Tetsumi Kudo, Metamorphosis
Hauser & Wirth, New York
5 May – 30 Jul 2021
By KURT McVEY June, 2021
How can an artist, a singular creator, critique the central tenets of Western Humanism while operating, playing and profiteering within that same system? Begrudgingly, ironically or even feebly, meaning, in some thankfully intelligent and self-aware performative sense of course. This seems to be the case with the late Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo’s current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Metamorphosis (closing July 30th). Despite all his rage, Kudo, by way of his creations, is still just a severed, biomorphic, post-Tetsuo nuclear holocaust penis in a cage. Aren’t we all.
The show consists mainly of box sculptures, assemblages and trippy dioramas living at the delightful neon nexus of playful and disturbing. These strange creations articulate Kudo’s inability to escape from Western capitalistic mandates to endlessly make stuff, in his case, these unique and at times haunting art objects, while simultaneously battling and satiating his own ego. The work, made primarily in the 1960s and ‘70s, carries a powerful environmental warning or prophecy; that Planet Earth will most likely heal itself long before we do as a species. This critique is matched only by a greater technological (digital) phobia regarding man’s increasing subservience to the rapidly accelerating, exponentially complexifying virtual machine god.
There is a vast chasm, admittedly, between the continually self-challenging and deconstructed, often self-deprecating male ego of Kudo the sensitive artist and someone like the Russian President and inextricable tsar, Vladimir Putin, for instance, who recently helped to facilitate or at least boast about the construction of a “doomsday machine,” a nuclear torpedo essentially, able to trigger 300-foot, highly radiated tsunamis. Why anyone would create this hellish device beyond the already dust-collecting tools of our ongoing global nuclear stalemate is beyond the capacity of any rational human mind, or more accurately perhaps, any human soul. To be fair, massive, fuel combustion-propelled metal proxy penises do not have to serve as tools for destruction alone. We also have Elon Musk’s 2019 SpaceX Starship, a shiny and highly erect technological stepping stone built to one day seed Mars with a crop of seminal human space monkeys, presumably fatigued by Earth’s drama. The line between creating phallic instruments of epic destruction as opposed to tools for species-saving creation is hair thin. Man’s genius and industrial drive forever teters on this too-fine line. What is certain, is this drive will not die easily.
Kudo’s weird assemblages, microbiomes and anthropomorphic penile terrariums defy easy categorization. Yes they are satirizing the more destructive impulses of “Western” men especially, or the hierarchical structure of European Humanism specifically, which places “man” above nature and sometimes, (too frequently and persistently) above their fellow man. But a critic must wonder, does this criticism include the art world’s insatiable lust for market reports and the endless chatter of big money over emotion, especially the wide-eyed mania that huge, borderline irrational, mega-million-dollar auction sales elicit? Whether a toxic doomsday machine, number two space-bro Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard (Blue Origin) rocket ship, or the winning bid on Salvator Mundi, do they not all fall on the same Ubermensch peacocking pissing contest spectrum? Isn’t it all just big (or small) dick-game posturing? Are we not all in some way complicit? The journalists, as often women as men, who write their auction-house market reports, are they not all in some way lusting over the chest-beating purchasing (penis) power of these big money buyers? Kudo’s work can give the impression that it’s all separate from this.
Despite the largest, dubiously generated and poorly explained existential hyper-object event since 9/11-this being COVID-19-we as artists, critics and cultural commentators have yet to move beyond this contradiction, this conscious and yet seemingly unfortunate hypocrisy. Artists by action and lifestyle are individualists by nature, but to admit this publicly in 2021 is a social taboo. Western Humanism, a considerably vague term, is often code for Individualism, which is itself now code for selfishness, a notion still tethered to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ideology, but without the Romantic underpinnings to gird individualist pursuits-the pursuit of greatness, the inherent drive to reach one’s optimal potential-in a strong moral and ethical foundation.
There are many kinds of Humanism, such as Renaissance Humanism, a term frequently attributed to the scholar and poet of early Renaissance Italy, Francesco Petrarca, also known as Petrarch (1304-1374). During his time, he spearheaded and emphasized the resurgence of learning based on classical Greco-Roman sources, essentially proto-elightement doctrines. Petrarch is said to have coined the term “Dark Ages” to refer to the 900-year period that preceded the now celebrated, mid-15th century explosion of culture. Many consider Petrarch as not only the founder of Humanism but also the “Father of the Renaissance.” So where did Humanism go wrong if this core ideology once, quite literally, pulled us out of the Dark Ages?
The Scientific Revolution as well as the Enlightenment movement were both essential precursors to the now clearly problematic Industrial Revolution, which, although extending lifespans and generally improving the comfort level of billions of individuals around the world, ushered in two world wars, increasingly sophisticated WMDs, a die-hard military industrial complex, inevitably catastrophic climate change, a rapidly accelerating global extinction event, and Twitter. More terrifying is the prospect of unfathomable human death and suffering on a global scale to move a product that was birthed at the event horizon of technology, irresponsible viral tampering, complicit corporate media, billion-dollar big business, massive unconscionable interconnected government overreach, and sociopathic personal politics. Westen Humanism and every vector, component and tributary of COVID-19, it cannot be disputed, are one.
What we see in much of Kudo’s work is human and animal decomposition by way of technological degradation and nuclear fallout. Kudo, who was born in Osaka in 1935, grew out of a nuclear Japan. His father died of Tuberculosis in 1945, the same year Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One can only imagine how this might help to formulate a complicated worldview regarding micro-macro patriarchal masculinity and the capacity for a safer, brighter future. From a young age, it seems, Kudo began to question whether it was possible to escape the tyranny of psychopathic, apathetic men he would never meet, these less-than-reptilians bent on destruction and in search of power at all costs, not least of all, human life.
By 1962, the year Kudo moved to Paris, he had developed “impo philosophy” (impotent philosophy) which positions the average modern man as hopelessly ineffective within the various prison-like constructs that force us to partake in bio-degradation on a massive scale; the impotence of existence within what increasingly appears to be a self-terminating system. This philosophy was often best articulated through Kudo’s own, often humorous, “too sane for his own good” live performances, often positioned as the main event of numerous, irreverent “happenings” tethered to his many exhibitions, like one of his many “Your Portrait” happenings, which took place at the opening of Salon de Mai at the Musée d'Art Modernede la Ville de Paris in 1966.
Now that COVID-19 mandates are dissipating for the most part, many are claiming, “We’re back!” But back to what exactly? Something new? Something better? Something more sustainable? Do we have more freedoms, more physical autonomy, or less? Or is it back to the same old song and dance? If there was any benefit from COVID-19 on an individual level, what was it? Did we in fact go through a micro-macro metamorphosis? Meaning, can we even acknowledge that we went through something together at the species level? Or does this latest post-Dark Age Renaissance work only for the once and future marginalized? Simultaneously, can we keep the conversational door open regarding the gross, machiavellian lengths some so-called humanoids at the top of power structures-whether in the public eye or hidden from it-will go to in order to generate more wealth and wrest even greater power? Why do we remain so trustworthy of institutions (political, religious, financial, informational) after taking into account the laundry list of boldface lies and deliberate misinformation offered up the last few centuries?
La liberté de l’étalon, 1972-1977, a caged terrarium serves in many ways as the centerpiece of the Hauser & Wirth exhibition. The work prominently features a beleaguered, repurposed crucifix (a recurring motif) that doubles as a post-apocalyptic high-tension wire or telephone pole. The work anchors the exhibition and draws the viewer towards the back of the secular white-box gallery space, as if to an altar, only to discover that Kudo’s apostles, Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, perhaps even Jesus, have been replaced by fungal penis snails, slowly, even somewhat casually navigating the red and blue electrical wires (veins and arteries) that would entangle the low-level but strangely sophisticated organisms crawling around the pathetic, lingering detritus of Western civilization, not least of all the toxic religious power apparatus.
This work is matched in gravitas only by Bonjour et Bonne Nuit (Good Day and Good Night), 1963, a somewhat large (134 x 67 x 67 cm) mixed media sculptural installation in the center of the gallery that consists of two stacked boxes, doors ajar, and painted on the outside like dice, as if we’re too casually gambling with our future. The top box features what looks like Kudo’s balding head, his face obscured, giving the impression of one large sentient and naughty testicle with red, oversized, alcoholic ears. The skull is facing inward, as if Kudo is shamefully atoning for ever being born. On the inside door, more plastic Western ephemera (a toy gun, retro condoms, single-serving pharmaceutical packets). Tellingly, a Kudo-touched postcard of The Mona Lisa, almost demystified, hangs centrally amidst the cultural-archaeological menagerie. It teases out the larger truth that di Vinci’s enduring, unequivocal masterpiece and creative apotheosis has and will further break down and trivialize fractally as a Baudrillard simulacra, as easily reproduced as Pop-art toilet paper. Her smile, framed here by petrified novelty junk and Kudo’s lens and hand, now seems to evoke Putin’s ever-present, tightly pursed smirk, that dark, hurt and afraid something, barely hiding behind the public masque; humanity’s enduring tragic flaw. In the box below, a collection of colanders featuring more crucifixes, gnarly human hair haloing crude vaginal effigies, and baby dolls incubating or pressure cooking for all eternity.
Besides accepting a life-changing grant of $1,500 to study in Paris after winning the grand prize in the second International Young Artists Pan-Pacific Exhibition, which thrust Kudo as well as his wife Hiroko into the ancient and modern womb of “the West,” one of the most important moments of the artist’s life was meeting the Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionescu. The two met in 1970 when Kudo served as art director for Ionescu’s film, La Vase (Mud). The pair later had a falling out, which led to Kudo using Ionescu (1909-94), presumably something of a father figure initially, as a subject in many of his subsequent works, positioning the absurdist master (using uncanny, morbid, flaky sculptural masks and skins in the writer’s likeness) as the premiere avatar for the “covert capitalist,” as well as the pretentious, post-war European intelligentsia; the droopy, aging face of its inevitable decay into vanity and greed.
Worth recommending here is Ionescu’s play, Rhinocéros, written in 1959. The play, somewhat humorously, in a sort of postmodern dadaist tradition, interrogates how otherwise rational human beings can slowly succumb to groupthink and the degradation of individual thought. Considering the post-war window in which the play was written, it was clearly a metaphor for Europe’s seduction by fascist or more specifically Nazi ideology. Through a contemporary and hopefully expanded, multivariate prism, Rhinocéros should be essential reading as we move into a more vast future, while remaining vigilant as to what could formulate in the Trump vacuum. A 1974 film based on the play and directed by Tom O’Horgan, features a nihilistic, haggard, wide-eyed Gene Wilder, who could serve as any temporal stand-in for a burned out, borderline depressive, post-Western Humanist drunkard (Kudo suffered from alcoholism and died of colon cancer in Tokyo in 1990), ala some Camus protagonist bored with existentialism, desperately holding out for some greater sense of purpose, some greater mission, but ever weary of man’s penchant for falling in line to increasingly segregationist tribal dogmas.
Kudo’s Metamorphosis, similarly, teaches us to be an individual, an outsider, a free-thinker, an original, and quite unapologetically (bring your own guilt and shame), but not at the expense of other individuals or our planet. There is something valiant at the core of the Humanist tradition. The next twenty years should be about disentangling this Renaissance-fueling ideology from the most pernicious modes and practices of Western civilization, this being the desperate dangers of propping up late-stage capitalism at all cost. Kudo was playing in the boxes afforded to him, alas; going close enough to bite the hand that feeds and often withholds. We’ve all spent the last 18 months incubating in our little boxes, dreaming of leaving our previous husks behind to transform into something greater. In the meantime, don’t be a destructive dick. Kudo’s general message seems pretty simple. The work, the artist, the whole truth? Far from it. WM