From Space to Environment: The Origins of Kankyo and the Emergence of Intermedia Art in Japan

Article excerpt

In November of 1966, thirty-eight multidisciplinary artists in Tokyo gathered under the group name of Environment Society (Enbairamento no Kai) to hold From Space to Environment (Kükan kara kankyo e) , a two-part exhibition and event program that would have considerable repercussions in the areas of architecture, design, visual art, and music in Japan. While From Space to Environment is commonly mentioned as a benchmark in the history of post-1945 Japanese art, its actual contents and impact have rarely been examined. Because of the overlap of participants between this exhibition and the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka (hereafter Expo '70), From Space to Environment has often been reduced to the mere starting point of a linear development toward the technological spectacles which dominated Expo '70. In fact, the notion of kankyo (environment) put forth by the Environment Society was later conflated with technology and kankyo geijutsu (environment art) and took on curiously technological connotations in Japan. In the process, intermedia art became synonymous with technological art, adding to the existing confusion of terms. Through the close examination of From Space to Environment in its contents and origins, this essay illuminates the emergence of intermedia art in Japan while sorting out the confusion that has obscured its reception.

Furthermore, this case study will demonstrate that the Japanese art world had already become an integral part of the international world of art by the late 1960s. When the contemporary art critic Haryü Ichiro coined the phrase "international contemporaneity" (kokusai-teki döjisei) in the 1960s, it soon gained popularity among Japanese arts professionals, denoting the confluence of the global and local artistic tendencies rather than the one-way influence of Western modernism on non-Western art.1 Recent scholarship in post-1945 Japanese art reveals numerous stylistic parallels between Japanese and Euro-American art movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but their dynamics cannot be reduced to simplistic, causal relationships.2 Joining such ongoing efforts in revising contemporary art history in a more global manner, this essay demonstrates the multiplicity of contemporary art practice through a case study of a remarkable artistic confluence as seen in From Space to Environment.

In fact, From Space to Environment occurred the same year that Experiments in Art and Technology presented a series of innovative dance, music, and theater performances entided 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City.3 While the 9 Evenings were only performances, the main component of From Space to Environment was the exhibition. From Space to Environment preceded by two years the groundbreaking intermedia art exhibitions Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and Some More Beginnings organized at the Brooklyn Museum in New York by Experiments in Art and Technology.4 Distinct from the highly technological contents of these counterparts in the West, From Space to Environment was conceived and realized as a cross-genre collaboration within various disciplines of arts and did not readily incorporate thencutting-edge technologies such as robotics. Yet the artists were well aware of the conceptual implications of cybernetics and placed its system thinking within the larger framework of environment partly through the communication theory of Marshall McLuhan, whose writings had just been introduced to Japan.5 By comparing and contrasting the exhibition with its concurrent art movements in the West, this essay will place the Japanese intermedia art on the international map.

What Is Kankyo?

First, it is necessary to examine the notion of environment /kankyo proposed by the Environment Society. From Space to Environment was held at the Matsuya Department Store Gallery in the Ginza business district of Tokyo for six days from November 11, 1966, while the event portion took place at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo on the evening of November 14. …