Performance art rarely survives the performance. Who can remember what happened at a Happening? Occasionally, curators will artfully arrange the relics of a “performance piece” in a museum case, and you can ruminate over the remains of the deceased: a few yellowing programs, an old snapshot, an earnest critical memorial. But that’s not, of course, the point. Performance is intentionally short-lived. It’s a gesture of the moment, a recognition of the ephemeral. That’s its strength. Performance does not aspire, in the greedy manner of much Western art, to immortality. Even so, a very few works of performance art transcend their own fleeting nature, capturing in definitive form something important about modern culture. Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress, which she made for a performance in 1956, is a work with this iconic power.
Tanaka is a Japanese artist who’s not well known in the United States, which makes the current exhibit Electrifying Art: Atsuko Tanaka, 1954–1968 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery particularly welcome. Jointly organized with the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the Grey show includes a selection of the artist’s drawings and paintings in addition to the unforgettable Electric Dress; the show is accompanied by a catalogue in which the curators, Ming Tiampo and Mizuho Kato, introduce her to an American audience. The Paula Cooper Gallery is simultaneously exhibiting a selection of Tanaka’s later paintings and drawings, dating from 1980 to 2002.
As a young woman in postwar Japan, Tanaka became part of the Gutai group, a loose collection of artists who sought to sunder the present from the horrifying past. The Gutai motto was “Do something that no one before you has done.” Its artists broke every boundary they could find, mixing up art and life with almost religious devotion. They shared much with neo-Dada groups of the same period elsewhere in the world—such as Fluxus in New York—but the horrors of wartime Japan also gave their outlook a special conviction. In the postwar period, earlier ways of living and making art in Japan seemed to have lost most of their authority. “Newness” was therefore not just a conceit to the Gutai—not just an art-world strategy—but a way to be reborn. Gutai art was often strangely playful and even childlike: “Made in Japan” could still mean, during this period, the toy in the Cracker Jack box.
“Tanaka became, in her dress, a kind of twinkling building on the horizon, and a symbol of the modern Asian city.”
In the mid-fifties, however, Tanaka created several garments for performances that not only reflected current Gutai thinking but also foreshadowed concerns that would absorb art for the rest of the century. Tanaka’s electric garment consisted of twinkling, flashing colored lightbulbs connected by a great mass of wires; during the performance, her head peeked out from this pyramidal dress-house. Although she never set out to be an artist who examined women’s issues, Tanaka inevitably raised questions about how fashion, gender, and ideas about femininity transform and imprison women.
In her dress, Tanaka became the girl who attracts the most attention, the showiest model on the catwalk, the symbol of fashion’s artificial sun. She was turned into surface and light: No inner character or earthen body could compete with this techno-skin. (Even her subsequent painting looked like what would happen if she removed the electric dress and let it fall to the floor.) In a related work, Stage Clothes, she made a dress that included other dresses so that as she undressed she stayed dressed, with ever more garments appearing magically to clothe her. There was no escaping, in modern culture, the surfaces a woman could reveal. And yet her art was not a gloomy meditation on authenticity. The power of fashion also represented the freedom to remake oneself again and again.
In Electric Dress, Tanaka seemed to fuse technology and the flesh. During the original performance, in fact, some people became concerned that she would electrocute herself; and in Japan, the light of Hiroshima, which X-rayed the body, quickly came to mind. But Tanaka’s fusion went well beyond academic commentary on technology and women’s issues. She became, in her dress, a kind of twinkling building on the horizon and, by extension, a symbol of the modern Asian city. She anticipated the delirium of light that is Tokyo. A city, like a woman in a dress, can be a mysterious object of desire. Tanaka’s light conceals as it reveals.