Biology and Bionics in Tetsumi Kudo’s Prescient 1970s Sculptures
The work of late Japanese “Anti-Art” pioneer Tetsumi Kudo undermines simple dichotomies like East and West, 2D and 3D, emotional and rational. Now on view in a sweeping group exhibition in Venice’s Punta della Dogana (home to Francois Pinault’s renowned collection), are a group of Tetsumi’s multimedia works from the 1960s and ’70s that show the foresighted conflation of biology and technology.
Tetsumi is one of more than 40 artists in “Slip of the Tongue,” curated by artist Danh Vo and running concurrently with the 56th Venice Biennale. Although Tetsumi is well known in his native Japan, he is less recognized abroad, and inclusion in an exhibition viewed by the international Biennale crowd brings a new and expanded audience to his work. The sculptures on view—simultaneously erotic, political, and ecological—are perhaps better understood now than ever before, as issues of sexual equality and environmental damage become ever more urgent.
“Pollution of nature! Decomposition of humanity (humanism)! The end of the world!” wrote Tetsumi, in one of his many manifestos. “Conquered nature is starting to take its revenge.” In the sculpture Votre portrait (1970–75) we see a haggard face peering over an aquarium containing plastic fish suspended in their resin habitat. In a similar print from 1970–74, titled Votre portrait—Coelacanth (Translation painting by computer), the subject gazes into an aquarium at a coelacanth, an ancient class of fish strongly resembling a phallus. Here, as in many of Tetsumi’s works, subjects are framed by (or stuck inside) boxes and cages that contain assortments of objects, mutated creatures, and body parts, symbolizing—for Tetsumi—the “decomposition of human dignity.”
This image—of the examiner looking at isolated, mutant natural objects—is a recurring theme in Tetsumi’s work. Similar to artists Paul Thek, David Altmejd, and Martin Roth, Tetsumi uses biomorphic and scientific forms as sexual and aesthetic metaphors. Untitled (1975), also on view, expands on these bio-sexual motifs. Here, large dirtied and bruised lips hold a half-smoked cigarette and sit at the bottom of a cage, while a clean, white lily of the valley towers triumphantly—freely—over it.
An earlier work and also one of Tetsumi’s most seminal, Cybernetic Art (1963) resembles a game of pinball that, upon closer inspection, reveals a phallus-shaped mechanism poised to launch a ball down a channel toward a group of vaginas. In order to reach its resting place (a line of small glass jars labeled “Instant,” which call to mind words like “gratification”) the ball must pass over a chessboard covered in menacing nails and through passages plastered with images of macho body builders. Here, Tetsumi fuses systems (and expectations) related to gaming, technology, and sexuality into a single, hybridized network—one that explores both the perils and perks of play, progress, and desire, ever-relevant themes to our digitally-driven culture.
“Slip of the Tongue” is on view at Punta della Dogana, Venice, Apr. 17–Dec. 31, 2015.