Japan Fluxus | Leonardo/ISAST

Japan Fluxus

Japan Fluxus
by Luciana Galliano

Rowman & Littlefield for Lexington Books, Washington, DC, 2019
176 pp., b&w. Trade, $US90; eBook, $US85
ISBN: 9781498578257.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Leggett
November 2019

Japan Fluxus is a carefully chosen title, achieved by placing two nouns together. By refusing the pronoun, Japanese, so much of what could be misconstrued about this countries approach to avant-garde art, is avoided. It rapidly becomes clear from the scrupulous research undertaken by the author that a peoples’ history and tradition have a great part to play in the distinctive attitudes evident in the gestures and actions made by this group of artists, but that movement outward to the world was key to its significance. Along with an international coterie, the American George Maciunas, was later to title the movement Fluxus.

The influence has been far-reaching, in attitudes to musical and physical performance, poetry, visual art and publishing, with several of the groups’ members in the period being early adopters of the gadgets and tools emerging from the Japanese electronics industry.

Opposition by the Japanese youth to the established order in the post-War period, the pax-Americana and the hastily patched organs of capital, involved diverse sections of the population, filmmakers included; [1]  breaking out of the confines of the norms of cultural expression was accelerated during the 1950s by activity in the main cities of Japan which reflected commonality and the refutation of artist-as-hero. Antagonism to the wayward ways of the market for art objects emphasised the spontaneousness and ephemerality of these artists’ activities across many media forms, leading-the-way and in more recent years, encouraging the adoption amongst contemporary artists of the term, practitioner.

The analytical approach taken in this volume avoids a chronology and centres on six behaviours: globalism, experimentalism and iconoclasm, unity of art and life, ephemerality, specificity and musicality.

Founders of the music Group Ongaku were musicians who ‘broke’ their instrumental and notational training by organising events as early as the late 50s, employing instead all manner of noise emitters. Internationalism, as has always been customary amongst musicians, included news of experimenters in America and Europe, but it was not until the mid-60s when flights between Japan and New York City mainly became commonplace, that symbiosis in practice became evident. The international postal system was also employed, not only functionally but also creatively – mail art, usually conceptual stanzas or postcard-sized creations, (foremost by Yoko Ono, later made a celebrity), flew between the communities of interest. These could and often did form the basis of performance events, formally and informally delivered to audiences attracted initially by a sense of notoriety; the primacy of the existential act and a secondary observing presence made the work complete.

In 1965 at FluxWeek in a gallery in Tokyo, Shiomi (Chieko) spread dilute glue on an LP record of 19th Century classical music ‘so that the needle slipped over the surface and only noise was heard. Using an eye dropper, the artist dripped water onto the record, and where the glue dissolved, the music could be heard …. the performance had the feel and sense of wonder of a mysterious scientific experiment.’

Many of the artists lived in the USA for a year or two, mainly in New York, consolidating a practice which had extended to many European countries, (having already theorised similar attitudes through Duchamp and Eco), and espousing the values held by people who were often part of an arts community or commune. Group ethics were paramount, with commitment to the principles and practice of art-as-process and the meaning that flows from moment to moment in space and time – the Japanese concept of ma; the concept of dao – the way – informed by Daoist thinking, crystallised the principles applied. Nonetheless the residue of this activity has in spite of the intentions of the artists, (often aped by the art market’s Conceptual Art genre), become collectible as items by not only speculators but also communities of interest intent on celebrating the phenomena and keeping the attitudinal flames alive.

For this reviewer with a peripheral experience of the movement, the account was deeply informative of how tradition and context in Japan (as elsewhere), affected both artists, art-making and audiences for art. The fascination with the Japanese aesthetic by Westerners for so long is ventilated here, refusing the sense of Other so often applied. An extensive bibliography, timeline and index complete this essential volume.


[1] See my review of Cinema of Actuality https://www.leonardo.info/reviews_archive/feb2014/furuhata-leggett.php.