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The Way to Avant-Garde (excerpt)

Publication

The Way to Avant-Garde

Publisher

The Art Publishing

Language

Japanese

Translated by Marie Iida

Appearing in a Public Interview

Robert Rauschenberg, the greatest of all the greats, the most important young master of the postwar avant-garde art world, who earned America its first Grand Prize in a dramatic upset at the 1964 Venice Biennale, arrived in Japan as the art director [sic] of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company near the end of that same year. On this occasion, “Twenty Questions to Bob Rauschenberg” took place.1

In front of more than five hundred prospective members of the ravenous, growing Japanese art community, who had gathered in Sogetsu Art Center in Akasaka, Tokyo, Rauschenberg guzzled whiskey oranges and, together with his three assistants, pulled out from somewhere a gold folding screen—a tableau of traditional Japanese painting that even natives such as us had rarely seen—and, sweating profusely, attacked it with a drill.

This was the second public interview hosted by the critic Yoshiaki Tōno, who had caused a sensation among young people at the public interview “Anti-Art, Yes or No?” in January 1964.

Rauschenberg is known for his use of primary color prints, and beginning with Monogram, in which he wrapped a car tire around the chest of a goat dabbed with thick paint, most of his works have been introduced to Japan. For us, each such occasion has served as a driving force that suffuses our impoverished art community with a new spirit. Especially his bold use of found objects, such as a fan, a broken traffic light, or a stuffed bird—like tableaux made out of props from a Happening—gave us a shock that made it seem impossible ever to imagine a work more modern.

With a global artist such as this responding to our questions, one would be a fool not to be thrilled. The crowd, which had gathered in the small, sweltering Sogetsu Art Center with a pile of questions, looked with anticipation at the dimly lit stage. However, our rising expectations were soon shattered. Onstage, the event started at once, and our painstakingly formed and selected questions were sent through a telephone inside the venue to the side of the stage where Mr. Tōno sat. Before they reached Rauschenberg, the questions were processed through composer Toshi Ichiyanagi’s so-called "breaking machine," which shredded the questions so that in the end they reverberated through the floor as electronic noise.2 This dismayed even Mr. A of the art journal Bijutsu Techō (Art notebook), who had arrived eagerly with two female stenographers and a tape recorder in hand.3

However, I exchanged sly smiles with the papier-mâché artist Nobuaki Kojima. We had known this would happen. The two of us, who had arranged in advance with Mr. Tōno to make a powerful impression on Mr. Rauschenberg with our works, sat impatiently with the interpreter Mr. Shūji Takashina at a table to the left of the stage and waited for Mr. Tōno’s sign—right hand raised twice—as he read aloud from the question sheet.

In fact, the day before the event, I had received a visit from Rauschenberg and company.

Getting an OK for Imitation

The clattering sound of the company's footsteps down the hallway as they approached my apartment made my heart pound. After all, Rauschenberg was now a popular artist at the height of his career in the global art world, and we were only seven years apart in age. The only difference between us was the price of our paintings: an average of $20,000 (about 8 million yen) per work for Bob, and 20,000 yen for me. But I wasn’t going to be at his mercy. My works for the group exhibition Left Hook (featuring Shintaro Tanaka, Nobuaki Kojima, Tatsumi Yoshino, Kazutada Tsubouchi, and myself), which would take place in December that year at Shinjuku’s Tsubaki Kindai Gallery, were emerging one by one in the courtyard outside my veranda. The masterpiece among them, the papier-mâché statue Marcel Duchamp in Thought, measured over two meters high even in a seated pose. As I gazed at it I smiled in spite of myself; I wondered how the visitors would react when they saw it.

“Come in, please.”

I ushered them into the dining room with their shoes on, and the drinking and eating started immediately. With cups of whiskey in hand, everyone did as they pleased. Some focused on the food, some on the drinks, and, from time to time, they stared intently at my mother making dolls in the adjacent Japanese-style room. Gilt-edged sunglasses and a khaki jacket. A coll Yankee, Bob did not seem like a great master at all. The Ivy rebels in Ginza would immediately want to imitate his style; he had a perfect sense of TPO (Time, Place, Occasion). He kept hold of his whiskey as I led him out into the courtyard to show him my works. (In my heart, I was worried that he would look at my Imitation art and attack me in a rage). He stared silently at the statue of Marcel Duchamp in Thought with its spinning head.4 The Swedish museum curators who had visited the day before had made a big fuss over the statue when they saw it, saying I should set fireworks inside its head, but Bob’s reaction was the exact opposite.

I showed one work after another to Bob, who remained silent. The Beatles, Lovely Lovely America, Don Shorander with Four Gold Medals, Air Mail—it was as if I were reproducing American Pop. But Rauschenberg impressed me as expected. He never said anything cowardly, like that he wanted to see something more unique to Japan. To him, the Zen country of Japan did not matter. The only thing that mattered was the confrontation between works of art. That’s why however closely I imitate Pop art—or embody Pop itself—it stirred in him the same feeling of tension and rivalry as would any work of emerging new art in America.

“May I imitate your works?”

There it was. My special question. I thought about showing him my Coca-Cola Plan5 as well, but didn’t have the courage to do so. I’d bring it out during tomorrow’s public interview anyway.

“Sure.”

I was disappointed by his immediate OK. I was expecting him to hit me, or at least pause for a little bit. Well, since I got the OK in person, I will imitate his works more and more. But the outcome was the opposite: for after my meeting with Bob, I lost interest in Imitation art.

Rauschenberg Refuses to Answer Questions

Mr. Tōno raised his right hand twice. We were up! Kojima and I ran onstage. I dragged the statue of Duchamp out from its hiding place to the center of the stage while Kojima did the same with his flag-draped figure, which held a large placard with the word “QUESTION” on it.

Question 1: The enlarged face of Marilyn Monroe, in the same way as the Mona Lisa with the beard, follows the same Dada spirit that has existed since 1916. This methodology of Dadaism within the plastic arts has an established value and authority, and it is also as archaic as the Legion of Honor or a moustache. What does Mr. Rauschenberg, the Neo-Dadaist, make of this?

Question 2: What would you do if an Imitation art version of your work, exactly the same as the original but enlarged ten to fifty times and equipped with a powerful effect, appeared right next to it?

Question 3: Your work has an extremely intuitive effect, that is to say, like the tableaux of Picasso, it impresses us with the artist’s natural talent and brushwork. However, a superior sensibility does not always express a superior idea. Rather, when expressing an important idea, wouldn’t an extraordinary sensibility or pathological nature be a distraction? In your tableaux featuring discarded objects (a traffic light, a stuffed bird, a chair, a bed) dripped with primary colors, I cannot help but detect a method that relies too heavily on a Picasso-like sensibility. What do you make of this?

I read my questions aloud in both English and Japanese. (Mr. Takashina had translated them.) Bob, wearing a gas station attendant’s uniform, continued to work in silence and did not respond no matter what I said. When I placed my question sheet at his feet, he pasted even that on the screen.

All right, we’ll move on then. I turned on the switch of Marcel Duchamp in Thought. It began to move creakily, and as it picked up speed, its head spun into a white blur. Amazing. The eyes of the crowd focused on it at once. Bob, with a brush in his hand, gave it a sidelong glare.

We had reached a limit. Duchamp’s head was about to blow away, and so I had to turn the switch off. Nothing happened. Bob continued to work. He went on like that for four and a half hours. The curtain was drawn. Bob, terribly drunk, looked at me and pretended to take me down with a karate move. And until the end, he carried my Coca-Cola Plan in his arms and refused to let go, calling it “my son.”

1.

Rauschenberg was the stage designer, not the art director, of the company.

2.

The machine is described as an electronic sound distorter in Hiroko Ikegami's essay "Lost in Translation? 'Twenty Questions to Bob Rauschenberg.' "

3.

Mr. A was an editor of the art journal Bijutsu Techō (Art notebook).

4.

The sculpture's rotating head is driven by a motor.

5.

The work was created in 1964 and is now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, Toyama.

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