Ikon presented the first UK retrospective exhibition of the pioneering Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka (1932–2005). Very early paper and fabric collages were shown alongside diverse works from her years as a member of the avant-garde artists’ group Gutai (1955–1965), including the famous Electric Dress, and a selection of later paintings.
The exhibition commences with two paper collages entitled Calendar (c.1954), referring to a period Tanaka spent in hospital where she developed a habit of writing out dates as a countdown towards the day she would be discharged. Quite complex in their composition, they preceded more minimal works on fabric including Work (1955), consisting of large rectangles of yellow cotton cloth. These pieces embody a fascinating instance of modernism in Japan, very radical in the straightforward insistence on an actual place in the world. Tanaka preferred realism to illusion and narrative, markedly different to many Japanese artists working immediately after World War II, often in exaggerated surrealist styles.
In October 1955 Tanaka exhibited Work (Bell) at the first Gutai Art Exhibition, a sound installation consisting of 20 electric bells wired together at two-metre intervals, ringing occasionally and in sequence. It anticipated the Electric Dress, Tanaka’s most famous work, shown in the second Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956. Electric Dress, actually worn by Tanaka but now supported by life-sized steel armature, is a mass of electric lamps of various shapes and colours. It is an extraordinary conflation of humanity and technology: at once attractive and dangerous-looking, it is an edgy celebration of urban post-war popular culture. Ikon’s exhibition included both of these seminal works alongside associated drawings.
Tanaka’s paintings, acrylic on canvas,consist of vivid lines and circles, analogous to the lamps and wiring of the Electric Dress. Made horizontally on the floor of her studio, the paintings are traces of the artist’s movement around a canvas, easily interpreted as the pacing of an individual within a confined space. Until the early 1960s, red and black were the predominant colours, after which the palette opened up to embrace blues, greens, yellows and so on. The overall effect became less severe and a variation in the sizes of the circles widened the range of emotional expression. As much about the mind as about physical gestures, they comprise a remarkable body of work
Atsuko Tanaka’s exhibition The Art of Connecting was organised in collaboration with The Japan Foundation, Espai D’Art Contemporani de Castelló, Spain and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Japan. The exhibition was supported by The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, and with special support from the Ishibashi Foundation.