"Tanaka became, in her dress, a kind of twinkling building on the horizon, and a
symbol of the modern Asian city." – Mark Stevens
Enchantress on the Stage
The distinctively idiosyncratic and highly conceptual oeuvre of Gutai artist Tanaka Atsuko is currently receiving surging critical and commercial interest, with the record price for the artist achieved just recently in April 2017, and 88B is one of the largest of her iconic paintings of omnipresent circles ever to appear on the auction market. A monumental masterpiece that exhibits an exceptionally compelling composition, the current lot is comparable to other large-scale Tanaka paintings in eminent museum collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Riveting and commanding by its mere visual presence, the boisterous symphony of circles confronts the viewer face to face, “arousing in us a certain disquieting energy that tugs at our heart”, as Tanaka scholar Kato Mizuho writes (cited in Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954-2000, p. 23). Kato goes on to ask: “What is the fundamental basis of such energy?”
The obvious answer is Tanaka’s 1956 Electric Dress – the seminal performance that won Tanaka her indomitable position on the world stage. At the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo in October 1956, five years before American Minimalist Dan Flavin created his first fluorescent sculpture, Tanaka stunned audiences by appearing on stage in a high-voltage, coruscatingly resplendent dress comprised of two hundred bulbs and tubes that blinked and flashed in dazzling neon colours. Held together by a great mass of wires, the elaborate dress-contraption heaved with intense heat and energy, imprinting a blazing pattern of circles on audience’s retinas. The iconic performance immortalized itself in art history, establishing Tanaka’s reputation among the greatest artists of her generation and earning her a laudatory mention in renowned French critic Michel Tapié’s landmark piece “A Mental Reckoning of My First Trip to Japan” in 1957: “I have a deep respect for the whole group [Gutai] as a group, but I would like to name four artists who should appear alongside the most established international figures: Shiraga Kazuo, Shimamoto Shōzō, Yoshihara Jirō, and Tanaka Atsuko” (Michel Tapié, “A Mental Reckoning of My First Trip to Japan”, 1957).
It is well known that the pivotal Electric Dress performance catalysed Tanaka’s post-1957 vocabulary of vividly jostling coloured circles and lines on canvas; indeed, the aesthetic seems to have been inspired by the sketches and drawings that Tanaka made in preparation for the dress. To fully comprehend the intense, palpable, almost visceral energy of mere two-dimensional paintings, however, one must trace the development of Tanaka’s pre-Electric Dress fabric-related installations and performance works that ultimately culminated in her signature aesthetic on canvas. Starting in July 1955, Tanaka, an amateur seamstress, exhibited a ten-metre-square pink rayon fabric trimmed with a narrow blue band at Gutai’s debut outdoor exhibition in Ashiya Park. Suspended a foot above the ground, the sheet of fabric fluttered and undulated in the wind. Shortly afterwards in October 1955, at the 1st Gutai Exhibition at Tokyo’s Ohara Kaikan Hall, Tanaka hung a single piece of cloth near the exit, prompting Shimamoto to pen the text: “Can a Piece of Fabric Be a Work of Art?”. The following July in 1956, at Gutai’s second outdoor exhibition, Tanaka exhibited Stage Clothes [installation] (1956) and Work (Cross) (1956) – two large-scale installations that for the first time inserted two critical elements within Tanaka’s oeuvre: the human figure, and electricity. These two elements, along with fabric, form the three critical cornerstones of Tanaka’s core aesthetic philosophy.
Fabric, the human figure, and electricity would go on to feature in Tanaka’s ensuing big breakthrough. In 1956, at Gutai’s “One Day Only” exhibition organized with the highly influential Life magazine, Tanaka presented an early version of Stage Clothes [performance] (1956) that she later refined for Gutai’s 1957 “Gutai Art on the Stage” exhibition. In front of camera and audience, Tanaka twirled her body as she unfurled a long train of specially designed connected garments, stripping off a chain of clothes in quick succession and ending with a costume with flashing light bulbs. Ming Tiampo describes how Tanaka “constructed special costumes with trick sleeves and removable panels that when taken off revealed another layer of clothing that could be pulled up, twisted, or released to create a different outfit of different shapes and colours” (Atsuko Tanaka: Electrifying Art 1954-1968, p. 71). Stage Clothes [performance] asserted three important themes. First, that of change: Tanaka’s emphasis was not on the appearance of each individual costume but on the single visual imprint of continuous change itself. Second, that of her body as a base: Tanaka inserted her own body into the very frame and index of the work, using her body as site of “painting” and thus, as Ming Tiampo observes, “critically engaging with the myth of Pollock” (Ibid., p. 61). Third, that of creation of self and identity: Kato argues that, owing to clothes constituting “the surface that is at one with the body and directly related to the creation of self” (Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954-2000, p. 22) via surface, Tanaka’s performances raise issues of boundary, self-identity, and processes of relations with the world.
Such is the corresponding power of 1956’s Electric Dress: by using electricity, which pushes the intensity of change to its limit, as clothes, Tanaka produced a stunning visual and philosophical statement of identity and change. Contrary to other Gutai artists, for whom materiality and action were the core tenets of their art, physicality and materiality for Tanaka acted merely as a base to support transition and transformation which, in the end, led to the creation of the image. Such is also the basis of the power of Tanaka’s two-dimensional paintings: as Kato summarizes elegantly: “What makes Tanaka’s art so unnerving for the audience is her ceaseless and unconcealed search for herself through means that emanate from a skin sense and which disturbs the viewer, questioning them and inducing each person to explore the creation of ‘self’. Indeed, this experience deeply affects the viewer’s spirit through the implication that the boundary of ‘self’ that we feel to be fixed can actually be changed, with the potential of structuring a new relationship to the world” (Ibid., p. 24). At the same time, by uniting art and technology, Tanaka responded theoretically and aesthetically to the brisk economic expansion and exhilarating technological development experienced by Japan’s rapidly industrializing post-Hiroshima urban life. With its jostling, pulsating circles and fluidly twisting lines, Work embodies post-war Japan’s throbbing heartbeat and flashing neon aesthetic, constituting a potent symphony celebrating the all-encompassing sublimity of life, resilience, contemporaneity and interconnectivity.