Atsuko Tanaka was a pioneering Japanese artist. She was born in Osaka in 1932, and lived until the age of 74. She died in 2005 in the historic city of Nara.
Tanaka may claim a place among the forerunners of performance art. Before Alan Kaprow organized any “happenings” in New York, Tanaka was taking part in the Gutai group, an experimental postwar Japanese art movement founded by a group of young artists in Ashiya in 1954. The aims of the Gutai group were to reinvent the art-scene in post-war Japan, seeking new and radical means to sever links with the recent past. The art historian Yve-Alain Bois has said that “the activities of the Gutai group in the mid 1950s constitute one of the most important moments of post-war Japanese culture”.
Tanaka’s most famous work, Electric Dress, was shown in the second Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956. It was worn by the artist in public and constituted a provocative challenge to the aesthetic protocols of object-based visual art. The dress is made of a cloak of electric lamps of numerous shapes and colors which flare into life every few minutes or so. The Electric Dress is a newly-imagined kimono born from the bright lights of the modern Japanese society.
From the late 1950s onwards, Tanaka worked on a series of acrylic paintings, made with the canvas laid horizontally on the floor and the artist working around them in the performative manner of Jackson Pollack. In these works, aesthetic formalism meets with gestural performance, and evidence Tanaka’s emphatic conviction in modernist experimentation.
Tanaka was relentless in the reworking of this theme — spontaneously painted circles with snaking lines joining them, rendering the tangible and symbolic language of networks, clusters and hubs — and continued to work on the “nework” paintings for several decades, giving the exercise an epic-obsessive quality.
As formal values develop between paintings, perhaps aligning with changing tastes from decade to decade, Tanaka displays virtuosity in the rendering of complex, speedily painted systems, as if the hand is elaborating on a mere intuition in the mind. What is given is the manic miasma of scribbles by which any complex network may be sufficiently represented. There is the indication that complex systems, whether they be animal nervous systems or computer networks, are messy, organic, even tangential processes. The act of depiction, then, is given as an attempt to understand them, to penetrate into the unfolding of a world on which the twentieth century was the first to offer a perspective.
Despite the attention given to Tanaka in recent years following her death in 2005, she is still a relatively unknown figure in America and Europe. Exhibitions at Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art, New York’s Grey Art Gallery, and Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, have brought her to a wider audience, but as with so much of art history, we must sometimes lift our eyes from the Euro-American axis to a wider world.
Christopher P Jones speculates on art, history, fiction and fact, and the meeting place of all four. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.