Tuning in to Tokyo

Karen Kedmey
Feb 25, 2013 12:16AM

There was a hodgepodge of postwar Japanese art on view at MoMA's recently ended exhibition, Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde. I admit that I was relieved that this dense artscape was limited to a section of the 6th floor, which took a bit of the edge off of the overwhelming array of movements, styles, and media on display. And while the power of the works was defused by MoMA's antiseptic taxonomy--except for the dark, untamable photographs of Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama--the political, social, and cultural ferment out of which they arose was still palpable.

One of my favorite works was not actually in the exhibition, but was represented instead by a small, black-and-white photograph on one of the wall text panels. It showed Atsuko Tanaka wearing her incredibly compelling, deeply disturbing Electric Dress (1956). Enshrouded and engulfed in glowing light bulbs and tangled cords, she would have looked wildly, even whimsically fashion-forward were it not for the recent nuclear annihilation of tens of thousands of her fellow countrymen. In addition, then, to the undeniable pleasure and fun of this dress is its equally undeniable horror. It traps Tanaka in a rainbow-hot blaze that recalls and represents that white-hot conflagration in which so many were trapped little more than a decade before.

Karen Kedmey