Tanaka Atsuko’s Electric Dress (1956) is very possibly the most emblematic action/object in the history of Gutai. It consisted of approximately ninety lightbulbs and one hundred tubes that were daubed in nine different hues of enamel paint. The light fixtures were connected via tangled skeins of electric cords to an electric gear, which switched them on and off at irregular intervals and also generated loud whirring sounds. The anthropomorphic contraption—vaguely reminiscent of a nascent cyborg—was meant to be worn, and that is exactly what Tanaka did. At the Second Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, risking burns and electric shocks, she entered the oversize armor and activated it on stage. Two more versions soon followed and were shown in the exhibition-cum-performances in which early Gutai works were presented. In 1957, the object was dismantled and reassembled into a new composition, with light fixtures mounted on a flat, wall-based work.1 Recent scholarship has recognized the significance of Electric Dress, and the work is now considered a pioneering benchmark in postwar art.2
Tanaka joined the Gutai group in 1955, a year after its founding, and remained a member until 1965. She stood out in an environment undeniably structured by the hierarchical relationship between the leader and teacher Yoshihara Jiro, and his younger followers and students, who were mostly male (such as Shiraga Kazuo and Shimamoto Shozo). Intensely productive, she was undaunted by the hierarchical and gendered context; in quick succession, she made a series of works in the form of architectural clothing that tread the boundaries between spatial installation, object construction, and bodily performance and suggest the transformative and mutable potential of human skin. During two short, intense years that followed her entry into the group, she also made drawings in crayon, ink, and watercolor on paper that derive from her original studies and plans for the objects.
Around 1957, Tanaka started using more stable materials, such as permanent markers and vinyl paint, and the first group of paintings emerged. Circles and lines, previously the simplified symbols for lightbulbs and electric circuitry, assumed a more autonomous character and began to function as a language for abstract painting. The two simple geometric forms proved to be an extremely fertile ground that the artist would plumb and develop in the following four decades.
A particularly detailed description of Electric Dress is found in Mizuho Kato, ed., Atsuko Tanaka: Search for an Unknown Aesthetic, 1954–2000 (Tanaka atsuko: michi no bi no tankyu 1954–2000), exh. cat. (Ashiya, Japan: Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, 2001), 63. ↩
Although a more accurate translation of the original Japanese title denki-fuku would be “Electric Clothes” rather than “Dress,” the latter title is used here as it is now widely circulated and accepted in English-language publications. The work’s representative status is well illustrated by the fact that it was chosen as the cover image for two recent exhibition catalogues, Françoise Bonnefoy, Sara Clément, and Isabelle Sauvage, eds., Gutai, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1999) and Paul Schimmel, ed., Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998). The version presented in these shows and others was reconstituted in 1986 for the exhibition Japon des avant-gardes 1910–1970 at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. ↩