The first ever U.S. retrospective of the work of post-war Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo opened this week at the Walker Art Center. The exhibition, which consists primarily of installation pieces and sculpture, is spread out over three galleries with work representing three decades of pure provocation.
Kudo has been described as having a "strikingly eccentric visual vocabulary," and the exhibition affirms this, emphatically. His seminal "Philosophy of Impotence"—a room peppered with hanging black objects, part phallus, part chrysalis—provides one of many examples.
The exhibition traces the evolution of his unique take on metamorphosis. From "Philosophy of Impotence," the exhibition moves on to more overt representations of a "new ecology" in which humanity merges with nature and the manmade world in a rather grotesque tableaux.
"Grafted Garden," an installation populated by wilting day-glow flowers, severed limbs, and the occasional pulsing electrode, places humanity on the same level as even the most reviled corners of reality. Kudo explains his opposition to the dichotomies of the West. "I wanted to tell Europeans that humanism and love and sex are virtually on the same dimension as such mundane commodities as instant soup or cigarettes."
It's impossible to ignore the likely influence of world events on Kudo's art and attitude. His notion of a "new ecology" that resembles nothing so much as a radioactive wasteland hardly seems coincidental. Those forced to assimilate to Japan's post-atomic landscape would surely find logic in Kudo's idea of metamorphosis.
Yet, dark as his visions are, Kudo's fixation with the possibility of renewal (even if into a form unrecognizable or even undesirable to most of humanity) keeps his work from spilling over into total nihilism. His later work, from the 1980s, features cocoonlike sculptures wrapped in dark and light string, as well as cast skulls and his trademark detached phallus with colorful string curling around and trailing behind, which bears the title "The Survival of the Avante Garde"—are indications that Kudo seemed to be casting his gaze inward later in life.
Kudo's overriding vision remains consistently dystopian, but his apparent cynicism isn’t meant as a wakeup call or even a cause for despair. Rather, the ugliness, the decay, the pollution, are all part of a process of metamorphosis, the outcome of which remains unknown.
Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis continues at the Walker Art Center through January 11.