Text by Matt Swain
The Art of Connecting is the first solo exhibition in the UK by Atsuko Tanaka (1932-2005), one of Japan’s most renowned avant-garde artists. Tanaka was a member of the Gutai group which was founded in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972) in Japan and comprised diverse artists who had all undergone traumatic experiences in World War II. The artists and particularly Tanaka employed a radical, conceptual approach, expanding the notion of painting and sculpture into space and actions, pioneering an approach that was picked up much later by other artists in the US and Europe.
There is singular vision running through Tanaka’s body of work which possesses a refreshing simplicity and a realism which reflects cosmic phenomena. Her work is about what is tangible and concrete rather than illusion. Although much of the work is open to a degree of interpretation due to it’s abstract nature, and the fact that conventional notions are rejected. The exhibits here include works from the Gutai period as well as very early work including paper and fabric collages as well as a selection of later paintings and short films.
Calendar (1954) comprises two paper collages, emanating from a time when Tanaka was in hospital and adopted the habit of writing down dates as a countdown towards being discharged. Work (1955) is a minimal work on rectangles of yellow cotton which are pinned to the wall, the fabric’s edge symbolizing the dividing line between “thing” and “world”.
Work (Bell) (1955) is a sound installation consisting of 20 electric bells wired together, ringing occasionally and in sequence at the press of a button. It’s movement and electrical circuitry is something of a precursor for Electric Dress (1956), the work for which Tanaka is most renowned. This radiant piece, which was actually worn by Tanaka in exhibitions, is a cluster of electric lamps and tubes of various shapes and colours, and which was initially inspired by a pharmaceutical advertisement illuminated by neon lights. It is a quite remarkable creation, with it’s excess of light representing a celebration of post-war popular culture. Essentially, the dress is a representation of the connection between electrical wiring and the physiological systems that make up the human body. Somewhat bulky yet elegantly refined, it is a combination of the tradition of the Japanese kimono and modern industrial technology. The work lights up sporadically, the crowning glory that effectively illuminates the whole exhibition, a true masterpiece.
As part of the exhibition, there are numerous drawings relating directly to Work (Bell) and Electric Dress. Those for Bell are of a rigid, technical nature whilst the Electric Dress drawings possess a degree of freedom and veer more towards the style of painting that Tanaka adopted in the 1960’s. These paintings, predominantly acrylic on canvas, are almost exclusively a series of lines and circles, mirroring the lamps and wiring of Electric Dress. The colours are vivid and the patterns are a hybrid of complex doodling and a representation of the nervous system. Initially the paintings were mainly in black and red, although later, this was extended to include blue, green and yellow. Notable examples from this phase include Work (Hoops) (1963), Three Black Balls (1962), 86G (1986), Work 1968 (1968) and the motorised Spring 1966 (1966), the movement for which is effected by pressing a button.
Round on Sand (1968) is a film which shows Tanaka drawing on a beach. This is an elongated and extended version of her paintings with a quite spectacular level of detail. Circle upon circle in the sand, interweaving, interlocking, stretching beyond the frame, sometimes connected, sometimes meandering, but always with a purpose. It is deceptively simple at first until you study the attention to detail and marvel at the forethought that undoubtedly led to it’s creation – this despite the fact that it would seem to be improvised. It is a vast drawing, and the location and genial atmosphere actually detract slightly from what is arguably a very radical gesture.
Two further works, Tanaka’s Round Circle and Documentary Films (both 1956-1962) are worthy of mention, not least because they give further insight into Tanaka’s world. Shot delicately and beautifully, there are brilliant lights, sections of performance and of course the Electric Dress which even in black and white possesses a majesty all of it’s own.
Tanaka’s circles and lines represent experiences in everyday life. There is so much depth, and the transfusion of the various mediums in which Tanaka worked make this a remarkable body of work – a symbiotic beauty that is visually arresting.
Atsuko Tanaka The Art of Connecting runs until 11 September.
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Electric Dress (1956)
Vinyl paint on light bulbs, electric cords and control console
Courtesy Takamatsu City Museum of Art
Copyright Ryoji Ito