- What Is Mono-ha?
Representing a key art historical turning point in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the exhibition Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha (Blum and Poe, 2013) brought together over fifty works including major outdoor works, installations, reliefs, works on paper, photographs, and a film, as well as rare photo-documentation of the artists’ production process critical to their practice.1 The exhibition introduced the growing tendency of Mono-ha artists to present transient arrangements of raw, untreated natural and industrial materials—such as canvas, charcoal, cotton, dirt, Japanese paper, oil, rope, stones, wooden logs, glass panes, electric bulbs, plastic, rubber, steel plates, synthetic cushions, and wire—often laid directly on the floor and interacting with the existing architectural space, or in an outdoor field. The title of the exhibition refers to the death of the sun as emblematic of the loss or failure of symbolic expression and permanence immanent to the object itself. The title is also a reference to the aftermath of a tumultuous era that saw political upheaval against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the oil crisis that complicated the artists’ own cultural position and relationship to the nation itself. It does not refer to a holistic “return to nature,” tradition, or Japanese uniqueness. For many of the Mono-ha artists, identity itself is especially defined by the condition of ambiguity. The aim of the exhibition was to re-evaluate this internationally historical moment from the standpoint of our present moment.
Reiko Tomii raises a provocative set of contradictions in her introduction to the panel, which makes evident the art historical complexities and the challenges that have surrounded the study of Mono-ha both historically and in the present. Indeed, like Arte Povera, Minimalism, and post-Minimalism, Mono-ha was not a self-defined movement, but a discursive phenomenon coined retroactively by critics around 1973.2 Here, I would like to briefly introduce the development of Mono-ha, the core elements of its “practice” and present some distinct characteristics of the phenomenon as a whole. [End Page 202]
Mono-ha’s Discursive Emergence
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As a discursive movement, Mono-ha’s beginnings can be traced back to February 1970, when six artists were featured together for the first time in the art journal Bijutsu techō (Art Notebook), in a section titled “Voices of Emerging Artists: From the Realm of NonArt” (fig. 18.1).3 The issue acknowledges the place of Sekine Nobuo’s now legendary Phase—Mother Earth (Isō—Daichi, 1968, pl. 2), which is generally credited as the first Mono-ha piece, by reproducing on its title page, not its final result but one scene from the process of its production. To present this work, Sekine extracted dirt from the ground, preserved that earth in a cylinder that towered over the hole, and at the end of the exhibition, returned the dirt back into the earth. The image Bijutsu techō editors selected depicts Sekine and his art school colleagues unraveling large plywood boards from the cylinder of Phase—Mother Earth. In doing so, Bijutsu techō boldly announced the arrival of a new generation of artists. The special feature included a roundtable discussion between Sekine and his colleagues from Tama Art University (Koshimizu Susumu, Narita Katsuhiko, Suga Kishio, and Yoshida Katsurō) titled “Mono Opens a New World,” moderated by Japan-based Korean artist and writer, Lee Ufan.4 The term mono (thing) was printed with brackets and written in Japanese hiragana (もの) to distinguish it from a physical object denoted by its Chinese characters (物, also read butsu). Their agenda, the artists claimed, was distinct from other anti-art movements of the post-war period, and in particular from that launched by Yoshihara Jirō, leader of the 1950s action-based art group Gutai, who identified the tactile substance of matter (busshitsu 物質) with the human spirit.5 The term mono was also...