How to Fight Authoritarianism with Clothespins

In 1963, a Japanese artist used interactivity to defy the state

If you found yourself exiting the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum on March 1, 1963, you would not make it far before noticing a clothespin stuck to your coat. You, along with many others who had attended the 1963 Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, had not only participated in a work of art, but had also performed a subversive act that threatened the power of an increasingly authoritarian Japanese state. Nakanishi Natsuyuki’s Clothespins Assert Agitating Action was a haphazard combination of painting, readymades, sculpture, and performance. The work was created during a crucial moment in Japanese postwar history, as the “economic success that bred everyday complacency” was challenged by “a political uproar that wrought chaos nationwide” (Tomii 64). By creating a work which could physically alter the viewer, and vice versa, Natsuyuki offered a vision of a pluralistic society in a time when order and unity were officially enforced.

By 1955, Japan’s prospects were looking bright. Postwar reconstruction was complete, the San Francisco Peace Treaty had ended the American occupation, the country was rapidly growing as an economic power, and to top it all off: Tokyo was chosen as the host for the 1964 Olympics (Chong 29). This honor would allow Japan to reinvent itself in the eyes of the world, as a modern, prosperous state, victoriously recovered from military defeat. However, as Japan re-entered the world stage, not everything was running smoothly. Millions came out to protest the centennial renewal of the 1951 Anpo treaty, which would allow a continued US military presence on the archipelago. The same year, angry citizens flooded cities to protest the Vietnam War (Tomii 51). As activists were taking to the streets, Japanese artists were doing the same.

These protests coincided with a rise in independent artist collectives. The system of bijutsu dantai, or artist’s organizations, that had dominated the Japanese art world since the beginning of the Meiji period, had grown institutionalized and outdated, with their apex of achievement being the state-sponsored annual salon. (Tomii 48) Younger artists, steeped in the individualism of postwar society, “went outside the institutions of art, which meant going outdoors” (Tomii 65). A widespread rise of vanguard artist’s collectives resulted, marking a new era of experimentation with the boundaries between art and public life.

Nakanishi Natsuyuki was one of these young artists, and by the time of the 1963 exhibition, he was no stranger to infiltrating the public space with art. In October 1962, he crouched on the floor of a crowded commuter train with his face painted white, licking a resin egg full of everyday objects such as “sunglasses, bottle caps, and human hair” (Chong 27). A year later, in his work Clothespins Assert Agitating Action, he again brought his art into the outdoors of everyday life, but more importantly, he brought everyday citizens into his art.

The tone for Action was set when Natsuyuki strolled through Tokyo with a halo of clothespins painfully affixed to his face, as onlookers gawked at the strange sight. Inside the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, an annual event organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, viewers found an even more gruesome scene: Hung on the pegboard wall were seven “paintings”, but instead of paint, each canvas was covered in clothespins, filled with holes, and occasionally punctuated with a protruding lump wrapped in underwear. Piled on the floor and hanging above the canvasses were more undergarments, also infested with clothespins, and partially burnt. At first glance, the black masses of pins resemble a thick swarm of bees congregating around underwear-lump hives. A squinting viewer might have been able to identify certain hidden images shaped by the pins, like the faint shape of a rising nuclear cloud. However, these familiar images would not last long. Natsuyuki built the piece so that the audience could fundamentally change the images it depicted.

While discussing the work, Natsuyuki stated that “clothes pegs are attached on white canvas just as if a bee had stopped there. They could also be removed; if one did so, the canvas would return to being simply white. Other people could also clip them on.” (Ippolito 106). There has been much critical attention directed towards the performative elements of Action, like Natsuyuki’s discreet clipping of clothespins onto the garments of viewers, which then spread throughout the city like spores. However, the most notable conflict of the piece was in its complete submission to audience interpretation, so much so that viewers could physically rearrange the works however they saw fit.

The implications of this work did not go unnoticed by authorities. Soon after the exhibition opened, a dispute over bogus qualifications resulted in a confrontation between artists and gallery officials, which ended in police action. Months after the show was closed, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum discontinued the Yomiuri Independent altogether (Merewether 19). This abrupt cancellation shocked artists who had enjoyed the freedom of the Independent Exhibition, but was not entirely surprising. By forfeiting authorship in his own work, Natsuyuki directly provoked a government increasingly intent on controlling the identity of its nation.

As the 1964 Olympics approached, Tokyo had become increasingly authoritarian in preserving its national image. Any individual expression which contradicted the national narrative of postwar recovery and emergence was frowned upon. The shutdown of the Yomiuri exhibition was just one example of “the expansion of cultural policing within the broad program of affirmative cultural production and repression” taking place at the time (Marotti 613). With the bijutsu dantai system, the government had at least a marginal influence over which artists would rise to prominence, but as the art world shifted into an independent system of art production, looming dangerously close to a commercial art market, representational power was evidently slipping from the hands of the state. Unlike Yusaka Kamekura’s direct, legible Olympics poster, Natusyuki created a work which let go of legibility in favor of allowing viewers to literally create their own meaning. Handing this power over to regular people could only lead to its removal from the hands of the government, which sent anxiety rippling through state institutions.

Miyakawa Atsushi noted that 1963 was the year of the shift from “the modern (kindai) to the contemporary (gendai)” (Tomii 51). Natsuyuki’s work was an emblem of this shift. By allowing the audience to create their own images out of his work, he engendered the loss of authorship, subjectivity of meaning, and the decentralization of power. It was no wonder that Japanese authorities were quick to shut down his exhibition, but it was no matter either: as an Anti-Artist, he would have taken joy in the destruction of his work. It was just a bunch of clothespins, after all.

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