A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 33)
Tadashi Tonoshiki and Anti-Scene ‘Reversal’
Tadashi Tonoshiki – BARRICADE IWAKI (1988). Installation view at Iwaki City Art Museum. All photos: Courtesy Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art.︎
I had the opportunity to meet and listen to the late Tadashi Tonoshiki only once, when I was still in my twenties. I cannot recall exactly when this meeting took place, but it was in Tokyo, and so Tonoshiki had probably come to the capital in connection with an exhibition. It was in 1986 that I returned to Tokyo from Kyoto, and Tonoshiki held solo shows at the Akiyama Galley in September that year, at Kaneko Art G1 in September 1987, and again at Akiyama Gallery in July 1988. Of these, I still have a memory, albeit dim, of “Barricade for Coconuts” (1987) on account of its strong impact, so it could have been during that show. Then again, he later went on to unveil his first full-scale installation, SAGACHO-TV-BARRICADE, at a group exhibition (“Eight Individuals From East: SEOUL-TOKYO-NEW YORK ART PROJECT”) held at the Sagacho Exhibit Space in 1990, publishing Reversing Reality, a bilingual large-format collection of works, the same year (where the publisher’s name usually appears in the colophon is the word “shingenchi,” meaning “ground zero,” which is intriguing as it relates to something I will touch on below). Given that he would have been travelling from place to place in connection with this, it could have been then that I met him. In any event, I remember that at the end of our encounter I promised that we would meet again.
Tadashi Tonoshiki – SAGACHO-TV-BARRICADE (1990). Installation view at Sagacho Exhibit Space, Tokyo︎. Photo: Tsuyoshi Sato
However, at the large-scale group exhibition held at Art Tower Mito in April the following year, “Mito Annual ’91: Beyond the Manifesto,” where Tonoshiki presented Opposing Grave Markers, we were prevented from meeting again due to his poor health, and less than a year later, in February 1992, he passed way at the age of just 50. The Tonoshiki in my memory looked the picture of good health and was full of youthful vitality, which makes me think that we met in 1987 after all. Or perhaps I was witnessing the final combustion of the life of Tonoshiki, who already knew he was about to die.
Tadashi Tonoshiki – Opposing Grave Markers (1991). Installation view at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito︎. Photo: Tsuyoshi Sato.
There is a reason why I went back over my memories at great length. The title of this latest exhibition, the first major retrospective of Tonoshiki’s work to be staged in his hometown of Hiroshima, “The Source of a Compelling Reversal,” derives from the aforementioned collection of works, Reversing Reality. But what does this “reversal” actually refer to? At the time, while I recognized in the installations in which Tonoshiki threw together and brought into dynamic coexistence waste lumber from demolished houses, driftage from the ocean, abandoned televisions and other domestic waste, and scrapped vehicles on the one hand and natural outdoor settings or orderly exhibition rooms in art museums on the other, a common spirit with the cyber-punk-like junk aesthetic that was then reaching its peak (see the work of Seiko Mikami, for example), the only thing I sensed Tonoshiki was stressing – particularly given that he had been influenced by the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys – was probably that the concept of “reversal” could be found in the act of almost violently recycling useless objects that had served their function and were merely waiting to be disposed. But why refer to these as “grave markers”? I can only say that at the time my thinking did not extend as far as this. It was not until much later that I learned what kind of dividing line Tonoshiki had been positioned on at the time as an artist and that in fact his practice in no way fit into either a cyber-punk aesthetic or a conceptual methodology.
At the age of three, Tonoshiki was exposed to residual radiation on the back of his mother when she entered Hiroshima in search of his father, who lost his life at ground zero. His mother died when he was eight years old, and Tonoshiki was dogged throughout his lifetime by concerns and problems with his own health. Even after gaining employment with the former Japanese National Railways, he taught himself to paint while working, all the while cultivating his unique outlook on the position A-bomb victims found themselves in within society and on discarded and other items that had been unable to retain their original forms and had lost their function in society due to exposure to radiation in the bombing. In particular, from the “Sacred Ground” series of prints begun in 1980, the meager nails cut into crescent shapes that were mementos of his late father proliferated unrestrainedly and appeared in his picture planes repeatedly and persistently.
Tadashi Tonoshiki – Sacred Ground (c. 1980–81).
These prints bore no comparison with the large-scale and collective art projects Tonoshiki was involved in around the time we met, but looking back, though their form may have been different, there were commonalities in terms of the strength of the desire (anger) to once more forcibly “reverse” into reality rubble and waste materials that had been robbed of their function in real life. Be that as it may, when I first came across Tonoshiki’s work from around this period I could not believe my eyes, and was unable for some time to believe they were by the same person. Because, whereas the former are extremely delicate works resulting from the accumulation of individual labor over extremely long periods of time, the latter projects are the complete opposite in that they involved large numbers of people, were visualized only temporarily in the context of interactions with society witnessed accidentally by random people, and were transitory events the majority of which only survive in the form of photographic or filmic records.
But here, perhaps, was the true meaning of “reversal.” In his later years, having abandoned painting, instead of depicting mementoes and lost memories as images in the form of pictures, Tonoshiki closed in on the very waste materials that formed their basis. In other words, we should regard his practice not as having “developed” from pictures to installations but as having “reversed” from pictures to the real thing. In fact, the 1990 collection of works Reversing Reality contains not a single work from the period when Tonoshiki produced pictures and prints, as if they were completely cut away. This is clearly unnatural and gives the impression that the artist is completely disavowing his past work. Perhaps he did it for effect out of a desire to make a fresh start as a contemporary artist. I get the feeling this is a distinct possibility. But Tonoshiki did not have nearly enough time left to realize this desire. One can probably only conclude that the disappearance of his past works occurred in the course of his pictures and prints, which could never be anything but mimesis, being completely covered over and concealed by the “reversal to real things.”
Installation view of “The Source of a Compelling Reversal” at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, 2017︎. Photo: Kenichi Hanada (Hanada Photography Studio).
In that sense, this exhibition itself, in which works from Tonoshiki’s very early oil paintings to records of the projects he was involved in just before his death are arranged chronologically in the museum, could perhaps be flowing in reverse and contrary to the artist’s intentions. Even if this were the case, however, I still made numerous new discoveries concerning Tonoshiki as a result of “The Source of a Compelling Reversal.” Of these, the one that struck me right away was that in the eyes of those of us who experienced the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the installations of recent years in which waste materials and products are piled up in a seemingly offhand manner closely resemble the “after scenes” in which, as a result of the giant tsunami, the ocean irresistibly “reversed” course, completely dispossessing people of their livelihoods and reality and creating mountains of rubble.
In particular, BARRICADE IWAKI (1988, see photo at the beginning of this article), which was installed near the entrance to the Iwaki City Art Museum in Fukushima prefecture within the area affected by the nuclear disaster as a literal barricade as if to impede pedestrians heading to the museum – and come to think of it, the exhibit/theatrical performance put together by the above-mentioned Seiko Mikami in collaboration with Norimizu Ameya was also titled Barricade (1987) – could be thought of as an example of what I have previously referred to as “art before the fact ” in that it anticipates prefiguratively the destruction of the scenes that would later become a reality. In fact, it was also an anti-scene that had “reversed” from the future of 2011 to the earlier time of 1988.
Something I was made to realize afresh at this latest exhibition is that regardless of the time period or method, automobiles feature frequently in Tonoshiki’s work. This is not limited to the works from his final years in which he used entire automobiles or suspended masses of tires from trees like fruit (eg, Tire Bearing Tree (Plan 5), 1989), but can also be seen in the series of silkscreen works in which he brought into relief as if under faint light newspaper advertisements using as screens masses of the crescent shapes of his father’s nails (eg, Work 4, 1981).
Speaking of automobiles, everyone’s eyes would have been glued in astonishment to their TV screens when the live images were broadcast of the gigantic waves simultaneously striking the Pacific coast at the time of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Unbelievable scenes of vehicles, either empty or containing people who had failed to flee in time, floating on water as if turned into chess pieces accumulating on stagnant water, and of cars abandoned by people evacuating the area due to gasoline shortages and forming endless lines on roads and outside stations like “waste material.” Thinking about it now, it was as if a Tonoshiki installation had revisited from the past, reversing through time and impressing itself irrevocably on our minds. In fact, within the difficult-to-return zone that in general “no one can go and see,” abandoned automobiles remain where they were left in parking lots and elsewhere, continuing to “reverse to reality.”
Be that as it may, why was Tonoshiki so interested in automobiles? Automobiles exhibit hardly any of the railway-like factors one might associate with the former Japanese National Railways, where Tonoshiki once worked. What, then, is the main difference between railways and automobiles? It is probably that whereas the former is the product of organizational control and the application of systems as epitomized by a timetable, the latter is a highly private means of transport equipped with the freedom that enables users to go wherever they like whenever they like it. As of now, there is no clear evidence to suggest that this is why Tonoshiki was more interested in and preferred to make artworks on the theme of automobiles as opposed to railways. However, to be free like an automobile carries with it as a price the danger of having to decide everything of one’s own accord. Perhaps the thing Tonoshiki wanted to convey with his automobiles was actually this danger rather than freedom. One could say that by way of “circular” automobiles (masses of tires), Tonoshiki, who was constantly aware of his own mortality, gained for a short time without feeling constrained by anyone else the freedom to act while reversing from the reality that might be cut off at any moment without being affected by railway-like “timetables.” Of course, this freedom is something that is possible precisely because time is limited, and naturally the resultant terminal and criticality must at some point be revealed (it goes without saying that for this reason automobile accidents are far more frequent than railway accidents).
However, looking at the “The Source of a Compelling Reversal,” the thing that drew my attention to the ambiguity of the existence of automobiles in Tonoshiki’s practice was that the work Grand Guignol Mirai is exhibiting inside the difficult-to-return zone in Fukushima prefecture a part of the exhibition “Don’t Follow the Wind,” which in a sense could be read as “reverse the wind,” was a work titled Demio Fukushima 501 that was made by temporarily decommissioning an automobile made by the Mazda Motor Corporation, which is based in Hiroshima. If Tonoshiki were still alive, I would want to talk with him without making a big fuss about a reunion and without any time limit about what he thought of our car, which continues to “reverse to reality” while being exposed to radiation every moment in the difficult-to-return zone. Such are my feelings here in Tokyo, midway between Hiroshima and Fukushima, as I recall for the first time in a long time Tonoshiki’s smile, which in my memory was friendly yet slightly shy.
Postscript: After completing this column, I had the opportunity to take a look at a 2014 essay by Yusuke Nakamura, “Tonoshiki Tadashi: kaiga kara insutareshon e no tenkai” (Tadashi Tonoshiki: Development from Painting to Installation). It includes several references to my earlier writings and provides a very interesting point of view, touching on among other things the relationship between Tonoshiki’s later installations and the post-Tohoku earthquake and tsunami landscape. I intend to discuss it further at a later date.
“The Source of a Compelling Reversal” was held at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art from March 18 to May 21, 2016.