The exhibition takes its cue from an intense period of artistic and political activity at the end of the 1950s in Japan. This was a break­th­rough moment for the history of avant-​garde art in this coun­try, a time when entirely new forms and strategies appeared, which soon spread beyond Japan itself. The Gutai group func­tioned in that period over several years, its mem­bers developing their own original ten­den­cies based on Pollock’s action pain­ting and the French Infor­mel movement. The pain­terly image takes on a new form in the dimen­sion of time-​space – shifting from the canvas into actions that liberate art from the traditional format. This takes place during a time of equally frenetic political action. In the spring of 1960 protests star­ted up in Tokyo against the ratification of a treaty between Japan and the U.S., lasting several weeks and resul­ting in the death of one of the demon­strators. For artists, who also took part in the protests, these events were an impetus to develop increasin­gly radical activities in the public space. The Neo-​Dadaist spirit, an “anti-art” movement, was liberated, going beyond Gutai’s ideas of formal experiments in favour of real action – actions of a deliberate, provocative nature, based in socio-​political con­texts. Many other col­lec­tives, formal or other­wise, rose up on this wave of “art in action”. These actions took on the charac­ter of both intricately plan­ned street interven­tions, as with the Hi Red Center group, and ritual per­for­man­ces in gal­leries and in the public space realised by such groups as Zero Dimen­sion (Zerojigen). The key elements distin­guishing the prac­tices of Japanese actionists were the integral and organic way the body and movement fit into their activities, along with the specific locations of these actions.

This movement was trailed by Minoru Hirata, a photojour­nalist born in 1930 who col­laborated with many Japanese magazines, both indepen­dent and main­stream. Up through the end of the 1950s Hirata observed the dynamically evolving avant-​garde art scene and went on to become a photographer con­fidante of sorts, his camera fol­lowing artists into some of their most radical and memorable actions. The publishing of his photographs in the press promoted not only a per­for­mative and ethereal pic­ture of “art in action”, but most of all these images con­tributed to the creation of a lasting imagery for these actions, which is par­ticularly significant from the historical per­spec­tive of today. The highly intuitive framing of Hirata’s photographs carry for­ward the sur­real aura of Hi Red Center’s actions, the ten­sion and poten­tial danger of the Kumo Col­lec­tive street actions. In a highly sug­gestive way these photographs document one of the most unusual and original episodes in the history of avant-​garde Japanese art, which retains its inspirational power to this day. It is only in recent years that Hirata’s works have retur­ned to the public forum thanks to exhibitions and publications in Japan, as well as several recent projects abroad.

The exhibition at the Raster Gal­lery is an attempt to tie the activities of action artists of the 1960s with the works of the young generation of Japanese artists taking up the idea of blen­ding art and reality through per­for­mative actions and projects in the public space in an entirely distinct historical and artistic set­ting. In the works of Ei Arakawa, Yuki Okumura and Koki Tanaka there is a discer­nible echo of the avant-​garde actions of five decades past. Yet as the artists them­selves explain, the return to those experien­ces had not been hitherto made in a natural and direct way, but rather through the art history of the west. Arakawa and Tanaka live and work in the United States, their works created primarily in the con­text of today’s post-​conceptual, global art scene. Referen­cing the prac­tices of the Gutai group in the con­tem­porary per­for­man­ces of Arakawa (such as inc­luding their pain­tings as actors into his own actions), or the drawings of Tanaki, which draw upon the key mem­bers of Japan’s con­cep­tual and action movements of the 1960s and ’70s (such as drawings based on Hirata’s photographs), are both proof of the inten­sive efforts of young artists to rebuild this scat­tered artistic tradition. Each of them have developed their own prac­tical philosophy in the process.

Arakawa (born 1977), a member of the widely com­men­ted Youn­ger than Jesus show at the New Museum in New York in 2009, focuses on the per­for­mative activities of significant social impact, mostly involving his fellow artists and akin to a col­lec­tive creative manifesto. A key issue taken up by Arakawa is the artistic expres­sion of a group in opposition to a static work, such as a pain­ting, resul­ting from an individual artist’s initiative.

Okumura (born 1978) – film­maker, photographer, illustrator and per­for­mance artist. His per­for­mance art pieces are intricately staged, featuring actors specially invited to par­ticipate. He creates the figure of a maze man, fascinated by aspects of com­munication, such as the various lan­guages employed in the relation between the artist and the audience or the conven­tions of nar­ration and artistic expres­sion. One of Okumura’s recent per­for­man­ces features a profes­sional rakugo actor – a form of traditional Japanese comedy theatre.
Tanaka (born 1975), Japan’s represen­tation at the 2013 Venice Bien­nale, explores the private and public space, arran­ging and documen­ting brief, straight­for­ward situations. Basic gestures and objects set up by the artist in an inver­ted or somewhat absurd order that breaks up the logical scheme of things. “Reality is made up of abs­tract things and moments”, sums up the artist in one of his texts, leading the public onto an alter­native reading of the world around us.

Presen­ted side by side, the photographs of Minoru Hirata and the situations, films and documen­tation of Arakawa, Okmura and Tanaka serve as an intriguing and inspiring point of reference for a debate on the sub­ject of the tem­porality and efficacy of per­for­mance strategies, various forms of activity with regard to the physical and political urban space, as well as with regard to… the history of art. These issues appear especially impor­tant here and now, in Poland, Warsaw, where we are the wit­nes­ses to and mem­bers of various artistic and political “street games”, where the tradition of avant-​garde per­for­mative prac­tices of the 1960s and ’70s is not yet history, yet remains a living sub­ject for lively discus­sion and debate.

HIRATA ARAKAWA OKUMURA TANAKA was made possible thanks to the cooperation fostered during the Villa Toyko project (www.​vil​ in Novem­ber 2011 in Tokyo. It has been realised in cooperation with the Taka Ishi Gal­lery, Misako & Rosen and Aoyama Meguro, also thanks to the sup­port of the City of Warsaw.