April 12, 2017

Alice Ashiwa: The Making of Art Spaces in Post-World War II Tokyo

Grad Journal editor Joanne Kim sat down with Alice Ashiwa (MA 2017) to discuss her thesis on Sogetsu Art Center, an art space based in Tokyo during the late 1950s to 1970s. Ashiwa grew up in Tokyo most of her life. However, for the first time, her thesis led her to revisit her home-city as a transnational scholar with a mission to delve deeper into her research.


Joanne Kim (JK): Alice, how did you come across your thesis topic?

Alice Ashiwa (AA): I've been interested in Japanese art, more particularly post-war, art from 1945 and onward and in architecture. I also want to go into organizing smaller art spaces in the near future. So these interests I have led me to look into the development of art spaces in Tokyo after the war. I decided to focus on one single art space in Tokyo to narrow my topic and that was Sogetsu Art Center, in short S.A.C. 

JK: Tell me a little more about SAC.

AA: SAC doesn't exist today. It existed for 13 years from 1958 to 1970. It was housed in a building where Ikebana, Japanese flower-arranging, was being practiced. The building was built to house an Ikebana school. Ikebana master's son, an aspiring film-maker at the time, decided to create an art space. The father let the son to use the auditorium space in the basement and the son did a lot of organizations with his artist friends and film activities in that space. For example, Yoko Ono performed there for the first time. 

During the time, there was a shift in artistic tendency happening within the avant-garde art communities. Moving on from sculptural and flat surfaces to artsits started using their own bodies as a medium. Considered to be fluxus-like by a lot of scholars, SAC was very powerful because the father had a lot of connections through his Ikebana traditions. Ikebana is considered a traditional form of art, whereas the son pursued more avant-garde art. It was juxtaposing, but the father had a lot of interest in western modern art, like surrealism, for example. And the father took that to his Ikebana arrangement. Meanwhile the son had a very avant-garde approach to his work. So there was that overlap between the father and the son’s endeavor in the art scenes.

JK: Can you explain a little bit more about Ikebana art?

AA: Ikebana means flower arrangement. It developed around 7th century and was originally a religious activity. A Japanese priest went to China and saw that the Buddhist flower arrangements there and he felt like the flowers were not arranged with care when they were offered to the Buddha imageries. He came back to Japan and tried to arrange flowers and developed the first Ikebana style, called Rikka. This style was practiced for about 100 years within the religious communities and slowly extended to the activities of the nobility. Ikebana also developed further during the Meiji period and it changed a lot due to the Western influences. The spaces people were living in were changing as well, which created more styles of ikebana as the compositions of the flower arrangements are closely related to the space they are displayed in. Also, the Meiji government declared that all good housewives were required to learn Ikebana. That's how it became a women's activity. But the teachers were typically men. That's when the father of the SAC came to play a major role in the Ikebana art scene.

JK: How did you come across these narratives about the father and the son behind SAC?

AA: A lot of research. Because Japanese art after the war is a pretty new territory for studies — especially when it has to do with art spaces — I have not come across any development of exhibition spaces in Japan. I found SAC through a lot of readings that I did about Japanese art during that period. It was always listed as ‘blah blah blah performed at SAC,’ but there would be nothing more about the art center. So I went to Japan this winter for archival research and I went to two archives. One was in an Ikebana school that still exists today. I was interested to see the archival development in Japan and seeing that as an importance. A lot of famous Japanese art works are stored abroad, like in MoMA.  One of the archives I went to in Japan was very disorganized and full of old materials, a scene kind of like out of a movie. I had a very small working space next to the curator's desk which was piled up with newspapers. But the curator was so knowledgeable and knew exactly where everything was in the mess. 

JK: How was it like to visit Tokyo as a scholar?

AA: It was easy to connect with people since I had a purpose in mind. People I connected with took my research topic seriously. I speak and read Japanese but all my education has been in English and in a Western context. So it was interesting to meet scholars and curators working in Japan and to see the state of art history and art world there. For example, I got to go attend a symposium held at the archives on "how to archive materials," as archiving art work is still a new concept in the Japanese art world. They invited Western scholars and Japanese scholars to give presentations on various methods and degree of archiving at their specific institutions. I think it is these kind of exchange and workshopping that will deepen understanding of each other's cultures and create more transnational art communities. 

JK: What’s next for you and your research?

AA: I really don't want this thesis to be the end. One thing that I take away from my research is my focus on art spaces in Tokyo. I hope this is something I use later in the future. I want to start looking at more art spaces that are underground. I found that SAC was a little different than most other art spaces from the time because of its elite-ness. So now I am more interested in other underground art spaces. But that research will entail more immersive work. I'd have to stay in Japan for a longer time, talk to people and artists for documentations. Yet, all that to say, if you asked me 'what are you writing for your thesis?' a year ago, I wouldn't have known what to say.