A Feast of Loathings
Tetsumi Kudo at Andrea Rosen Gallery

OGDEN NASH NEVER SAW THE SCULPTURE OF TETSUMI KUDO (1935 - 1990), never read his pensées. Even so, he would have known how to approach this installation at Andrea Rosen Gallery. Nash appreciated the justice of malice toward some: “Any kiddie in school can love like a fool/ But hating, my boy, is an art.”

Cultivation of Nature - People Who are Looking at It (1970)

Organized and curated by collector Joshua Mack, this exhibition is a feast of loathings. There is the unlovely work itself plus the artist’s anti-rational epistemology that earns it the tag “conceptual.” For added fun, Kudo is on offer as “a significant precursor” to core issues in contemporary aesthetics — insofar as these are understood by connoisseurs of pornographic and anatomical grotesqueries. He is considered a seminal influence on such as the Chapman Brothers, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. (McCarthy’s 78-foot high outdoor sculpture “Santa Claus with a Butt Plug” pleasured the citizenry of Antwerp last year.)

In short, Tetsumi Kudo is a forgettable footnote to more recent forgettable footnotes. Nevertheless, the exhibition offers a window into the kind of willed ignorance that passes for cognitive activity among artminds. Since conceptual art values the artist’s mental labors over the concrete artwork, we start with his thinking.

Born in Osaka, Kudo’s outlook was shaped by “destruction and deprivation endured during the War and the subsequent rise of mass consumerism on the ruins of a tradition-minded order.” A timely odor of victimhood wafts from that skewered synopsis. It ignores which nation started the unnamed war and it erases the colonial ambition of this “tradition-minded order” for expanded influence throughout Asia and China. Fresh from territorial gains in the Pacific during World War I, Imperial Japan waged a brutal campaign against China. In 1931, it conquered Manchuria, including half of Inner Mongolia. It launched an all-out invasion of China in 1937 and occupied all of the eastern part of the country by 1939. Rape of Nanking, anyone?

No matter. In 1961, Kudo created “Philosophy of Impotence,” with hanging phalluses sculpted from tape and tipped with flash bulbs, to protest the 1960 renewal of the United States Japan Security Treaty. Kudo resented the accord because it “maintained Japan’s status as an occupied nation against nationwide protest.”

A bit of history, please. First signed in 1951 to insure that a belligerent Japan would not go to war again, the Treaty was ambivalently renewed in 1960 by the United States which, in response to changed geopolitical conditions, wanted Japan to take some responsibility for its own defense. The Japanese themselves, amid much contention, preferred to let the Yanks fund their defense so that they could concentrate on building their economy. Which they did.

But even economic recovery was uncongenial to Kudo. He decamped with his wife to Paris in 1963, there to sulk over Japan’s material excesses and cultivate aversion to something called European or Western Humanism. Undefined, it is an ambiguous catch phrase for hazy cultural pique that exhibits little grasp of the substance behind the terms.

The most fruitful dimensions of Western civilization have been rooted in a biblical understanding of man fused to humanist understanding of the good, the true and the beautiful. Of what, precisely, does European/ Western Humanism consist in Kudo’s complaint? How is it a bogey “torturing” the earth? Is it Judeo-Christian humanism or atheistic humanism that calls down “nature’s vengeance”? They are not the same; they differ vastly in their premises and their real-world consequences. And, yes, Western technology has its burdens but its gifts are glorious. Kudo, an ideological tourist and closet pantheist, preferred buzzwords to distinctions. Hot-button titles (e.g. “Pollution - Cultivation - New Ecology”) are a tabula rasa on which to pin any disaffection with modernity.

The West’s fragile synthesis of faith and reason is under assault today from a neo-paganism that is cousin to animism. Kudo exploited the exoticism of Shinto animism — updated as “new ecology” — while skirting its nationalistic dogma: the divinity of Japan, its land and people.

Kudo’s art is a dog’s breakfast of creepy oddments, some sadistic or silly, all of them talentless. The more unintelligible the work, the more pretentious his accompanying “text.” Try making sense of his pseudo-analytical “Metaphorical Model of the Japanese Imperial System” or his demonstration of the “molecular structure” of Japanese animism.

Kudo asserted “the illusion of human dignity” with incoherent jumbles of body parts — brains, hands, toes, hairy faces and male organs — stuffed in cages or emerging from slime. History-minded viewers might be reminded of the gruesome experiments, including vivisection, performed on POWs at Kyushu University. To Kudo, these are “visual maquettes” of the effects of Western technology and industry, which — against the evidence of his own national history — are the root of racism and colonialism no less than environmental squalor.

One of two works entitled “Cultivation of Nature - People Who are Looking at It,” is a gooey bucket of snails, eyes, hair, and screws. The other holds a quartet of penis heads — thankfully made of resin — stuck into a bucket of muck like cigarettes extinguished in sand. A forlorn priapism marks the work. Listless penises cling to plants like slugs, wilt like flowers, lie bound and gagged, caged and quieted. One procession of penile bits, each fettered by wire, is chained together like prisoners. A tasteless but expiatory reference to the Bataan Death March, perhaps? No. This is part of the artist’s indictment of “the expansion of our egocentricity — which seeks only human dignity.”

Only? In that one word is all you need to know about Tetsumi Kudo.

Kudo, like the strain of conceptual artists he represents, feinted at philosophy and failed at logic. His anti-Western animus and nihilism qualifiy as social critique in an art world culture amenable to a peculiarly contemporary species of anti-intellectualism: misplaced or misapplied intellection. This is anti-intellectualism in academic dress, an assault not simply on common understanding of the nature of art but on rationality itself.


“Tetsumi Kudo” at Andrea Rosen Gallery (525 West 24 Street, 212-627-6000).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun on July 31, 2008.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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