Atsuko Tanaka is best known for her work Electric Dress (1956/1986), a functional “garment” made from hundreds of flashing lights and electrical cables, which completely subsumes its wearer in a captivating display of luminosity and color. This piece formed the nucleus of a beautifully scaled retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, which traced Tanaka’s creative trajectory from 1952—just prior to her decade-long involvement with the Japanese avant-garde artist group Gutai—to the years before her death in 2005. A joint project with Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló (both locations where the show toured in 2011), the exhibition assembled around 100 objects, including early experiments with collage and fabric, drawings, installations and an extensive selection of paintings, as well as films documenting the artist’s performances and environmental interventions.
The late artist’s oeuvre was underscored by a desire to be responsive to the present. The point of departure for Electric Dress was the postwar environment of Osaka, Tanaka’s hometown, where new technological developments ushered in change. Borrowing from the aesthetic of neon advertising signs, she created a costume that exemplifies visual spectacle and sensory immersion. Presented in the exhibition as a sculptural installation draped over an armature, the mass of brightly colored, hand-painted lights flickered chaotically to enthralling effect—both transcendent and faintly aggressive.
Other works from the mid-1950s engage with the construct of clothing. In Stage Clothes (1957)—a playfully energetic performance that was presented in the exhibition through film and four delightful preparatory studies—Tanaka hastily changes between a number of customized outfits designed to accentuate the notions of constraint or transformation. Excessively long hems foreclose free movement, dresses come apart in sections and new layers emerge from within surreptitious pockets. A more subdued and reductive use of fabric is seen in “Work” (1955), a series of three large, rectangular pieces of yellow cotton pinned to the wall. The languid ripples of their surfaces reveal stains, creases and tears, but virtually no trace of the artist’s hand. Undoubtedly a bold gesture for its time, “Work” presents objects of everyday life for aesthetic consideration, reflecting Gutai’s emphasis on exploring the qualities inherent to materials—the group’s name itself meaning “tangible” or “concrete.”
Tanaka’s concern with the experiential and immaterial distinguished her somewhat among her Gutai peers. Work (Bell) (1955/2000) is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of these concepts within her early practice, confronting viewers with the uncomfortably loud ringing of 20 electric bells. Likewise, her environmental intervention featured in the 1968 film Round on Sand (directed by Hiroshi Fukuzawa) focuses on an ephemeral gesture. In an elaborate but apparently improvised drawing along the length of a beach, Tanaka engraves into the sand a vast array of circles connected by a dense web of lines. These motifs relate visually to Electric Dress and its intricate composition of light bulbs and circuitry, but they also metaphorically convey the artist’s concern with relations between people, contexts, materials, phenomena and so on, which are embedded within everyday life.
The second half of the exhibition was dedicated to Tanaka’s paintings from the late 1950s onward, representing her focused exploration of the abstract visual language catalyzed by Electric Dress. These works are characterized by a sense of immediacy and strident dynamism. Circles jostle side by side, and one inside another, as in Work (1962) and WORK 1968 (1968), respectively—like a mass of cells pulsing within the limits of the canvas. Joined by a fluid network of lines, they are compelling evocations of the interconnectivity that underpins every aspect of existence, from physiology to cultural life to technological systems.
Perhaps the most radical aspect of Tanaka’s practice was that she viewed her entire oeuvre as a form of “painting,” an idea elaborated at length in the catalog but not fully articulated in the exhibition. Nevertheless, the selection of works conveyed the consistency of her vision across five decades of practice, drawing a lucid arc of associations between her early experimental projects—pioneering within the history of postwar Japanese avant-garde art—and the prolific body of paintings that followed.