Doryun Chong investigates an innovative period of collectivity and mixed-medium production with his upcoming exhibition "Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde" at the Museum of Modern Art [opening Nov. 18]. Chong, MoMA's associate curator of painting and sculpture, also delves into new scholarship in Japanese art in an extensive new sourcebook, From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945–1989, which he co-edited.
The exhibition and sourcebook are the culmination of three years of Chong's research. During this time, he organized "Projects 94: Henrik Olesen" in 2011 and "Bruce Nauman's Days" in 2010. Prior to MoMA, Chong was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 2003–2009, where he curated "Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis" in 2008–09, the first comprehensive retrospective for the artist in the United States. At the Walker, Chong abetted several acquisitions of works by international artists, often for the first time, including Kudo's Philosophy of Impotence, or Distribution Map of Impotence and the Appearance of Protective Domes at the Points of Saturation (1961–62), featured in the MoMA exhibition.
Interestingly, "Tokyo 1955–1970" overlaps by two weeks with the forthcoming "Gutai: Splendid Playground" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum (February 15-May 8, 2013) and opens just weeks after Yayoi Kusama's solo exhibition, "Fireflies on the Water," has closed at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
MEAGHAN KENT This exhibition coincides with another project that you developed with the International Program. Can you tell me a little bit more about the sourcebook that you're working on, From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989?
DORYUN CHONG The book is part of a series called "Primary Documents" run by MoMA's International Program. It is a great series, which I feel are a bit under the radar. This is partly because "Primary Document"s are pure publications—they're not attached to an exhibition or the collection.
When I started at MoMA there was a plan for the next volume to be on post-war Japan. I wouldn't say that I'm a specialist in post-war Japanese art but I've had quite a bit of exposure to it since I have worked in Japan with Japanese artists. We have three editors in Japan: one curator and two University-based academics. I worked as the in-house editor. The others are Fumihiko Sumitomo, independent curator based in Tokyo, Michio Hayashi, professor in the faculty of liberal arts at Sophia University, Tokyo, and Kenji Kajiya, associate professor in the faculty of arts at Hiroshima City University. We wanted the book to be generational and bi-national, and to really tap into the growing field of scholarship.
KENT The book possesses many different types of essays that in some cases overlap or espouse conflicting histories. That must have been incredibly challenging to edit.
CHONG We selected texts for translation—about 70, 80 texts total. Once we decided on those texts it became clear what issues weren't represented by the translated text. Or what issues that needed further contextualization because the text that covers those issues was too specific or too abstract or too cerebral.
KENT And is that something that you then took into the Tokyo catalog as well, that there are different essays and contributors?
CHONG Not so much. I think of it as parallel projects, although I definitely tapped into people that were available. The sourcebook came about first; that was already in place and I just jumped right in when I first came here about three and a half years ago. As I was getting to know the institution and the history of the institution, I became familiar with MoMA's fairly long history of engagement with Japan. I decided that the exhibition should be as multimedia, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary as possible, reflecting MoMA's own structure and be more focused on 15 years in Tokyo instead of saying all of Japan. For both, I was thinking of the whole community of new scholarship that has been out in the last decade or two in Japan.
KENT The Gutai exhibition will open in a couple months. The well-received Kusama show just finished. To what extent were you aware of these exhibitions while you were preparing the MoMA show?
CHONG The Kusama show came through a consortium of the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and the Whitney. Kusama is a well-known name now, and of course MoMA and Laura Hoptman and Lynn Zelevansky did the first American Retrospective at the Carnegie in 1997-98.
I can't profess to know much about the Guggenheim show but Alexandra Munroe, who organized it, is my colleague and we have talked about what we are working on. We didn't coordinate schedules but we are trying to come up with a scholarly program for both institutions as we are trying to take advantage of this rare convergence, an almost planetary alignment of New York institutions showing post-war Japanese art. I like to think of it as A Tale of Two Cities since we are covering Eastern Japan and Western Japan.
KENT How did Tetsumi Kudo factor into your exhibition? Has your perspective on the work changed since organizing the exhibition at the Walker in 2008?
CHONG One would hope that you learn from exhibitions and I like to think that I have. The Kudo show was a real labor of love. Kudo was completely unknown to this country until the Walker retrospective. His career was mostly in Europe. He came in like gangbusters in Tokyo and then departed for Paris for 20-25 years and became a part of the European art scene. One reason I was interested in him was the way he negotiated his "foreign-ness" and "otherness" in the European art world and how he strategically and intellectually used features of traditional Japanese art in his work. There were shamanistic elements, a peculiar kind of paganism, grotesquerie, and an obsession with the fate of humanity that resonated in Nouveau Réalisme and performance art. I wanted to look into how vibrant Tokyo was while highlighting the internationalism that really was there.
Just to give a couple of quick examples of internationalism: 1962 to ‘64 really are remarkable years in retrospect. 1962 is the year that Yoko Ono moved to New York and her Chambers Street loft became a hub of activities. When she returned to Tokyo to stay for a couple of years she helped John Cage and David Tudor visit Japan for the first time. This is very important for Cage who had been studying Zen. In 1964, Cage returns with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's international tour. Jasper Johns was a prominent figure in the Tokyo art scene at the time and some of his most iconic works were made in Japan. Also, the city was getting ready to have its Olympic moment in 1964. And then there are all of these artists who left Tokyo for New York, many of them experimental musicians and performance artists who became critical participants in the Fluxus movement.
I have learned that Japan in the 1960s was much more open, international and fluid than it is now. We know so little about contemporary Japanese art other than a few figures, a few styles. But during this particular time period I think there were a lot of exchanges and crossovers and collaborations between the art scene there and elsewhere, especially New York.
KENT Yet despite similarities in some of the practices of the Western and Japanese avant-gardes, relationships between art and history may be different. I think of, for instance, a re-working of a Japanese Noh or Shingeki play, wearing gas masks (Zero Jigen, 1967), individual shelter plans (Hi Red Center, 1964), or the actual seppuku suicide of author Mishima Yukio (1970). It is hard to generalize but what do you think some of these artists were trying to convey to their audiences?
CHONG What I was thinking about in choosing this spatial and temporal frame in Tokyo between 1955 and 1970 was that I thought this frame is shaped by a combination of conditions that are quite unique. Specifically, 1955 is just a decade after the almost complete devastation of the country, followed by foreign occupation that lasted for seven years. During this time, the country was completely reshaped, partly by internal design but also by external forces, like forcing the country to renounce its right to bear arms, which in a sense means that it's not really a sovereign nation. There is this massive transformation that is going on. So whatever we are witnessing from China now, which went from a closed country to now the second largest economy in about thirty years, it is interesting to note that these things happened in Japan in arguably even more drastic conditions 60 years ago.
I think there was this split kind of consciousness where there was the realization that these things (Fauvism, Constructivism) were Western and rediscovering early 20th century avant-garde but at the same time we had made it part of our own modern culture so it is part of a larger history where the vocabulary had been there. However, it is now combined with a convergence of conditions from war devastation, postwar construction, to rapid prosperity that created this unique kind of situation.
KENT This exhibition is really current, from the interests in Conceptualism, multi-media, and performance in contemporary art, to artist collectives and DIY artist-run spaces. Was this something that you were thinking about?
CHONG I wish that I could say yes because that sounds great. I am still mulling over this perception, which I think is true—that this material is so current. The show will include quite a bit of performance-related works. There was a lot of it then and MoMA is really interested in it. But this is a bigger question.
KENT And in this broader picture, with an audience consisting of a general public of tourists, art professionals, students, what kinds of responses are you hoping will come into play?
CHONG That our understanding of modern art in contemporary practices has sources or tributaries that are a lot more manifold then what we know. This is an institution that has been international from the very beginning. We know the connections between Paris and New York, but from very early on it was an institution that looked to Russia, Mexico and Japan. These were all ingredients that made up the DNA of MoMA, too. What I would love for people to see is how vibrant and sometimes grating, shocking and scandalous Tokyo was and how this is part of the larger history of modern art that should be part of our consciousness.
Meaghan Kent is the Director of site95 and Editor in Chief of the site95 Journal.