filled with cocoon and larval forms, and the materials he chose often render intermediary states between solid and liquid. Though he believed that art has the power to incite and transform the viewer through the presentation of social and existential truths, Kudo was no progressivist. He was antihumanist and strongly antimodernist. The human body is pervasively disfigured throughout his work, and the overriding theme of his dioramas and installations is irreparable earthly degeneration. He places the blame on blind faith in technology and progress, and behind most of his apocalyptic visions is the mother of all man-made catastrophes, nuclear holocaust. Kudo and his apologists have connected this grotesquerie and doom with practices of “negative utopia,” in which an enhancement of the undesirable is thought to repel one toward the good. In other words, humanity might be reborn through the exaggeration of its failures. Yet even if one embraces, as Chong does, a positive reading of Kudo’s work and discerns in the artist’s degradations figures of hope, it must also be said that at no point did Kudo offer an optimistic picture of a post-humanist human.

Kudo began his career in Tokyo in the mid-1950s making heavily impastoed paintings à la Gutai and Art Informel. In 1958, taken by the fad of performative painting, he began publicly punching canvases and smearing paint with his hands and feet. A key figure of the Tokyo Anti-Art movement (1958-62), Kudo was responsible for some of its most iconic assemblages and installations. In 1962, he relocated to Paris, quickly gained recognition for his happenings, and began making art in the  vein of Nouveau Réalisme. During his years in Paris, Kudo performed and exhibited often, but his revulsion toward the European intellectual scene seems to have been strong, for in numerous works from the ’60s he vehemently attacks modernist and humanist notions. He remained in Paris for 20 years, and from the early ’80s on divided his time between France and Japan.

Kudo’s work was informed by an atomic imaginary: he titled first his paintings, then his assemblages and biomorphic sculptures made of kitchenware, with phrases that include references to “confluent” or “proliferating” chain reactions. In 1959, he began incorporating into his collages electronic circuitry diagrams, the patterns of which also inspired a series of loosely  geometric assemblages. Kudo was no techno fetishist, however. In the tradition of the Dadaists and their bachelor machines, he hybridized the mechanical and the biological to cynical effect. In the assemblage Aggregation-Proliferation (1960),  a switchboard-like base of small, blackened rope knots is overcome by maggoty and visceral elements made of colored string  and massed like vomited spaghetti in a thick soup of synthetic resin. Lightbulb eggs have been discharged and incubate in wormy swirls, infesting the orderly grid with parasites and organic entropy. Later in Kudo’s career, he would posit such monstrosities as positive and even salvationist. But in the early work, they appear purely catastrophic, like the final failed fusion in the 1958 film The Fly (better known in its 1986 remake by David Cronenberg).

Throughout his work, Kudo makes obsessive use of the detached phallus, most famously in Philosophy of Impotence, created for the 4th Yomiuri Independent exhibition in Tokyo (1962) a hotbed of Japanese junk, happenings and assemblage art—and reinstalled at the Walker nearly in its entirety. The work is room-sized and consists of dozens of lumpy foot-long, fecal-phallic shafts wrapped in black electrical tape, with protruding lightbulb heads. They hang like chrysalides from a net stretched across the ceiling and from the pegboard walls. They also run from ceiling to floor in two agglutinated columns, one ending in an element resembling an engorged red cock that spews mop strings (in the original, udon noodles) and magazine pages. In the Walker catalogue, Chong proposes that “what [Kudo] hoped to activate in the viewer’s mind was the idea that human beings and their collectivities are ineluctably enslaved by their own drive for self-propagation.”  Following previous scholars, Chong reads Kudo’s interest in “impotence” as a desire for sexual emancipation. I do not

agree that the work is so positive: after all, impotence instituted on a universal scale would entail the end of the species.  In Philosophy of Impotence, extinction is not on the horizon; the human persists beyond sexual reproduction, in the proliferation of lifelike appendages. And though survival entails degradation—here in the image of metamorphic insects and, in later works, malevolent mushrooms and oozing gastropods—it also brings a peculiar brand of autonomy, as if the penis  could spawn itself. The concept of devolution, the idea that species can regress to earlier or lesser states of biological complexity and lower rungs on the evolutionary ladder—is important for understanding Kudo. He conceives his phallocentric fantasy in terms of a radical devolution, with humanity reduced to a single reproductive organ—the penis, rendered in a form bordering  on nonhuman. 

The centerpiece of the retrospective is Grafted Garden/Pollution-Cultivation-New Ecology (1970–71), a sprawling installation of variable dimensions, at the Walker some 30 feet long, 8 feet deep and 8 feet high. Its prime component is a long artificial flowerbed, planted mainly with plastic roses, tulips and chrysanthemums, and inhabited by fake snails. Around the flowerbed are arranged six freestanding trees; they are constructed from aluminum rods and lashed with leafy plastic vegetation, plastic flowers, sporangia and penile slugs. One could go on about piles of plastic shit, transistor maggots, boob mushrooms, etc. A small red toy bird has alighted on a branch, but its putative song is silenced by a scene more  campy than horrific.  Grafted Gardenhas yet one more inhabitant. In Düsseldorf in 1970, Kudo served as art director for a film adaptation of  “The Mire,” a short story by the absurdist writer Eugène Ionesco. Though the commission went off, Ionesco reportedly disliked   Kudo’s designs, for reasons that are not known. Kudo, it seems, did not take kindly to the criticism: in many subsequent works  from this period, one finds Ionesco’s body, in the form of casts and sculptures first made for the movie, maltreated to the max.  Chong interprets this as symbolic violence against haughty European intellectualism.2 In Grafted Garden, Ionesco has been dismembered and beheaded, and hung from the trees. His head is impaled on a metal branch, with a vacuum tube stuck in one   eye, a speaker cone substituted for a gouged-out ear, and a sprig placed in a hole bored through his scalp. His entrails, linked   to his ripped neck, are unwound and dangled about. A sagging penis is attached near the base of the same tree. Across   others are dispersed his arms and legs. 

Some of Kudo’s “horticulture” can be explained by reading “Pollution-Cultivation-New Ecology” (1971), the   manifesto he wrote to accompany a midcareer retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1972. It begins, “Pollution of nature! Decomposition of humanity (humanism)! The end of the world!” and goes on to identify humanity’s exploitation of the natural and physical as the root problem. “Conquered nature,” Kudo writes, “is starting to take its revenge” as pollution   grows and people lose power over technology.3 There is some topicality to these statements. In early ’70s Japan, environmental ruin was the political issue. Widespread protest movements and litigation against polluting petrochemical plants gained their greatest strength and publicity during those years. A text by Kudo from 1974 mentions airborne toxins, fish deformations, and   the mercury and cadmium poisoning of Japanese waterways.4 In the earlier manifesto, however, Kudo deals in romantic generalities of man versus nature, and offers only fantastic solutions. He prophesizes a “new ecology,” in which humanity, nature and electronics are integrated for mutual survival. However, the accompanying illustrations that diagram potential reconfigurations are sketchy and absurd. One shows a feedback loop linking a television, an aquarium with goldfish, a cactus and a potted Ionesco head. Grafted Garden and related dioramas should be understood as sculptural analogues of the manifesto and its drawings.

With its concern for the environment, the “Pollution—Cultivation—New Ecology” manifesto might seem timely today. However, it concludes with a recommendation neither of its moment nor of ours. “Irradiate” humans, it commands, in order “to reform their conservative and egoistical heads.” In the period prior to its publication, between 1967 and 1970, Kudo had created a group of hothouses and terraria (like the one described at the beginning of this essay) under the collective title “Cultivation by Radioactivity.” Human noses, eyeballs and penises are placed within various inhospitable landscapes, from Mars-like desert to piss-colored marsh.

Transistors sprout like new-growth seedlings. Most of the hothouses are spray-painted fluorescent green or orange along their wooden frames and at the edges of their transparent scrims; the Walker exhibited   one under black light. This series, clearly a prelude to the “New Ecology” manifesto, emphasizes the fact that Kudo’s dominant frame of reference in the late ’60s and early ’70s remained the atomic ’50s. His dioramas are more in the nightmarish vein of Cold War science fiction than in the forward-looking spirit of environmental activism or in visionary works such as Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia. In his contribution to the Walker catalogue, artist Mike Kelley makes the obvious but apposite comparison to Godzilla and Matango, icons of postwar Japanese science-fiction film that feature mutant products of the nuclear imagination.5 In the case of Kudo, the stereotype applies: postwar Japanese art is overdetermined by the atomic bombings of 1945.6 

Beginning in 1975, Kudo created a number of works titled “Portrait of the Artist in Crisis,” in which a cast polyester face- sometimes of Ionesco, other times a male smoker reminiscent of Kudo himself-is placed inside a birdcage, accompanied  by hands, penises and internal organs and painted in awful combinations of pastel and fluorescent colors. Often, the caged artist is shown knitting, his creativity going on and on pointlessly and without end. Kudo went on to make variations on the birdcage, substituting mystical figures derived from Buddhism. In Buddha in Paris (1977), for example, a mealy and decrepit head meditates, two eyes closed and a third opened upon its brow. String-wrapped egg shapes rise from the two upturned hands and circle the cage like celestial orbs. Evidently, Kudo saw the existential crisis of the artist as being homologous   to issues of spiritual enlightenment and divine insight. 

The knitting theme was similarly reappraised. In various works from 1979, thin multicolored strings spiral outward from the   mystic’s third eye and dangle from his hands. According to Chong, Kudo thought of these strings as “hereditary chromosomes”  that link together all of humanity across time.7  Between 1978 and 1980, in performances titled “Ceremony,” the artist himself sat meditating to tape recordings of the Heart Sutra and Gregorian chants, manipulating strings symbolic of the universe between his praying hands. In less than a   decade, Kudo’s self-fashioning had gone from prophet of the apocalypse to sage and mystic seer. 

In the early 1980s, as Kudo negotiated a parttime return to his homeland, he turned to pure atavism. Formally, the works between 1980 and 1984 look innocent enough. Most are small sculptures, rarely more than a foot or two high, made once   again of multicolored strands of string, now wound around ovoid or cylindrical cores. There is a general spinning and spiraling effect, or, in the case of twin forms, the impression of one shape cast from or sucked in by the other. Kudo’s words, however, describe something more thematically problematic, as he claims the pieces represent “the organizational structure that developed from the depths of time among the indigenous peoples of Japan’s islands . . . [and that] continues to exist in Japan, unchanged since the Stone Age, through the era governed by the Imperial Family, until our time, ruled by technology and the  mass media.”

Chong describes this late work as an “exploration of the heart of the matter” of Japanese culture. He is too kind. For in his late period, Kudo capitulates to some of the most suspect ideological constructs of 20th-century Japan. His art and written statements are informed by a mishmash of notions concerning Japanese history, nationalism and ethnogenesis. Such ideas have had a vibrant life within both Japanese right-wing cultural circles and the postwar avant-garde, particularly among artists entering later stages of their careers, from Kudo to Tatsumi Hijikata and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Here too, one might recognize the continuing presence of 1945, with the memory and the prospect of nuclear annihilation opening up a wormhole to some lost and idealized community. It is telling that Kudo cites the Imperial Family and the Stone Age—referring to the neolithic Jomon culture and its highly expressive pottery forms—as the fountainheads of a timeless Japanese spirit, for these were the rallying points widely promoted after World War II to reground a ruined Japanese identity, without recourse to progressive politics. Unable or unwilling throughout his career to formulate robust political responses to the major crises of the postwar period—from atomic bombings to environmental ruin—Kudo at last found refuge in the immortality of a fictive national collective. It would be unfair to dismiss the early work in light of the late. Nonetheless, the panorama offered by “Garden of Metamorphosis” allows one to speculate that the motif of regression  dominant in Kudo’s dystopic works of the ’60 paved the way, however unwittingly, for the regressive politics and atavism he embraced at the end of his career.