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Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress in front of Electric Dress, 2002
Atsuko Tanaka in front of Electric Dress, at the opening of her first solo exhibition in Europe, 2002, at the Galerie im Taxispalais - shy and unsmiling - perfectly styled.

"Tanaka was accompanied by her husband and the Ambassador of Japan to Austria, Mr. Akio Ijuin. Mr. Koichi Kawasaki, Ashiya City Museum of Art & History spoke some words of greeting in the basement.

"Then, on the ground floor, Tanaka refused the cheap red wine and the salty peanuts which were offered to her.

"The old lady sat with her husband for a few minutes, looking glum and sully, sipped on her glass of water and finally left the gallery of the federal state of Tyrol without saying goodbye.


Atsuko Tanaka in Electric Dress, 1956. Photo Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Atsuko Tanaka
Photo Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Atsuko Tanaka


Atsuko Tanaka was one of Japan's most renowned avant-garde artists. She was a member of the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association) which was founded by the respected artist Jiro Yoshihara (1904-72), a gestural, abstract painter and influential teacher, in 1954 and existed until 1972. The word "gutai" is composed of two signs, "gu" meaning tool and "tai" meaning body, and it is variously translated as "concreteness" or "embodiment". In quest of "an art which has never existed before", the young artists experimented enthusiastically not only on paintings but also with various activities like open-air or staged events which were precursors to the Happenings of the late 1950s in New York and anticipated today's installation or performance elements. The American action painter Jackson Pollock, one of the most challenging and influential American artists of the twentieth century accompanied Michel Tapié de Celeyran, the French art critic, to Japan for many meetings with members of the group. At this time Tapié was interested in Gutai, since he had seen the Gutai Bulletin sent to Hisao Domoto in Paris. Some Gutai members decided to make a contract with Michel Tapié in 1958, to send him their works. According to Tapié, Yoshihara told them, "I am a master who has nothing to teach you, but I will create an optimal climate for creation." In 1962, he adapted his old warehouse in Nakanoshima, Osaka, and established the Gutai Pinacotheca, the name having been proposed by Tapié. The Pinacotheca became the center of Gutai's activities, such as Gutai Art Exhibitions, members' one-man shows and foreign artists' shows.

Atsuko Tanaka, who was born in Osaka in 1932, was one of the founding members of Gutai with which she stayed until 1965, and continues to work today on her contemplative paintings at her atelier in Nara. She is the creator of the "Electric Dress of 1956", one of the masterpieces of this century, a combination of the tradition of the Japanese kimono and modern industrial technology. The "Electric Dress" which the artist herself wears in her actions, such as stage performances, consists entirely of wires and more than one hundred colored light bulbs and neon light tubes, that flash every two and a half minutes.


Since 1954 the Gutai group anticipated the most significant formulations of post-war art of the West after 1945. Gutai was organized by Jiro Yoshihara, and the members were Sadami Azuma, Kei Isetani, Tamiko Ueda, Chiyu Uemae, Hiroshi Okada, Hajime Okamoto, Shozo Shimamoto, Yoshio Sekine, Shigeru Tsujimura, Toichiro Fujikawa, Yutaka Funai, Masatoshi Masanobu, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Toshio Yoshida, Hideo Yoshihara, and Michio Yoshihara. The office was located at Shimamoto's house, Koshien. After the sudden death of Jiro Yoshihara in 1972, while he was negotiating with staff members of the Dutch embassy by phone concerning the "Flower Expo" in Holland, the Gutai Art Association disbanded by mutual consent in March.
Also in 1954, "Zero-kai Exhibition", the first show of Zero-kai, a small group of Japanese artists, was held in the Sogo Department Store's show window in Osaka, where Akira Kanayama, Kazuo Shiraga, Atsuko Tanaka, Saburo Murakami, and others exhibited their works.

According to Jiro Yoshihara's direction, Shozo Shimamoto asked Zero-kai members in 1955 to join Gutai. Akira Kanayama, Kazuo Shiraga, Atsuko Tanaka and Saburo Murakami took part in Gutai.

The "Gutai Manifesto", written by Jiro Yoshihara, was printed in the art magazine Geijutsu-shincho in December 1956. In the Gutai Manifesto he describes the similarities and differences in expression between other artistic styles such as abstract art and informel art in contrast to Gutai Art. The Japanese artists also define their vision of the kind of art they wanted to create. Centering around the idea to present material as it is, "just as material ...", with Gutai Art the artists tried "to combine human creative ability with the characteristics of the material ...". Striving to go beyond the concept of abstract art, they sought to explore new possibilities in using material in their art works, with the aim of trying "to find an original method of creating" the "abstract space" - a new "shape of space still unknown to them, never before seen or experienced".


Electric Dress of 1956, reconstruction 1986
"Electric Dress of 1956", reconstruction 1986.


Atsuko Tanaka in Electric Dress, 
Second Gutai Art Exhibition, 
Ohara Hall in Tokyo, October 1956
Atsuko Tanaka in Electric Dress, Second Gutai Art Exhibition, Ohara Hall in Tokyo, October 1956

Atsuko Tanaka, Work, 1955, yellow cotton
Atsuko Tanaka, Work, 1955, yellow cotton.


Work, 1955. This work consisting of yellow cotton was first shown at the "8th Ashiya City Art Exhibition" in June 1955. Simply pinning the cotton directly to the wall, Atsuko Tanaka wanted to illustrate a new definition for the concept of a painting. Every piece of cotton shows one or two cuts of less than ten centimeters. To close them, Tanaka applied pieces of the same fabric or a few millimeters of glue alongside of the fabric's edge. This can be interpreted as an attempt to sharpen the awareness for boundaries; the fabric's edge itself symbolizing the dividing line between "thing" and "world".


Work "Bell" was first shown at the "First Gutai Art Exhibition" in October 1955 at the Ohara Hall in Tokyo. The work consists of twenty electric bells, arranged at intervals of two metres. By pressing a button, the ringing sound of each bell starts one after another. The sound travels away from the starting point and then returns to the initial point. Akira Kanayama, Gutai artist and husband of Atsuko Tanaka, describes this work as follows: "The material as the actual source of interest ... lost its importance as soon as the electricity was switched on; suddenly the sound of the bells were the work of art." The realization of the "First Gutai Art Exhibition" was due to the advice given by Houun Ohara, who was the leader of the Ohara, the avant-garde Ikebana school.


Atsuko Tanaka, Work Bell, 1955, variable installation, 20 bells, electric cords, motor, transformer
Atsuko Tanaka, Work Bell, 1955, variable installation,
20 bells, electric cords, motor, transformer.

Atsuko Tanaka, Work*, 1955, reconstruction 2002, Hofgarten, Innsbruck
Atsuko Tanaka, Work*, 1955, reconstruction 2002,
Hofgarten, Innsbruck.

Photo Galerie im Taxispalais


Work*, first shown in 1955 in a park in Ashiya, along the Ashiya River, Osaka, at "The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Burning Sun". It consists of one hundred squaremeters of pink rayon with a five centimeter blue edging around the square. The fabric is installed 30 centimeters above the ground. Mizuho Kato, Ashiya City Museum of Art & History: "Tanaka's work of pink rayon raises expectations ..." Much more than the yellow cotton, Tanaka had used until then. Tanaka's interest in boundaries manifests itself in her choice of color: shocking pink. The shrill pink was a real "shock color" in the fifties. The work changes with the wind and the sun. And the work itself changes the people. At the exhibition in July 1955, which was organized by the Ashiya City Art Association, other Gutai artists also performed: Kazuo Shiraga, swinging an axe, put red-painted wooden cubes on top of each other, Saburo Murakami trampled down and tore to pieces roofing cardboard, Sadamasa Motonaga hanged up plastic bags with coloured water on the trees, Tsuruko Yamazaki hanged up sheet steel, Michio Yoshihara showed objects, made of garbage. Yozo Ukita described the exhibition as follows: "At The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Burning Sun we did not try to overcome nature nor to challenge nature ... We wanted to find out how we could survive in this pine forest ..." Work*, was shown in 2002 in a park in Innsbruck, near the Inn River, Austria. The exhibition was the first solo exhibition of Atsuko Tanaka on the European continent in a public art space.




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