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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

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image image Fun House: Nearly 50 Years of The Play
Christopher Stephens
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Thunder 7 (16 July - 11 September 1983, Kasagi-cho, Soraku-gun, Kyoto) (photographer unknown) © The Play

Though the roots of performance art can be traced back to the Dadaists, Futurists, and Constructivists at the beginning of the 20th century, the American artist Allan Kaprow is often credited with identifying the emerging genre in a 1958 essay and documenting what by the mid-sixties had become an international trend in his landmark book Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (1966). Unlike art of the past, these actions were designed for a specific space and time, contained a strong element of improvisation, and left no physical record of the event. Kaprow referred to them as "a game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing."

Among the Japanese artists most closely associated with performance art are the Gutai group, Tetsumi Kudo, and Yayoi Kusama, but the genre's best kept secret is undoubtedly The Play, a collective formed in the Kansai region of western Japan in 1967. Dozens of members have passed through the group's ranks, with the only constant being Keiichi Ikemizu (b. 1937), who is now aided by four long-serving compatriots. After nearly half a century of sporadic but consistently original activities, The Play is at last being recognized with its first museum retrospective, The Play Since 1967: Beyond Unknown Currents, running through 15 January 2017 at the National Museum of Art, Osaka.

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Sheep (23 August 1970, Kyoto) (photographer unknown) © The Play

The Play is distinguished by an extraordinarily pure and uncompromising approach. At the outset, a conscious decision was made to separate art and commerce -- nothing was ever made to last or sell, and the group's members supported themselves by working as teachers, architects, and designers. At times, this seems to have limited the frequency and scope of their activities, while enabling them to proceed exactly as they saw fit. In fact, though The Play did advertise events and actively recruit volunteers, the group's projects were for the most part performed without an audience in mind. They were personal explorations of the self, community, and nature, and frequently had the quality of an endurance test.

This is best exemplified by Thunder, an epic work begun in the summer of 1977. Having heard that western Japan had a disproportionately large amount of lightning, The Play found a mountain in Kyoto and constructed a 20-meter-high pyramidal tower made of several hundred logs on top of it. The plan was to wait for lightning to strike. At first, it seemed like only a matter of time, but by the end of the third summer, nothing had happened. Undeterred, the artists pledged to stay the course, returning to the site to rebuild the structure, and camping on the mountain for two or three months every summer for a total of ten years. In 1986, however, they were forced to accept defeat. The quixotic nature of the project attracted a great deal of interest, drawing more participants and observers than at any other point in the group's career.

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IE: The Play Have a House (5 August 1972, Kasagi-cho, Soraku-gun, Kyoto) (photo: Yuzo Otsuka) © The Play

Other notable and equally quirky efforts include Sheep (1970), in which The Play attempted to escort a dozen sheep on foot from Kyoto to Kobe, a distance of roughly 75 kilometers. The mission continued for eight days before being aborted about two-thirds of the way in Takatsuki. In another work, Wind: Wandering in the Wind (1976), the group traveled by ferry and train to the expansive Sarobetsu Plain in Hokkaido, where they commenced to walk in the direction of the wind for five days. (Some of the members cite this as The Play's most trying event, due to relentlessly inhospitable weather and the threat of bears.)

In addition to journeys overland, The Play has embarked on a number of nautical voyages, beginning with Current of Contemporary Art in 1969. After constructing an arrow-shaped Styrofoam raft large enough to carry a dozen or so people, the group began rowing down the Uji River from Tonoshima, Kyoto at 8:40 a.m. Approximately 12 hours later they arrived as planned on the eastern shore of Nakanoshima in central Osaka. Over 40 years later, in 2011, the group reproduced the raft for a group exhibition at the National Museum of Art, Osaka called Kaza Ana / Air Hole: Another Form of Conceptualism from Asia, which introduced The Play's work to a younger audience and brought it to the attention of foreign curators. After the show was finished, the group took the raft to the spot where the 1969 trip had ended and set off downriver, passing under 15 bridges in the direction of the sea. This led to a similar project the following year, when the group was invited to drift through Paris along the Seine in what became The Play's first international foray.

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La Seine: Current of Contemporary Art (5 June 2012, Seine River, Paris) (photo: Takao Minami) © The Play

 

A reproduction of The Play's Thunder as seen through one of Alexander Calder's mobiles at the Osaka exhibition (photo: Kazuo Fukunaga) © The National Museum of Modern Art, Osaka

In another floating work, IE: The Play Have a House (1972), The Play built a small house the size of a six-tatami-mat room (4 x 3 x 2.7 meters) out of Styrofoam and plywood, and made a five-day trip from Kyoto to Osaka via the Kizu and Yodo Rivers. Topped with a red roof emblazoned with the group's name, the white house was furnished with a small table, cushions, and cooking utensils, and decorated with candy-striped wallpaper. After reaching Osaka, unable to go any further, they burned the house. In 2015, The Play recreated the house, launching it near the spot where the 1972 trip had ended, and drifting down the river for the rest of the day.

Perseverance and humor are at the heart of each of The Play's actions and the group's career as a whole, presented in this exhibition through a profusion of documents, photographs, and films, as well as a few relics such as the raft and house. There are no heavy-handed social or political messages, just a reminder that experience can cultivate deeper understanding and that childish undertakings can have profound results -- even, or especially, when they end in failure. Long may they play!

All images provided by the National Museum of Art, Osaka.

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The Play Since 1967: Beyond Unknown Currents
22 October 2016 - 15 January 2017
The National Museum of Art, Osaka (NMAO)
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Christopher Stephens
Christopher Stephens has lived in the Kansai region for over 25 years. In addition to appearing in numerous catalogues for museums and art events throughout Japan, his translations on art and architecture have accompanied exhibitions in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, South Korea, and the U.S. His recent published work includes From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and Gutai: Splendid Playground (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013).
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