These days, Japanese artists like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami pull big crowds and even bigger price tags, but it wasn’t always so. Vibrant though it was, the Japanese avant-garde was relatively unknown to Western audiences for most of the 20th century. This began to change in 1996 when scholar and author Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Global Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, debuted the exhibition Scream Against the Sky, which featured work by Murakami, Lee Ufan, Cai Guo-Qiang, and others.
The show introduced American audiences to Japanese art and kickstarted critical study and awareness of modern Asian artists. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Scream Against the Sky, Sartorian Ventures produced a video for its new series, Eyes On Fire with Alexandra Munroe, in which the curator helps viewers understand how her exhibition helped changed perceptions.
Munroe tells The Creators Project that the Japan of the early 1990s (right before the exhibition took place) had a very sophisticated avant-garde art tradition, with a healthy contemporary art scene that was experiencing a museum boom. Thousands of Japanese artists were living and working abroad, and a few, like Yoko Ono and On Kawara, were renowned for being early conceptual art innovators.
Munroe says that Japanese artists’ varied approaches grew out of their country’s catastrophic defeat in World War II. Besides the real and psychic horror of the two atomic bombs, dozens of large and small Japanese cities were leveled by incendiary bombs, causing vast destruction.
“Post-1945 Japan was compelled to change across every measure of social, cultural, and political life,” says Munroe. “Defeat brought on the collapse of the imperialist totalitarian state that had driven Japan’s bellicosity since its invasion of Manchuria in 1932, and artists, intellectuals and the long-suppressed left initially embraced the US Occupation for ushering in a liberal democracy.”
Post-war avant-garde artists felt liberated from Japan’s former totalitarian ideologies like conformism and censorship. Groups like Gutai, Neo-Dada Organizers, and Hi Red Center grew out of this liberated landscape. They claimed reality itself was art, creating what Munroe calls a “dark, conceptualist poetry” in the process.
Munroe emphasizes that modern art is global and historical, not just a Western invention. Japanese and other Asian artists were also playing with dada, surrealism, performance art, minimalism, and installation art just like their counterparts—sometimes simultaneously, even, at times, ahead of them.
Munroe points to the Gutai group’s outdoor exhibitions as highly influential outside of Japan. Gutai invited visitors to walk on planks, peer through empty picture frames hanging from trees, and “draw freely” on an empty board whose final product would be called a work of art. Artist Allan Kaprow, who helped establish interactive art that inspired new media art, came across copies of the Gutai journal, and these in part inspired his “happenings” of late 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1964 anthology, Grapefruit, Yoko Ono published her "instructions" from the 1950s, which were considered pioneering in the development of language-based conceptual art. Kusama lived in New York in the 60s and often performed naked, painting in her ubiquitous polka dots. And choreographer Tastumi Hijikata drew from Noh theater and dada for his Butoh dance, which was expressionist and, as Munroe says, conjured a post-atomic apocalypse. Others like Jiro Takamatsu, Kishio Suga, and Lee Ufan pioneered assemblage installations to reveal “the world as it is.”
These innovations didn’t happen in a vacuum, Munroe insists. The postwar art world was incredibly international with biennials, touring shows, publications, and an active art market.
“But when the first history books of this period were written and the canon settled in, Japanese artists (many of them women) were marginalized,” Munroe says. “We are still working to correct that view.”
With the video, Munroe hopes to remind viewers that they should be more curious about the varieties of modern art and become more familiar with modernity as seen from another perspective. “There is no place like Japan,” says Munroe. “There is a cultural inheritance of exquisite sensibility, an intuition for the most extreme psychological states of mind, and an oppressive social order that inspires fitful rebellion.”
Scream Against the Sky was originally shown at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo from September 14, 1994 to January 8, 1995. In 2017, the Guggenheim will be featuring a dedicated exhibition of art from China, curated by Munroe.