Takesada Matsutani is one of the most relevant voices of Japan’s post-war unique atheistic and artistic expression.
A member of the Gutai Group, one of the first radical artistic groups that emerged in the country in the early 1950s as a response to the reactionary social and cultural context of the period, Matsutani remains one of the most important Japanese artists still working today.
Thanks to a combination of different techniques, media and artistic forms, his works continue to demonstrate the spirit and essence of Gutai. To celebrate Matsutani’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, we spoke to Hauser & Wirth’s Senior Director Fiona Römer about the artists’ legacy and ground-breaking works.
Can you tell our readers more about Takesada Matsutani and his legacy?
From the early 1960s until the 1970s, Osaka-born, Paris-based artist Takesada Matsutani was a key member of the influential post war Japanese art collective, the Gutai Art Association. For six decades Matsutani has developed a unique visual language of form and materials. As part of the Gutai group, Matsutani experimented with vinyl glue, using fans and his own breath to manipulate the substance, creating bulbous and sensuous forms. By working closely with the material, this approach embodied an important aspect of Gutai: letting material and spirit work in conjunction with one another to create something new.
How does Gutai art fit into the post-war aesthetic of Japan?
Japan in the decades following World War II underwent a period of unprecedented expansion, and artists responded to the dramatic social changes in kind, unleashing an irrepressible creative spirit that was both provocative and innovative, opening to experimental movements, new trends in abstract artistic exploration and materialist aesthetics.
Arising out of a long century of war and conflict, the Gutai Art Association was a seminal group founded in 1954, which sought to challenge the entrenched framework of representative artistic traditions in Japan. The name “gutai” combines “gu” (technique, instrument) and “tai” (body), which translates as “concreteness”, it articulates one of the Gutai group’s most distinctive traits – their desire to physically engage with an extraordinary range of materials. The name also anticipated their investigations into the reciprocal connection between matter (paint, chemicals, tar, mud, water) and physical action (breaking, exploding, tearing, dripping). They wanted to create a new kind of art that explored the relationship between the human spirit and material.
What are the most relevant works included in the artist’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong?
First inspired by blood samples he had viewed under a microscope in the 1960s, Matsutani began to develop his signature style of circular, bubble-like forms from blobs of vinyl glue that he deposited on the surfaces of his canvases. Matsutani went on to refine his unique method of pouring vinyl glue, inflating it with his own breath and slicing it or letting it collapse on itself as he dried it with a fan. The strange, sensual forms of works that resulted can be seen in many works in the show, some evoke deflated balloons, such as ‘Puffed up-1’ (2020) and ‘Puffed up-2’ (2020); or flesh and wounds, in ‘Slow Slow 20-6-8’ (2020). Arising from an elegant painterly surface, the shapes were simultaneously attractive and repulsive, sculptural and dynamic. The long hours that it takes to pour, dry, inflate and cut the vinyl glue, infuse the work with a sense of lived time.
What can people expect from the exhibition?
This is Matsutani’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, we are excited to have included new mixed-media paintings, works on paper, assemblages and an important site-specific installation from the artist’s archive. The exhibition spreads both floors of our gallery space (15F & 16F of H Queen’s). The exhibition starts with the most recent production, some of which produced during lockdown in 2020, while on the lower floor, we had a chance to re-install his incredibly energetic “The Magic Box”, which had not been seen since the late 80’s. The work expresses best his sense of energy and movement and a pinnacle in realising the 3-dimensionality present in all his work.
Over his 6-decade-long career, how has his style evolved?
As one of the most important Japanese artists still working today, Matsutani has kept his voice until now and being able to continue his very unique vocabulary. He carries on demonstrating the spirit of Gutai throughout his practice, conveying the reciprocity between pure gesture and raw material.
Does Paris influence his art? What about Japan and its culture?
Matsutani moved to Paris in 1966. Living in Paris in the 1970s with limited resources, Matsutani was compelled to reconsider the essential tools of art-making. The inexpensive materials of graphite and paper allowed the artist to discover the elementary and immediate technique of black and white drawing. He was exploring what surface could emerge out of an accumulation of repeated pencil strokes – a practice he has continued over the last 40 years. As the deep blackness began to materialise, the process became almost diary-like, with each stroke upon stroke and the deepening tone representing the passing of time. The drawings, taken as a whole, provide an impressive summary of Matsutani’s practice. In one, there is the pencil’s insistence; in another, an oscillating in stream is evaporating. His zen-like approach to these simple materials and the meditative repetition of the strokes allowed Matsutani to consider their connection to his Japanese heritage.
Is the Gutai Manifesto still relevant today for Matsutani and his works?
Yes, very much so. As the founder of Gutai Jiro Yoshihara said in The Gutai Art Manifesto – “We have decided to pursue enthusiastically the possibilities of pure creativity. Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life.” We can still see these in Matsutani’s practice. The use of the Vinyl glue as central to a majority of his production has remained unsurpassed and innovative.
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.