Tokyo, Japan, 1923 – Tokyo, 2001
From the 1950s onward, with the rise of ephemeral art such as actions and performances, photographic documentation began to play an increasingly important role to ensure the survival of these gestures. In these cases the photograph has a unique quality, combining the possibility of its reproduction with the fleeting character of the works it registers. The photograph is not the entire work; it only bears vestiges and traces of memories. This is the case of the portfolio Gutai Photographs 1956–57, by Kiyoji Otsuji, which serve as tangible records of some of the first works of the Gutai group – one of the most important Japanese avant-garde groups in the postwar period. Otsuji was also involved in another important Japanese group, Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), in which, beyond his own work as a photographer, he portrayed works of other artists. A spirit of experimentation imbues his work and that of the artists with whom he collaborated.
In the images of the portfolio, we see Saburo Murakami bursting through sheets of paper stretched like the canvases of paintings, thus breaking the pictorial surface with his own body; Kazuo Shiraga uses his feet to spread paint on his paintings, while Shozo Shimamoto hurtles pigment bombs against the canvas, re-creating the gesture; apart from painting, Atsuko Tanaka tries on her Electric Dress. All of these actions were part of the 2nd Gutai Exhibition, in 1956. The following year, the space of art was shifted to the stage, and Otsuji’s photographs took on a more nocturne tone. There is dance, ephemeral material or the artwork’s own destruction, lights, smoke and shadows, along with the ritualization of the practice of art – the body becoming the main vehicle of the work. Some of these pioneering gestures were revisited, consciously or not, in the work of artists who worked in other places around the globe. The eyewitness, equipped with a camera, did not allow the movement’s origins to be forgotten.