Tetsumi Kudo: Retrospective (Houser & Wirth, London, 22 Sep – 21 Nov 2015)

The first thing that hits you as you enter the new show of Japanese avant-garde artist Tetsumi Kudo (1935-1990) at Hauser & Wirth, is the smell of synthetic substances and the fluorescent colours that dominate the display. There is also a strange tactile sensation underfoot, as the floor is completely covered by artificial grass. It is reminiscent of a playground designed by a drug-influenced architect: a garden of unearthly delights. Obscure scenes are hidden in detail and sexual innuendos drip from almost every part of Kudo’s mixed-media assemblage. As you approach the sculptures that, from a distance look like mutated growths after a radioactive explosion, you distinguish plastic phalluses that spring from the soil like fungi. Some of them appear in the form of snails, larvae and flowers surrounded by slimy amphibians whose addition adds to the general feeling of disgust. Each are kept in miniature forms and hidden in cages and terrariums. These kitsch creations carry some sort of venereal disease and connect to themes of impotency, painful sexuality and repression.

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One artist in particular can be distinguished as an inspiration for Kudo’s gruesome spectacles where erotica and death walk side by side: Charles Baudelaire. There’s a noticeable shift in Kudo’s art made in Paris, where he lived between 1962 and 1981, where he was exposed to symbolist aesthetics and the theatre of absurd. Baudelaire’s ‘Flowers of Evil’ (1857) has been inspiring artists for decades with its atmosphere of anxiety, deprivation and suffering. Baudelaire caught the mood of the époque with psychoanalysis and the distorted perceptions of an opium eater. In one of his most famous poems ‘To the Reader’, the French poet writes,

If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives
have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick,
loud patterns on the canvas of our lives,
it is because our souls are still too sick.

There is an imposing similarity between these words and Kudo’s statement of 1972 triggered by the overwhelming technological boom. On his work Kudo commented: ‘Decomposition of humanity! The end of the world!’.

The show in Hauser & Wirth also reveals how very Japanese Kudo’s art is, albeit a rather anti-establishment, nightmarish version of the aesthetics usually associated with Zen, emptiness and Wabi Sabi. Just as other Japanese artists that belonged to the post-war generation were torn between militarism and Western culture, Kudo was disillusioned with the world and joined the Anti-Art Movement with its hub in Tokyo. He witnessed the horrors of the bombing. He stared at the disfigured corpses and that is precisely what we see in his installations: gore, toxic environments and an attempt to rebuild the world from scrap. Inorganic melted buckets, kitchen utensils and discarded junk are mixed in his sculptures with organic hair and soil. His flower arrangements are not pleasing to the eye and are not reminiscent of a perfect Ikebana. Instead, their decomposition gives life to other horrific creatures. The flowers of evil indeed.

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Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here

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