Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) was founded in Tokyo in 1951, against the backdrop of a country traumatized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and suffering from postwar austerity measures. This determinedly interdisciplinary group of 14 artists, musicians, choreographers and poets orientated themselves towards the pre-war European and American avant-gardes. Its members, many of whom were self-taught, worked individually or in groups, and their guiding interests included the piano work of John Cage, Martha Graham’s choreography, and the sculpture of Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi. Active for about seven years, they operated mostly outside of museum spaces and distanced themselves from the academic discourses around musique concrète and electro-acoustic composition. One of Jikken Kobo’s co-founders, Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, likened the workshop to ‘Bauhaus without a building’.
A remarkable survey of Jikken Kobo’s work at Bétonsalon, a non-profit art and research centre located in (but not affiliated with) the Paris Diderot University, was one of the first opportunities to see this material outside of Japan. Curated by Mélanie Mermod, the compact exhibition included art works, films and documents (as well as screenings, a conference and a tribute performance by Ei Arakawa, Sergei Tcherepnin and Gela Patashuri). One of the show’s major revelations was the extent of the conversation between Paris and Tokyo directly before and after World War II: for example, a major influence on Yamaguchi was Taro Okamoto, a prolific painter and sculptor who studied under Marcel Mauss at the Sorbonne during the 1930s and was a member of Georges Bataille’s secret society, Acéphale. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a publication titled L’Echange Surréaliste (1936) included texts by André Breton, Paul Éluard and Tristan Tzara, alongside their Tokyo-based contemporaries such as Tiroux Yamanaka and the art critic Shuzo Takiguchi (another guiding light for Jikken Kobo).
The workshop’s performances often resembled recitals, in that their programmes mixed international work with new compositions. Their first performance in 1951 – a ballet titled The Joy of Life, timed to coincide with Picasso’s first retrospective in Tokyo – combined popular pieces by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein with those by Olivier Messiaen. Sometimes taking place in immersive environments including intricate lighting design (by Noaji Imai) and sculpture (by Shozo Kitadai, influenced by photos of Calder’s mobiles), these events were often the very first time that Modernist work by European composers – including Erik Satie and Arnold Schoenberg – was performed in Japan.
Awareness of recent developments in Western avant-garde movements was at the time extremely limited in Japan, and the members of Jikken Kobo would get their news from mainstream American magazines or else go straight to the source. One letter included at Bétonsalon describes having read about Calder’s new ciné-film in Harper’s Bazaar, while another – in diligent cursive and addressed to John Cage – pleads: ‘If only our dream could be made a real fact, and if we could see you here in near future, it “Banzai!” to all of us, please come, Mr Cage!’ The composer’s responses are unfailingly gracious, agreeing to write a six-page article and giving them permission to publish any of his essays. Cage’s later interest in Zen and Japanese rock gardens – including the works on paper he made from the 1970s until his death in 1992 – saw this influence come full circle.
The curator and critic Jasia Reichardt, director of the Whitechapel Gallery during the 1970s, has rated Jikken Kobo alongside Black Mountain College and the Independent Group as one of the three most influential collaborative groups of the 20th century. But, exactly 60 years after their first concert, Jikken Kobo’s activities remain largely unknown. Aside from a small exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art in London in 2009, and the Centre Pompidou’s landmark survey ‘Japon des Avant-Gardes’ in 1986 (which was co-organized by Yamaguchi), their work has largely been written out of histories of both electronic music and visual art in Japan. This is especially apparent when Jikken Kobo’s fortune is compared to that of their contemporaries such as the Gutai group, which will be the subject of several major surveys this year. But, with exhibitions like Bétonsalon’s, here’s hoping that this imbalance won’t remain for long.