- Six Contradictions of Mono-ha1
Mono-ha, which emerged at the tail end of the 1960s in Japan, is not an easy subject to encapsulate in a few words. What is Mono-ha? Why does Mono-ha matter? These were the central concerns that prompted the panel discussion “Voices of Mono-ha Artists: Contemporary Art in Japan, Circa 1970” (University of Southern California, February 24, 2012), conceived in conjunction with the exhibition Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha, curated by Mika Yoshitake for Blum & Poe in Los Angeles in 2012.
The second question is probably much easier to answer. Take one look at any Mono-ha work, and it is immediately apparent that Mono-ha belongs to world art history. The works, as it has been pointed out many times, strongly resonate with American Minimal Art and Italian Arte Povera, as well as global post-minimalism, while defining its own distinct voice. Indeed, Mono-ha is a key component of what marks 1960s Japan as a critical battleground of new art in the global context.
All the more so then is my first question, “What is Mono-ha?” important to ask. I would like to be thought provoking, to complement Mika Yoshitake’s overview of Mono-ha in her introductory remarks (“What Is Mono-ha?”) and the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha (Blum & Poe, 2012).
Mono-ha is difficult to explain in a few words, because it is rife with contradictions. Consequently, to understand its contradictions is to understand Mono-ha at its most fundamental level. Mono-ha’s contradictions can be described according to six seemingly conflicting statements. [End Page 214]
Mono-ha was at once not a group and a group.
Mono-ha was at once discursive and inscrutable.
Mono-ha was at once performative and object-centered.
Mono-ha was at once object-based and object-negligent.
Mono-ha was at once world-conscious and world-oblivious.
Mono-ha was at once convention-defying and institution-dependent.
Let us look at each contradiction.
Contradiction 1: Mono-ha was at once not a group and a group.
This contradiction is of first and foremost importance, for it concerns Mono-ha’s art-historical definition.
Within the landscape of twentieth-century Japanese collectivism,2 Mono-ha is not a group in the sense of Gutai, Neo Dada, or Hi Red Center, to name just a few well-known collectives dating from the 1960s. While Gutai mounted twenty-one “Gutai Art Exhibitions” over the eighteen years of its existence and Neo Dada three membership exhibitions during just one short year of its activity, there was no such thing as a “Mono-ha exhibition” that signaled the formation and evolution of Mono-ha as a group. This is significant, for in the modern history of Japanese collectivism, mounting an exhibition serves as a standard way of declaring publicly a group identity. Instead, Mono-ha emerged from museum-organized exhibitions and similarly large-scale institutional exhibitions beginning in 1968, when Sekine Nobuo produced Phase—Mother Earth at an outdoor sculpture biennale near Kobe (see Table 1). (This is also a factor in Contradiction 6.)
At the same time, when we consider Mono-ha in its narrowest sense as posited by the art critic Minemura Toshiaki in his seminal 1978 essay, Mono-ha exhibited a certain undeniable group cohesiveness.3 As the creation story of Mono-ha goes, as recounted by the Mono-ha artist Koshimizu Susumu, Sekine’s Phase—Mother Earth constituted the “Big Bang”4 of Mono-ha in 1968, provoking a strong reaction among his fellow artists from Tama Art University (also referred to by its abbreviated name, Tamabi) who helped him produce it on site (Koshimizu and Yoshida Katsurō) and prompting intense intellectual exchange between Sekine and the Korean-born theorist-artist Lee Ufan. To this mix of artists, Suga Kishio and Narita Katsuhiko, two other graduates from Tamabi joined, and Mono-ha in its narrowest sense was born (fig. 19.1).
Unlike Gutai or Neo Dada, the Tamabi group did not issue a manifesto. Nor did they publish a journal, as Gutai...