Whitehot Magazine

Out of Bounds: Japanese Women Artists in Fluxus

Shigeko Kubota, Flux Napkins (ca. 1967) Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL November 7, 2023

One of the most important art shows in New York right now is Out of Bounds: Japanese Women Artists in Fluxus at the Japan Society. It focuses attention on four Japanese women artists-musicians who helped create a blueprint for a new way to make art and music by using conceptual instructions.  

Out of Bounds lays bare the contributions to Fluxus (founded in 1960 by George Maciunas) of Shigeko Kubota (1937–2015), Yoko Ono (b. 1933), Takako Saito (b. 1929), and Mieko Shiomi (b. 1938). The exhibition is organized by guest curator Midori Yoshimoto and Tiffany Lambert, curator and interim director at the Japan Society, with Ayaka Iida, an assistant curator there.

Out of Bounds show is a superb exploration of Fluxus art/music transported into today’s magnificent but mannerist milieu. Its non-pop experimental approach is refreshing—as it is full of the flames of free idiosyncratic impulses. 

Certainly we are over-mediated today, but these four Fluxus artists were well mediated too—the difference being that they handled media glut with an existential wry wit that gave it a nonsensical quality. In our often humorless times, where a cold shadow is cast over every joy and joke, Fluxus’ playful humor is salvation. 

Takako Saito, Sound Chess  (ca. 1977)  Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Patience with dull emptiness and grinding repetition is an essential coping mechanism today, and these four Japanese women artists help with that. For Fluxus is a combination of opposites—there is a transcendent quality embodied in the intimate particular. Often their works are tinged with an eroticism that ranges from subtle insinuation to subtle salaciousness—surpassing cliché male expectations. But Fluxus art and music can be viscerally compelling and profound—as in Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting performance (1965) and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965).

Shigeko Kubota, Vagina Painting, performed during Perpetual Fluxfest, Cinematheque, New York, July 4, 1965 Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Yoko Ono performing Cut Piece at Carnegie Recital Hall, NYC , March 21, 1965. Photo by Minoru Niizuma © Yoko Ono

Many of the pieces in the show are accommodating to an altered state of emotional scale and time. Their counteractions afford the benefits of defiance-as-difficulty aimed against the controlling male world’s banal blandness. 

Within the self-imposed constraints of Fluxus, the arbitrary becomes canonical and Platonic. Indeed, Fluxus aesthetic philosophy—that partly grew from Zen and John Cage and the Beat generation—provides a fundamental antithesis to the authoritarian, mechanical, simulated rigidities of today’s controlling technical world. 

The exhibition demonstrates that as a fluctuating phenomenon, Fluxus changed over time—to begin with, the focus was on scores and events. But Out of Bounds also provokes thinking about the often funny and silly and anthologizing aspects of Fluxus—it has an earnest but playful and non-nihilistic jabberwocky joy about it—very much in need these dire days. There is something special about these Fluxus women and their sense of humor within a mixed community that was both intimate and global in scope. Their Fluxus played with the Dada-Surrealist cannon in a self-conscious fun way and this allowed it to achieve some enchantment.

Takako Saito, Untitled (#035) (1958). Photograph by Johannes Poettgens. Courtesy of boa-basedonart

Fluxus art-music (or anti-art-music, if you like) is an invocation of a counter Dionysian spirit in face of the exuberant energy of free jazz and the frenzy of Bacchic rock and roll. It embraced an enduring legacy of inferiority within the media-overload landscape. That is also why a lot of it still resonates—we can still spark off it. 

Mieko Shiomi, < wind music > (1963). Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY 

As we can see (and almost hear) with Mieko Shiomi’s Wind Music (1963)—here is an enormous breath and scope to what these Fluxus women did—sometimes reaching far back into the past. With Fluxus there is a consciousness of being embedded in the long scope of time. Also, its boarders are fuzzy—for Fluxus mapped methods of composing art and music onto various aspects of visual life—and by so doing made it possible to consider everything as material for art and sound composition.  

Fluxus also created a web-work of revolutionary associations suggestive of unity consciousness while cementing down the banal and the particular. It is corny-funny in a way that slanted against hippy disorganization because it swallowed John Cage’s a-tonality chance operations whole. In a way it stiffly stylized certain generational trends towards thinking about mediated-verses-immediate experience in the context of the exploded new media world of the 1960s.

Products for Fluxus editions, 1964. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, [Fluxkit

Out of Bounds takes us across time, and is thus both melancholy and marvelous. It is a kind of cultural extraction where both the differences and the similarities between our hyper-digital present and the analog explosion that was the Fluxus context are highlighted and brought forward. 

But Fluxus was already a self-devouring circularity of culture. That is why the bowler hat style gives a bitter-sweet quality to these radicals. 

Though sometimes willfully clichéd, I think that Fluxus prophesized a lot of things we are going through while also featuring big differences worthy of our respect and even nostalgic longing. Out of Bounds has me remembering archiving La Monte Young’s Fluxus collection for the Dia Art Foundation in the late-1970s. Doing so, it becomes obvious to me just how immersed these four artists were in the circulation of analog media. Indeed, its extraordinary what Fluxus did in the mid-60s—partly intentionally and partly situationally—within the context of post-war media-technological culture: expanded radio, television broadcast, cybernetics, offset color printing, the reach into outer space, multitrack recording, casual sex, transcendental meditation, mind-expanding recreational drugs. Their technological-meets-countercultural hip-but-square style has an externality and an interiority to it that was quite unique—and almost impossible today. 

So perhaps Out of Bounds represents a lost golden age as Fluxus carved out for itself a space of separation from mass/pop culture. That countercultural carve-out translated, or mimicked, or ported into the increasingly phantasmagoric energy of the countercultural 1960s—a push back against the emerging environment of fluid distribution. Though Fluxus art and music is rarely considered within the context of the psychedelic sixties, in a way it should be. It is psychedelic to me because it is mind manifesting. And that is another reason why Fluxus art and music still works for us—its square-but-hip carve-out within media culture has never really gone away. It is the global cultures’ golden jewels. We won’t let it fade into golden slumber—but insist on continually transforming it.

Seeing itself as an alternative to academic art and music, Fluxus was a democratic form of creativity open to anyone. Yet Fluxus attention asserts synchronicities: emphasizing events that seem connected but are not causally related. This primordial but heroic appropriation of the present bares the ontological weight of an important cultural assertion, even as Fluxus art promises multiple fluid alternative conceptions of both the past and the future. Bravo! For this is consistent with the Dadaist belief that art will always be born from the chaos of time by gazing at an excess of possibilities in the now.   

So by being always present, these four Fluxus artists-musicians obliquely rendered an applicable technique for making important art today. Dada insisted on a continuous now that revolted against any commemorative appropriation of coherent history. So I see the women of Out of Bounds as a valid passing of the disrespectful avant-garde torch to today—which is why it is so much more than an elegy to a lost era of rebelliousness.   

Among the Fluxfilms screened include:

• Fluxfilm No. 1: Zen for Film (1964), Nam June Paik. 8 min.

• Fluxfilm No. 4: Disappearing Music for Face (1966), Mieko Shiomi. 10 min.

• Fluxfilm No. 9: Eyeblink (1966), Yoko Ono. 1 min.

• Fluxfilm No. 14: One (1966), Yoko Ono. 4:30 min.

• Fluxfilm No. 16: Four, Yoko Ono (1966). 5:30 min.

• Fluxfilm No. 21: Untitled (1966), Alison Knowles. 30 sec.

Through Jan. 21 at the Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan japansociety.org. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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