LOS ANGELES — Among the photographs that line a brightly lit room in Nonaka-Hill’s compact gallery space is one of a man in a sheer kimono running across a rural field.
The image, “Kamaitachi #31” (1968/2015) by Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe, is framed by the concave slope of the ground beneath the man’s feet and an arc of darkness — caused by a partly opened camera shutter — above his head. Together they enclose him in an almond shape that resembles an eye opening onto the scene. This surreal touch imbues the photograph with a dreamlike quality that contrasts the furious urgency of the charging figure.
This duality — between dream and waking states, between fantasy and the flesh — could also describe the gallery’s two related exhibitions: Eikoh Hosoe: Collaborations with Tatsumi Hijikata and, in a darkened adjoining room, Tatsumi Hijikata, the subject of Hosoe’s photograph.
In the late 1950s, Hijikata (1928-1986), a dancer and choreographer from Japan’s rural northern Tohoku region, developed with fellow dancer Kazuo Ohno an expressionistic form that Hijikata called Ankoku Butoh (“dance of darkness”), better known as butoh.
Though there is no single definition of butoh, Hijikata envisioned it as a rejection of Japanese traditions, such as Noh and Kabuki, prioritizing the sensory over the intellectual, earthbound gestures over transcendent ones, and marginalized bodies over idealized proportions. Performers were often nude or nearly nude and painted white, and confronted viewers with awkward, grotesque movements and a fluid approach to gender.
Organized by Takashi Morishita and the Butoh Laboratory in Japan, Tatsumi Hijikata presents the butoh founder through a selection of photographs, posters, and ephemera from the Tatsumi Hijikata Archive at Keio University in Tokyo, along with videos of performances. The increasing influence of American and European avant-garde artists in the postwar era is evident in Hijikata’s choreographic scores, collaged with images of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Henri Michaux, Gustav Klimt, and others — visual complements to his theatrical and literary lodestars — in particular, the icons of transgression Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, and Georges Bataille.
A backdrop by artist Genpei Akasegawa resembling an acupuncture diagram — used in a 1965 performance that incorporated fencing — underscores Hijikata’s fascination with the bodily spheres of violence and pain. The photographs here document Hijikata in performances and happenings, as well as camping it up in a chicken coop and viscerally chomping into a watermelon.
A small space in the back of the gallery contains perhaps the exhibition’s most striking object: a golden cast of a penis. Close by is a projection of Hijikata’s 1968 performance Revolt of the Body, in which he wore the appendage. In Revolt of the Body, Hijikata, alternately in drag and nearly naked, melds European dance styles, including Flamenco and ballet, with grotesque movements in a spectacle of heady sexuality and debasement.
Two more performances are screened in the larger room, A Story of Smallpox (filmed by Keiya Ouchida in 1972) and Tohoku Kabuki Project (1976). While the exhibition’s documents, such as the scores and photographs, provide context, the intensity and originality of Hijikata’s visual language can truly be grasped only by seeing it in action. In A Story of Smallpox (1972), he explicitly rejects the ideals of beauty and grace that define traditional European dance. Chalky white and clothed in a loincloth, he contorts his body through tight, writhing movements, almost palpably painful.
In the adjacent room, Eikoh Hosoe: Collaborations with Tatsumi Hijikata centers on Hosoe’s photo series, Kamaitachi (1965-68; published as a book in 1969). The title references the kamaitachi, a supernatural weasel from Japanese folklore who arrives on a gust of wind to slice his victims with its sickle-like claws. In Hosoe’s photographs, however, Hijikata is more of an impish intruder in a northern Japanese farming village, whose presence is at once disruptive and farcical. In one photograph he speeds across a rice field holding an infant. Others picture him transported on a platform like royalty; embracing a young woman in a bed of flowers; mugging for a group of children; and lying nude in a field beneath a hazy moon.
Although Hijikata and Hosoe were reflecting the countercultural and anti-establishment mood of Japan’s avant-garde at the time, the trauma of World War II is inscribed in both artists’ aesthetics. The northern location of Kamaitachi alludes to the rural region where Hijikata was raised, and where Hosoe’s family fled for safety during WWII.
Hosoe’s 20-minute film featuring Hijikata, Navel and A-Bomb (1960), conflates the unspeakable horror of the atomic bomb with religious allegories through simple acts and gestures: a bird’s-eye view of young boys crawling through sand like insects; fingers pressing into navels (“the key to life, the link to the mother’s womb,” Hosoe explained in an online interview). One of the most disturbing scenes involves the slow death on a beach of a decapitated chicken, waves jostling its body. It’s a harrowing portrayal of death that lingers long after.
Similarly, the excruciating drama of disease in Hijikata’s A Story of Smallpox invokes the deaths and chronic illnesses caused by nuclear war. As in the German Expressionist dance that Hijikata studied early in his career, the body here is the locus of trauma and the fundamental means of expressing it.
Hijikata’s performances foreground the absolute, base embodiment of all human experience. His integration of disease and bodily breakdown into, rather than exclusion from, dance abolishes hierarchical distinctions between “good” and “bad” or “beautiful” and “ugly” body movements; sensational at its time, his butoh offers a powerful mode of catharsis as it advocates for disabled and non-normative bodies.
While a large-scale US survey on Hosoe and Hijikata would be welcome, Nonaka-Hill impressively represents one of Japan’s most important photographers and a crucial worldwide figure in modern dance, in its mid-sized space. Looking back on a moment when, in Hosoe’s words, Japanese people “were trying to find their basic, fundamental identity after the war,” the works remain remarkably fresh, conveying an urgency or, to quote Artaud (“The Theater of Cruelty” First Manifesto, 1931), “a spasm in which life is continually lacerated, in which everything in creation rises up and exerts itself against our appointed rank.”
Tatsumi Hijikata and Eikoh Hosoe: Collaborations with Tatsumi Hijikata continue at Nonaka-Hill (720 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, California) through November 30.