Over a prolific career that spanned five decades, Atsuko Tanaka incorporated the ordinary and the experiential in her works of diverse media encompassing abstract painting, sculpture, performance, film, and installation.Read More
Tanaka trained as a painter at the Art Institute of Osaka Municipal Museum of Art and at the Department of Western Painting at Kyoto Municipal College of Art between 1950 and 1951. It was in Osaka that she met fellow artist and future husband Akira Kanayama, who founded the experimental art organisation Zero-kai (Zero Society) in 1952 and encouraged Tanaka to explore beyond her previous focus on figuration. One of Tanaka's iconic works from this period is 'Calendar' (1954), a series of collages made by pasting pieces of architectural blueprints and tracing paper together and inscribing numbers of the calendar on them as an enquiry into the semiotic representations of time. The project was conceived in 1953, when the artist was hospitalised for a year for poor health.
In 1955, Tanaka joined the Gutai group, formed in 1954 by a group of radical avantgarde artists who created unprecedented works by moving away from traditional forms of Japanese art and laid the foundation of performance and conceptual art in postwar Japan. Tanaka was involved with the group for the next decade, during which she produced some of her most seminal works that display the themes of technology and innovation. In the 1955 First Gutai Art Exhibition at Ohara Hall, Tokyo, for example, Tanaka utilised electrical circuits to bring sound into the gallery with Work Bell (1955), an installation composed of 20 bells that ring in sequence when activated by a button in the room. She also challenged the notion of conventional artistic materials in the same exhibition, pinning large rectangles of yellow cotton cloth to gallery walls to create Work (Yellow Cloth) (1955).
At the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, the artist exhibited her most well-known piece Electric Dress (1956), a wearable artwork consisting of a circuit of two hundred light bulbs and tubes of different dimensions, shapes, and colours. Tanaka occasionally wore it to arts gathering, using her body as a base on which the work staged a performance of pulsating lights. In her essay Tanaka Atsuko's 'Electric Dress' and the Circuits of Subjectivity (published in The Art Bulletin in 2013), specialist in modern and postwar Japanese art Namiko Kunimoto writes that Tanaka's work can be seen as expressing the frailty of subjectivity rather than an articulation of individualism emerging from a fixed sense of self in the post-imperial moment. It marks an interrogation of surface and selfhood that raises questions about the status of female subjectivity in 1950s Japan.
Throughout her career, Tanaka continued to paint and her performances, sculptures, and installations are arguably an expansion of painting reflecting the ethos of Gutai. She also continued to work on more recognisably abstract and iconic acrylic paintings, laying canvases horizontally on the floor of her studio and painting them. Round on Sand, shot in 1968 by Hiroshi Fukuzawa, provides an insightful documentation of Tanaka's painting style and method. The 10-minute film opens with Tanaka on the beach, who takes a sharp-ended stick to draw interconnected circles and looping cords on the sand. Once completed, a view of the painting from a distance reveals it to be an enlarged version of Electric Dress. Until the early 1960s, black and red dominated Tanaka's painting such as in Untitled (1959) or Work (1961), then her palette expanded to include an array of bright colours as her paintings became more expressive and complex. In Untitled (1964), for example, tangles of colourful, cable-like lines cover two overlapping concentric circles, while the composite system of lines that connect small and large circles evoke the nervous system of the body in Gate of Hell (1965).
Selected solo exhibitions of Tanaka's oeuvre include Atsuko Tanaka Collection Exhibition at Tezukayama Gallery, Osaka (2015); The Art of Connecting, jointly organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, and the Espai d'art contemporani de Castello' (2011–2); and Electrifying Art, her first museum solo show in the United States that traveled to Grey Art Gallery, New York, and Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver (2004). Her work was also part of the seminal group exhibitions Gutai: Splendid Playground at Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (2013); Documenta 12, Kassel (2007); and Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979 at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1998), among others.
Romina Provenzi | Ocula | 2018