Catalogue Text: Chu Enoki: Enoki Chu (Excerpt)

11 February – 11 March 2015

White Rainbow, London, United Kingdom


When the White Rainbow Gallery asked me to suggest a post-war Japanese artist linking the Gutai group and Mono-ha with the Murakami era and beyond, I thought of Chu Enoki. Born out of the in some senses unique context of the Japanese post-war period, Enoki’s works, as I will later discuss, existed outside of the traditional art institutions and as such constitute an untainted and honest expression of human emotion. The lust for and fear of power that Enoki picked up on were doubtless commonly felt by those experiencing the post-war period around the world, regardless of situation. For me, London was the place most conducive to a sincere discussion of this ambition and fear, and I had faith in the intelligence of its people. Enoki took my ideas on board, and thus this exhibition became a reality.     


Chu Enoki is still largely unknown outside Japan. Why is it that he has never been “discovered?” From the point of view of London, one of the centres of the art world, it is impossible to be familiar with all of the vast quantity of art that exists, and must suffice to be acquainted with a very few select artists from each region. Nonetheless, the fact that an important artist like Enoki has been ignored does make me wonder about the system of recognition we use. Usually, an artist is introduced outside the land in which he was born through involvement with institutions such as art museums, commercial galleries, and universities. Enoki, however, was outside of this system. Refusing to inhabit museums, galleries and universities, he went out to work, using his wages to cover most of the costs of creating and exhibiting his artwork. This was the artistic creed of the creator in search of expressive freedom, and this way of life is the main reason for his tardy introduction to the rest of the world.


At the same time, we ought to direct our attention to the surprising intensity of Enoki’s work, born out of this creed. Take, for example, the differences between Enoki’s work and that of the Japanese Gutai group and Mono-ha artists who are known overseas. Gutai were Enoki’s precursors, active in the Hyogo-Osaka area some ten years before Enoki based his activities there, and the Mono-ha artists were mostly active at the same time as Enoki. Both have been very well received overseas for their experimental and original nature. It is well known that Jiro Yoshihara, a leading figure in the Gutai group, inspired group members by telling them not to copy others. However, seen from a different angle this speaks of how the Gutai group in fact needed other people, the denial of whom being what drove their progress. Mono-ha’s form of expression which completely rejected artificiality and entrusted materials with their own true meaning was a denial of the proliferation of “isms” apparent in art at the time. This sense of denial, common to both movements, is haunted by the shadow of the West. The mental struggle that began in the late nineteenth century when Western art was imported as something to be learnt from, as well as the subordinate relationship with the USA that arose in the aftermath of World War Two, are a continuously resonating base note. Those in the art world were forced to chose, to a greater or lesser extent, whether to accept or deny “the West.” In the institutions, in particular, this pressure became significant.


By maintaining his stance, Enoki, a company employee, kept a certain distance between himself and institutional relationships. The result was an untainted artist, able to feel and think as an individual human being. In short, he was able to maintain the mental freedom to pursue simply what he found interesting. This is precisely why many of Japan’s leading professionals continue to respect Enoki.  


Amateur Enoki began creating oil paintings at a painting class, submitting his works to Nikikai group. When he began to feel the limitations of this conventional group, he and his friends set up their own art class, where, with like-minded others, he organized Japan Kobe Zero and began creating avant-garde work as a collective, including The Revolution of the Rainbow (1971), which featured hangings and other happenings, and The 400m3 Moving Ceiling (1973) involving a giant cloth rising and falling on the ceiling. It can be said that the activities of Group Zero were part both of the anti-art movement that had been ongoing since the end of the fifties, and of the avant-garde movement. At the same time as being active with the collective, Enoki continued with his individual artwork. It was after he left Japan Kobe Zero in 1976 that the unique direction of his individual work became clear.


A good example of Enoki’s early individual work is the Naked Happening (Hadaka no Hapuningu, 1970) that took place at the Osaka Expo and in Ginza’s pedestrian precinct in 1970. This consisted of Enoki walking naked around Ginza and the Osaka Expo site, branded with the Osaka Expo logo. At first, this sounds like an anti-art performance intended to shock, but what set it apart was the four months’ sun exposure it took for Enoki to burn the Expo logo onto his body. Had his purpose been merely to show an anti-art establishment stance, he need not have spent so long in preparation; it would have sufficed to stick (or paint) something onto his body and walk about outside looking unusual. For Enoki, the outward significance of using his body was to make people aware of the presence of a real, living body, but inwardly it meant creating art on an everyday level, feeling what it was to live art with his whole being. This intention is clearest in Went to Hungary with HANGARI (Hangariikoku ni Hangari de iku, 1977). In this performance Enoki shaved off all the hair on the right side of his body (hence “hangari” or half-shorn), then a year later shaved his head and spent the next year and a half growing his body hair, before finally shaving off all the hair on the left side of his body, a process which took nearly four years in total. During this time, he travelled to Hungary to visit a friend who was a professor of physics at Kyoto University and had been invited as a visiting professor (the Japanese word for “half-shorn”, “hangari,” is almost identical in pronunciation to “Hungary”). That such a long period of time flows through this work demonstrates Enoki’s desire not to separate life and art. This is a clear difference between Enoki and the avant-garde artists. Enoki interacted with everyday life and ordinary people in his artist’s body, urging us to slowly but fundamentally reform our consciousness.


With his attitude of creating and exhibiting art as part of everyday life, Enoki went on to create a series of works related to weapons. Doubtless this was an expression of the issues of which he was aware as an individual living day-to-day in the post-war period. In its post-war relationship with the USA, founded on a Cold War mentality, Japan appeared, on the surface, to forget its previous acts of violence, including its wartime invasions dating back to the end of the nineteenth century. Under the peaceful constitution drawn up under US occupation, Japan renounced its military capabilities and enjoyed peace as it left behind post-war devastation and ushered in a period of rapid economic growth. But of course, the past cannot be written off, and the people of Japan lived, on one level, in constant fear of that past. Unable to completely comprehend how the old military power continued to exist after changing its name from the Police Reserve Force to the Self Defence Forces, they felt a vague sense of unease and contradiction.


The representation of weapons was the epitome of taboo in this atmosphere of idealistic peace and concealed violence. Enoki saw in the existence of weapons, continuously developed “to bring an end to violence/war” and “to make us stronger,” humanity’s inexhaustible lust for power, to which he now gave concrete form.


For example, Little Boy U235 / Fat Man Pu239 (Genshibakudan, 1982/1983) is based on the nuclear weapons deployed for the first time in human history in Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Enoki had never seen a real bomb, but based these giant sculptures on indistinct photographs. Accordingly, they could never have been intricate recreations, and the size of the assumed disparity with the real thing even imbued this work with the characteristic of a witty parody. Audiences would surely have felt a sense of rising unease as they looked on this innocent piece of mimicry. The work reflected the audience themselves in their inability to talk about this taboo event.


10 February 2015

Kodama Kanazawa

(Translated from Japanese to English by Bethan Jones)


From the exhibition catalogue Chu Enoki: Enoki Chu

White Rainbow, London, 2015