The first thing I noticed walking into Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo’s opening at Hauser & Wirth was a distinct plastic scent. A putrid odour of newness and artificiality, of materials man-made and industrially fabricated, like the smell of a new car’s interior. Emanating from stretches of green artificial grass covering the gallery’s interior, the smell of astroturf was paired by a visual impression of an all encompassing, vibrant green lay-out. Covering the full interior of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery space, the bright sports-pitch-like tapestry set the tone for a playful and unconventional art display featuring large cubic structures, colourful, dice-like boxes and transparent containers placed on pedestals. With equally green bottles of beer in hand, visitors meandered through the space in a relaxed manner, exploring Kudo’s works creating a soft whistling sound of their shoes brushing the prickly plastic soil.
The exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Andrea Rosen Gallery and conceived with Olivier Renaud Clément. It presents a selection of work dating from the first decade of the late Kudo’s twenty-five years spent in Paris. Tetsumi Kudo (1935 – 1990) moved to the European capital of the arts in 1962 after he won the Grand Prize though his influential participation in Tokyo’s Anti Art Movement throughout the late 1950s – only returning to Tokyo in 1987, three years before his untimely death. Kudo developed his practice in the context of post-war Japan and France and poignantly addressed its cultural and political conditions. His art directly reflects what the artist felt was a heavily misguided faith in progress, technological advancement and the legacy of humanism in light of the devastating destruction caused by the Second-World-War. Encompassing sculpture, installation and performance-based work, his oeuvre transcends formal categorisation. Yet his work is consistently universal in its language, one that clearly communicates a decisive disillusionment with the modern world and its ideals.
At first sight, the whimsical and light-hearted tone set by the look of the Hauser& Wirth show does little to inspire this negativity. The playful air and fun-fair-aesthetic had visitors explore without inhibition, driven by child-like intrigue and curiosity. The funny-looking boxes and containers scattered across the gallery displayed bright-coloured, indefinite sculptural forms that, at a casual glance, could be mistaken for food leftovers, imaginary vegetation or selections of sugary sweets. However, any visitor inquisitive enough to properly examine the objects covered by the thick plastic spheres or hidden away inside the dice, were left wondering whether it had perhaps been preferable not knowing what world they stemmed from. Kudo’s dome works are futuristic terrariums fed by circuit boards or batteries housing radioactive detritus, artificial half-life plants feeding off contaminated neon-coloured soil. Instead of last-night’s dinner, the plastic containers held the poisonous, sickly banquet of the future, made up of polluted, mutated crops. The cubes similarly contained decaying cocoons and shells revealing human remains and half-living forms – recognisable were replica limbs, detached phalli or papier-mâché organs – merged with man-made items.
Installed inside the life-size cubes – oriented with their openings mysteriously facing away from the gallery entrance – were two of Kudo’s installation works. The first, entitled Your Portrait May 66, 1966, revealed what appeared to be a holiday scene gone bad; two empty canvas beach chairs stained by gluey traces showing the horror inspiring outlines of human bodies. The neon-coloured chairs, lit up by rays of UV light, were once occupied by people that have burned and molten to ashes, the ironically included sun umbrella obviously of no protection against the radioactive catastrophe Kudo presented. As described in 2008 by Mike Kelley, who quotes Kudo as a significant influence, “in Kudo’s sculptures and assemblages […] there was a prevailing obsession with the theme of impotence linked to nuclear attack, a penchant for grotesque renderings of the body, cut into pieces or dissolving into puddles of goo […]”. Intended as comments on not only Hiroshima, but additionally the individualistic outlook and eager adoption of mass-production that he found to be prevalent in Europe, Kudo created his works as part of a nightmarish vision of a profoundly dystopic, dreadfully disconcerting future.
The second life-size cube contained Kudo’s work Garden of the Metamorphosis in the Space Capsule (1968) and only allowed a view of its interior though a tiny circular opening placed along its bottom edge. Again, the disconcerting presence of melting body parts – scattered across the floor and lit up by black light – induced a serious sense of dread. Gracefully looming over the remains however were giant artificial flowers. Finally not feeling like I was being punished for my curiosity, I peeked into the giant die just before closing time and was rewarded with a gorgeous sight that slightly remedied the sickness that had developed in my stomach. Radiating a permutation of luminous colours off of sleek, silky petals, the flowers could only be described as awe-inspiringly beautiful. The mesmerising garden seemed to suggest that perhaps Kudo saw hope for the continued existence of beauty in the world, although tragically, his future dystopia wouldn’t feature any living human beings to enjoy its splendour.
By Eva Mak
Tetsumi Kudo, 22 Sep – 21 Nov 2015, Hauser & Wirth