Is it a Sound Piece, or a Painting? The Subtle Transfigurations of Female Gutai Artist Atsuko Tanaka

Tanaka’s retrospective at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, reveals humour and radicality in everyday things
 

An empty, quiet room: the ideal place to contemplate work by the late Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka. Suddenly, there’s a loud dring and the silence is shattered; someone’s ringing a bell. I notice a person slip out of sight from this gallery and pass into the neighbouring space. Surely, they must have been the one to trigger the ringing sound a second or so earlier. Or has the piece been set to ring automatically at certain intervals?

This is Work (Bell) (1955) and comprises 20 bells placed around the perimeter of the main gallery space at two-metre intervals. First shown in 1955 at the inaugural Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo, the piece was described by Tanaka herself as a ‘painting’. Why? Perhaps because, despite being ‘invisible’, this work focuses our attention on the here and now. Tanaka thought a painting did not necessarily have to be something visual; for her this sequence of depreciating sound in a line was enough.Visitors can press the button that activates the ringing as many times as they like, yet most are modest and try it just once. This is a shame, since pressing it repeatedly causes the ringing to reverberate throughout the space, progressively diminishing into the distance.

Atsuko Tanaka wearing Denkifuku (Electric Dress), 1956, ‘2nd Gutai Art Exhibition’, Ohara Hall, Tokyo. Courtesy: the artist
© Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association

Also on display at Moderna Museet is Electric Dress (1956): an outfit made from 100 tube lights and 90 light bulbs, half of which were left white while the remainder were painted one of nine different colours. Pre-empting by several decades Martin Creed’s Work No. 277: The Lights Going On and Off (2001), Tanaka’s piece likewise flashes – inspired, so the artist claimed, by the shimmering neon lights of a pharmaceutical advert she had seen at Osaka station. In a filmed performance, Tanaka moves in darkness clad in the illuminated dress. Like a fleeting nocturnal apparition, her gaudy synthetic glow is inviting, while the risk that she might be electrocuted by the gown gives the work an additional frisson.

‘Atsuko Tanaka’, 2019, installation view, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Åsa Lundén

The film Round on Sand (1968) documents the artist at an Awaji Island beach, drawing in the sand with – somewhat incongruously – the base spike of an ice axe. Gentle waves lap ever closer to her circles and lines. She appears to be improvising a diagram of sorts, akin to the patterning of electronic circuit boards or to neurons with their axons and synapses. Tanaka’s gestures are smooth, relaxed; she could be on holiday. These interconnected, circular forms are repeated in her long-running series of vinyl on canvas paintings, such as Work (1973): the glossy, bright-hued, cell-like shapes of which are not dissimilar to those found in haematological histology.

Tanaka, like her peer On Kawara, also made works explicitly about time. Her collage Calendar (1954), for instance, was created in response to a countdown to being discharged from hospital. Tanaka’s concentration on the moment chimes with the existentialist interests of the Gutai group (whose name translates as ‘tangible, material, concrete’) and their fascination with the existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting (2011), curator Jonathan Watkins compares Tanaka to ‘some character in a Sartre play, such as Huis Clos’ (No Exit, 1944): restricted but ‘mentally free’.

Atsuko Tanaka, Round on Sand, 1968. Courtesy: the artist © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association

Yet, for all its strengths, this exhibition somewhat downplays Tanaka’s subtle humour – a gentle smile rather than a guffaw – which calls to mind a very different French contemporary: the comic actor and filmmaker Jacques Tati. Tanaka’s intrusive sound works recall the flatulent chairs and squeaky doors the director loved. Her beach performance in Round on Sand is as blithely relaxed as Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953); her delight in colour as evident as in his Jour de Fête (The Big Day, 1949). Less sombre than her male Gutai colleagues, Tanaka excelled at playtime.

‘Atsuko Tanaka’ runs at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, until 16 Feburary 2020.

Main Image: Atsuko Tanaka, Work, 1957. Courtesy: the artist and Ashiya City Museum of Art & History © Kanayama Akira and Tanaka Atsuko Association 

John Quin is a writer based in Brighton, UK, and Berlin, Germany. 

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