Project Series 46: Hirokazu Kosaka: On The Verandah Selected Works 1969-1974
The Pomona College Museum of Art is pleased to present the first solo exhibition examining the early performative artwork of Hirokazu Kosaka. In 1966, Kosaka left Kyoto, Japan to study painting at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Deeply influenced by his knowledge of Buddhist spirituality, Zen archery, Noh and Kabuki theater, the ground-breaking experimental art of Japan’s Gutai Group, and his exposure to contemporary art in Southern California, Kosaka began experimenting with body art and performance. Merging his youthful experiences in Japan with the emphasis in body art on physical endurance; in Conceptual art on process; in Minimal art on repetition; and in Gutai on concrete forms, Kosaka created performative artworks that attempted to creatively reconcile avant-garde artistic innovations with spiritual practices such as meditation, pilgrimage, and Zen archery. The title, “On the Verandah,” refers to Kosaka’s conception of in-between spaces such as those between East and West, nature and culture, the physical and the spiritual, and, as Kosaka says, a series of “infinite maybes.”
This exhibition, co-curated by Rebecca McGrew and Glenn Phillips, brings together documentation of Kosaka’s early artworks and rarely-seen films and is accompanied by a publication with an essay by Glenn Phillips and an annotated and illustrated chronology of artwork by Shayda Amanat. Born in Wakayama, Japan in 1948, Kosaka lives in Los Angeles, where he is an ordained Shingon Buddhist priest and serves as Artistic Director at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
The exhibition “Hirokazu Kosaka: On the Verandah Selected Works 1969-1974” represents the first solo exhibition examining the early performative artwork of Los Angeles-based Hirokazu Kosaka. The exhibition brings together rarely-seen films and photographs created between 1969 and 1974 and aims to demonstrate the range of innovative experiments in art-making that Kosaka explored during this period.
Deeply influenced by his knowledge of Buddhist spirituality, Zen archery, Noh and Kabuki theater, the groundbreaking experimental art of Japan’s Gutai group, and his exposure to contemporary art in Southern California, Kosaka began experimenting with body art and performance in the late 1960s. Merging his youthful experiences in Japan with the emphasis in body art on physical endurance; in Conceptual art on process; in Minimal art on repetition; and in Gutai on concrete forms, Kosaka produced performative artworks that attempted to creatively reconcile avant-garde artistic innovations with spiritual practices such as meditation, pilgrimage, and Zen archery.
In 2011, Kosaka was featured in the exhibition “It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973” at the Pomona College Museum of Art. In that exhibition, he was shown alongside his peers in performance art Chris Burden, Wolfgang Stoerchle, and John White, and his friends and fellow artists Jack Goldstein (whom he shared a studio with for several years), William Leavitt, and Allen Ruppersberg. “On the Verandah” was conceived to acknowledge and explore the contributions of Kosaka’s lesser-known oeuvre.
The title, “On the Verandah,” refers to Kosaka’s conception of in-between spaces such as those between East and West, nature and culture, the physical and the spiritual, and, as Kosaka says, a series of “infinite maybes,” a different way of approaching and observing how one lives in and responds to the world. For Kosaka, this exhibition represents both an honor and a conundrum. His artistic and spiritual practices are so closely linked that, as a Buddhist priest, the process of non-ego and humility are much more important than recognition. Thus, “On the Verandah” attempts to reconcile both Eastern and Western practices of acknowledgement.
Raised in Wakayama, Japan, Kosaka now lives in Los Angeles, where he is an ordained Shingon Buddhist priest and serves as artistic director at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Kosaka grew up in an 800-year-old Buddhist temple, where generations of his family lived and shared teachings in archery, religion, art, and craft. He often uses the Sanskrit word for eons of time, kalpa, to describe both his upbringing and his practice. When asked about the length of his art and archery practices, Kosaka states “800 years…I don’t know how many generations of archers in my family have been practicing…I started a long, long time ago. It’s in my genes. Kalpa is a very different way of looking at things.”
Born three years after the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the final stages of World War II, Kosaka witnessed the brutal aftermath of war, remembering injured soldiers and citizens dealing with overwhelming destruction and loss. His father served in the war, and Kosaka recalls his father’s story of being forced to walk barefoot in the jungle to avoid injury, but one day feeling the bones of other soldiers beneath his feet. These intensely disturbing experiences led Kosaka to other artists—many of them in the Gutai Art Association—who were also grappling with the question of how to make art after a holocaust. Kosaka responded to the Gutai group’s rejection of art of the past with symbolic acts of independence that focused on pursuing creative actions. Later, as a young man, these early memories of World War II came back to haunt him as he saw monks in conflagration in protest to the Vietnam War. Many of his artworks from the late 1960s were personal protests of war and its attendant atrocities.
In 1958, when Kosaka was nine years old, he first visited Los Angeles to study English. In 1966, Kosaka left Japan again to return to Los Angeles to study painting at the Chouinard Art Institute. Kosaka first studied with Robert Chuey, Watson Cross, and Herbert Jepson, focusing on figurative abstraction. Kosaka was classmates with Charles Arnoldi and Tom Wudl, and remembers Ruppersberg, who was working as a janitor post-graduation, teaching him to wax the floor. During his junior year, he moved into Ron Cooper’s former studio with Jack Goldstein. A number of his performances took place in their studio. Kosaka immersed himself in studies of philosophy—including reading texts by Claude Levi-Strauss and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—and contemporary conceptual and performance artists who were responding to these ideas, including Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, Tom Marioni, and Dennis Oppenheim.
Throughout this research and exposure, Kosaka felt a cultural gap in his understanding of the motivations of artists in the U.S. He connected more with the performative impulses he noticed in art by the Gutai group. Saburo Murakami, who joined Gutai in 1955, in particular helped guide him “to a different plane, and a different way of looking at life and art.” In 1972, Kosaka helped organize the first exhibition of the Gutai artists in the U.S. at Mori’s Form Gallery in Los Angeles, and “dedicated” the space with his own Five Hour Run performance. At this point in his career, Kosaka realized that his work needed to look both backwards and forwards, to art, but also to archery and spiritual practices. Kosaka sought “action without intervening thought, to do it without thinking it. In art, archery, and daily life.”
As a seeker, Kosaka also wanted to explore different cultures. He traveled to Europe and South America, learned Flamenco guitar, studied Buddhism, and connected this with his upbringing. Ultimately, Kosaka considered his seeking a “hunting ground.” He explains, “Buddhism came from India through China, Korea, and Japan, and South Asia. India to Pakistan, Turkey to Greece, all the way into Sevilla in Spain. So many of the sentiments went East and West. The journey and the nomadic way of traveling, for me became symbols of that hunting ground for scholars, the research process, approach and observation. I was taught to sit on the verandah; not the exterior side or the inside, but this in between space called the buffer zone. You need that buffer to understand all sides.”
In 1973, Kosaka returned to Japan, where he performed a transformational two-part piece, Soleares. At the Signum Gallery in Kyoto, Kosaka played the flamenco guitar repertoire Soleares with a razor-blade inserted into his index finger for forty minutes. After this performance, he began a thousand-mile and three-month pilgrimage along the coast of Japan’s Shikoku Island. After completing this spiritual journey with several monks, he stayed on in Japan, in a Buddhist monastery where he was ordained as a priest.
This marked a turning point for Kosaka. In 1976, he returned to Los Angeles as a minister at the Koyasan Temple in Little Tokyo and focused his energy on scholarly studies. In 1983, he started working at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and began developing theatrical performances. Since then, his work has expanded to an intensely creative and collaborative practice involving large-scale public performances, with elements of dance, performance, archery, sound, and other elements and themes found in his earliest avant-garde projects.
Senior Curator, Pomona College Museum of Art
Essay by Glenn Phillips
Kill Yourself: The Art of Hirokazu Kosaka
In Kyoto, in 1973, at the Signum Gallery, Hirokazu Kosaka sat in a chair one evening and began to play flamenco guitar. Approximately one hundred people gathered to listen. They sat on the floor, which was covered with pristine white paper. Kosaka had embedded a razor blade in his index finger, a morbid guitar pick. For forty minutes, he performed a fiery repertoire of flamenco music while blood dripped from his hand, slowly staining the white paper red. Following the performance, Kosaka bandaged his finger, walked away from the reception, and took a train to Kobe, followed by a ferry to Shikoku, the smallest main island of Japan. The next day, he began a one thousand mile walk, traversing the perimeter of the island with two Buddhist priests for three months to visit the eighty-eight temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage. “When I came back,” he later noted, “there was no such thing as art any more. I became a fully-ordained Buddhist priest after that. I learned something that was totally different from art; to kill the self was the idea. And I lost it; I lost the egoism of making something.”1
Soleares, as the guitar and pilgrimage performance was called, marked both an end and beginning of Kosaka’s artistic practice. It was the culmination of the intensive years Kosaka had spent, since 1966, in the midst of the Los Angeles art community, first as a student at Chouinard Art Institute, and then as a young working artist, living in a loft with his close friend Jack Goldstein, the two of them operating a framing business together. Kosaka was a witness and participant in the sweeping changes that were re-orienting the art world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as conceptual art, performance, land art, and post-minimalism abandoned traditional notions of painting and sculpture in favor of work steeped in new ideas, processes, and unstable and often fleeting forms. These new directions in artmaking were thrilling for Kosaka, but not entirely unfamiliar: growing up in Japan he had gained familiarity as a teenager with the Gutai Art Association, a group of artists who were active in Japan from 1954 until the early 1970s, and whose avant-garde performances, environments, and participatory installations had forged new territory for contemporary art while still maintaining an engagement with traditional Japanese artistic forms such as calligraphy. As Kosaka immersed himself in the developments of American and European conceptualism, the lessons of both Gutai and his traditional Buddhist upbringing remained in his mind, and he strove to find ways to unite these ideas within his practice.
The photographs, installations, performances, films, and works on paper that Kosaka produced between 1969 and 1973 show the artist learning: working his way through the newest ideas in artmaking; responding to his peers in Los Angeles such as Goldstein, Allen Ruppersberg, Wolgang Stoerchle, and William Leavitt; and reacting to the critical essays and international projects published in magazines such as Avalanche and Artforum. Any single work by Kosaka from this period, considered alone, could be seen as a “typical” example of Southern California conceptualism. Yet when viewed as a whole, one sees a deeper philosophical groundwork emerging from Kosaka’s early work, a set of ideas and concepts (often some of the oldest ideas in Buddhist thought) that he has continued to elaborate in the immensely powerful large-scale performances that have been a hallmark of his practice since 1983, when he initiated a new and collaborative mode of working following years of study to become a Buddhist priest.
Among the most pervasive concepts that are fundamental to Kosaka’s practice is a particular understanding of space and the body’s orientation and perception of landscape, which is demonstrated in its most elementary form in early works such as Location Piece (1970-71), Relocation Piece (1970), and Periphery Piece(1970-71). The altered topographical maps of Location Piece frame and adjust our attention, while Relocation Piece places maps and photographs of landscape in the natural setting of the forest, asking us to contemplate these representations against the reality that surrounds them. Periphery Piece shows the artist putting another type of representation on top of the landscape—a simple set of four sticks and two ropes that suddenly create a man-made passageway where none had existed before. The works derive partially from Kosaka’s engagement with the aesthetic of the Japanese garden, an appreciation that requires careful attunement of the body to space, awareness of changing textures that both surround and are underfoot, and understanding of the perceptual shifts that can be created by even subtle alterations of the body’s axial orientation in space. Using materials such as chalk, rope, and string, Kosaka continued to delineate perceptual space for his performances in works such as Five Hour Run (1972), Running Series (1972), Enso (1972), and Buffer Zone (1972). Stage Piece(1970-71) brought this aesthetic indoors, as Kosaka created a textural and auditory landscape of common objects for his body to negotiate in space like a new kind of industrial garden. Pineapple Juice (1971) worked in another direction, enhancing the landscape’s perception of the artist: dousing himself in sugary juice and sitting in the forest with a lantern, a world of insects emerged from hiding, seeking light and sustenance.
The forest became a metaphor for Kosaka’s own search for light. It was a hunting ground for scholars, a difficult path to enlightenment. That search was embodied in films like Condition (1971) and Hunting Ground (1972), the camera following walking feet in Condition, and moving through the forest, but finding no one, in Hunting Ground. These works begin to allude to some of the most difficult ideas in Kosaka’s work, such as vastly expanded notions of time and space, and an understanding of our small place within them. Searching, and most often failing, to find enlightenment is a condition that transcends the individual’s plight and spans all of humanity across countless generations. For the installation 20-204803E, (1970) Kosaka used stanchions and string to create a path in the doorway of his studio, requiring visitors to walk across a bed of hundreds of old shoes, symbolically traversing a bumpy and somewhat treacherous path of those who came before. To understand one’s place in the world, one must attempt to grasp an almost inconceivable number of generations that stretch into the past and will stretch to the future.
In 1972, Kosaka stopped walking in the landscape and begun to run. In Buffer Zone (1972), Running Series (1972), and Enso (1972), the artist ran back in forth, in circles, along paths of string and chalk, with little clear goal in sight. The impression was for the activity to be without end. Enso, the circle, denotes both the emptiness of the void and the oneness of all things in Zen thought. Kosaka’s running works were both a physical tracing of enso as well as symbolic enactment, attempting to empty the mind of thought through the physical activity of running. The idea was taken to a physical extreme in Kosaka’s Five Hour Run (1972). Running a string path that he had laid on the floor of Mori’s Form Gallery in Los Angeles, Kosaka extended the duration of the running piece to his physical limit. The piece “opened” to the public following Kosaka’s run, the space visually empty yet physically occupied by traces of sweat hanging in the air, and the memory of the activity that had occurred. Within this ambience of difficult and perhaps fruitless exertion, Kosaka screened his films Hunting Groundand Condition, as well as Body Conditioning (1970-72), a two-screen projection that shows the artist attempting to “levitate” his feet above a foam ground on one side and a dirt ground on the other. Collectively, the project at Mori’s Form was a purification ritual, ceremonially preparing the space and performing a gesture of honor for the exhibition of Gutai artist Shozo Shimamoto that was to follow.
Music has exerted a powerful influence on Kosaka throughout his life, and it has always played an important role in his artistic practice. For an early work,Rondo (1969), Kosaka created an interactive musical composition for orchestra. The work was partially inspired by Fluxus, an international artistic movement whose artists created poetic and sometimes whimsical performance events by producing simple “scores” that performers could interpret as they wish. For Yoko Ono’s 1961 Voice Piece for Soprano, for instance, the performer is instructed to:
1. against the wind
2. against the wall
3. against the sky
For Rondo, Kosaka gathered postcards depicting scenes of Southern California life. Three postcards were given to each member of an orchestra, with each card meant to be the “score” for a movement of the Rondo. For the first two movements, each musician received a different postcard; for the third and final movement, all musicians received an identical postcard depicting Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway. The musicians were expected to improvise their performance in response to the imagery on each card. It was an experiment in collective action, in which the musicians needed to respond not only to the vague “scores” provided by Kosaka, but also to each other’s actions as they attempted to create music from a chaotic and open-ended set of instructions. Yet those instructions did provide directions for the musicians: the third movement, in which the musicians were all looking at the same image together, produced a more unified musical result than the previous movements. Stage Piece (1970-71) was originally conceived as another type of musical composition, creating a landscape of sounds and experiences from common objects. The work was partially inspired by John Cage, the seminal American avant-garde artist and composer whose works were profoundly influenced by Zen teachings and concepts such as enso, and whose abstract musical scores, often engaged with silence as much as sound, granted performers wide interpretive leeway.
Kosaka learned to play music at an early age, traveling to Spain at the age of fourteen to learn flamenco guitar. Flamenco became a powerful symbol for Kosaka, pointing to little-known facets of the migrations of ideas that have shaped world culture over centuries. The connections between flamenco and Japanese culture (see p. 59 of this volume) point to the movement of Buddhist ideas both East and West over long periods of time. For his work Music Box(1971), Kosaka began to imagine a Silk Road music stretching from Japan, India, Persia, through Europe and around the world. Working with a craftsman, Kosaka created five music boxes that played compositions evocative of this historical music. Traveling to abandoned industrial locations in Los Angeles—a condemned warehouse, an old tunnel—Kosaka struck a crouched pose reminiscent of his early charcoal drawings (see p. 8), and played the boxes, their humble sounds altering the landscape through the contemplation of long stories of history and the exchange of ideas between cultures.
Kosaka’s own migrations and his own biography occasionally influenced his imagery as well. A recurring image and symbol throughout his work is the electric blanket. Coming to America for the first time, Kosaka was astounded to be handed an electric blanket his first night, something that he never imagined existed. “I didn’t know what it was, but I was fascinated. We had never seen this in Japan. We had huge cotton blankets over us. I was just amazed by the electric blanket. It was so warm! I had a dream the first night, with this incredible floating sensation. Ever since then, I’ve had this notion of America being an electric blanket.”2 In works such as Feather-Electric Blanket (1970), Earth Position (1971), and his Untitled performance at the Pomona College Museum of Art (1972) Kosaka utilized the electric blanket as a symbol of the artist’s displaced condition, living between the cultures of Japan and the United States. In Earth Position, an electric blanket covered the body of a friend, and was then further covered in a mound of dirt. The Pomona performance began in a similar manner, with Kosaka’s body covered by a blanket and dirt. He remained there, nearly motionless, for forty minutes, before crawling out from beneath the hot blanket and moving to another part of the gallery, where an assistant sifted the fine dirt on top of his body. When the artist rose this time, a negative silhouette of his body was left on the floor, reminiscent of the permanent shadows of human bodies that remain in Hiroshima, a record of bodies vaporized in the atomic bomb blast. Kosaka used a similar dirt-sifting technique in Buffer Zone (1972), in which he would run back and forth along a string path in his studio before knocking a friend to the ground and sifting dirt over her body. The activity continued again and again, an abstract protest of the violence and futility of the Vietnam War.
Soleares represents a culmination of these themes in Kosaka’s work. His nomadic biography; the powerful symbolism of music; the attunement to space and landscape; the continual search for enlightenment embodied in the walking or running journey; the physically extreme actions that gesture towards the void and infinite expanses of time and space; and the coalescence of Western avant-garde conceptual art with both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture: all of these ideas came together in this work, which also marked Kosaka’s return to Japan, and his initiation into monastic life. As he moved into this next phase of his life, Kosaka began to comprehend deeper histories and a more powerful draw towards traditions. He saw that even the avant-garde performance art that seemed so radical and novel had precedents that could be found in the history of esoteric Buddhism. Perhaps the ideas were not so new after all: like the countless generations of spiders that have been happening upon the same corner of the verandah to build their web for hundreds of years, the houses that we build are also traps (see page 31).
Between 1974-1982 Kosaka devoted most of his attention to the study of Buddhism and, after 1977, to his work as a minister, for which he returned to Los Angeles. In 1983, he entered a new phase of his artistic career in which he began to integrate both his esoteric studies and the community to which he was ministering into an expansive, hybrid form of performance that powerfully fuses a global array of artistic methods around a core of Japanese teaching, innovation, and history. Kosaka’s work since 1983 has engaged with contemporary Japanese art such as Gutai and Butoh, as well as a multitude of traditional arts, including Noh theater, Kabuki, Zen gardens, calligraphy, and Bunraku puppet theater. Foremost among these traditional arts is Kosaka’s lifelong devotion to Zen archery, which he has practiced since childhood under the tutelage of his father. Kosaka first utilized archery in his performance art in the 1983 work Contemplations on the Asymmetry of a Bow. For Kosaka, archery was the perfect analog to the body art of the 1970s, offering a visual, physical practice requiring extreme concentration and an implied, controlled, danger. The standing meditation of archery requires a heightened perception of one’s surroundings, as well as an aspiring towards the concept of oneness or void, as the shooter strives for the total loss of ego that might occur during the perfect shot, in which shooter, arrow, and target become one, an event that might occur only a handful of times—or never—throughout a lifetime of devoted practice (see p. 81 of this volume). Kosaka has integrated archery into a number of his works, including The Festival in Praise of Grey (1985), In Between the Heartbeat (1996 and 2001), Mare Vaporum (2011), and Kotohajime (1983-ongiong).
Although Kosaka’s more recent works operate on a much larger scale than his works from 1969-74, many of the same ideas and themes continue to play a role in his practice. Works such as
Buffer Zone (2001), Flagship Powhattan (2003), Charcoal Bed (2004), and Mare Nubium (2012), create altered landscapes that heighten the audience’s perception of space, often referencing Zen gardens and utilizing the recurring symbol of enso, the circle. Kosaka occasionally still uses string to delineate space, though in works such as Kalpa (2012) and Mare Nubium this becomes an intensely dramatic act, as performers gather dozens of strings in their mouths, which slowly unspool as the performers move forward from the wall of spindles behind them, an act that is illuminated by a powerful spotlight (a tool that Kosaka has used in other works to shine directly at the full moon, invoking an astral scale of spatial awareness in the viewer).
Music has continued to be a centerpiece of Kosaka’s practice, an ongoing symbol of migration and cultural exchange along the Silk Road. Flamenco features prominently in works such as Prudence and Folly (1986), and Amerika Maru (1993), and Kosaka has collaborated for years with composers and musicians such as Yuval Ron, Wadada Leo Smith, and Tetsuya Nakamura, who contribute their own aesthetic and artistic directions to the work. Likewise, Kosaka’s years-long collaboration with Butoh dancer and choreographer Oguri points to one of the fundamental changes in Kosaka’s work since 1983, which is the move towards collective or collaborative production, and away from the single authorship of his earlier work. Although the personal detail of the electric blanket has occasionally resurfaced in Kosaka’s work (most prominently as the material used as the backdrop and floor covering in In Between the Heartbeat ), the overwhelming thrust of Kosaka’s work has been to consider larger questions of history and the migrations of people and ideas. Amerika Maru (1993), for instance, and the related installation In the Mood (1994), are inspired not by Kosaka’s personal story of migration, but by his interviews with more than 150 Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, many of whom offered him the use of their suitcases and personal mementos that formed the backdrop for the performance.
Recalling Kosaka’s father’s exhortations during archery practice: “Kill yourself, kill yourself,” the elimination of the ego—a concept that is antithetical to Western ideas of the artist, but fundamental to Zen philosophy—has become a central struggle of Kosaka’s creative practice. Like the perfect shot in archery, the perfect artwork might involve the artist letting go of his ego entirely, leaving behind only the massive sweep of history, and humanity’s most enduring ideas.
1 “Hirokazu Kosaka Interviewed by Glenn Phillips.” It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973 (Claremont, CA: Pomona College Museum of Art, 2011), 204.
2 Ibid., 202.