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  • Writer's pictureMaria Dolfini

A Review of Mono-ha: The Art of Nothingness at Aki Gallery, Taipei

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Originally published on Arteviste, November 2, 2019

Courtesy of Aki Gallery, Taipei.

In line with a recent exhibition programme showcasing contemporary Japanese art, this October Aki Gallery presented Mono-ha: The Art of Nothingness in Taipei. The three floors of the gallery echo with elegant silence and unseasoned materiality as narrated by six pivotal Japanese Mono-ha artists: Lee Ufan, Nobuo Sekine, Kishio Suga, Noriyuki Haraguchi, Susumu Koshimizu and Noboru Takayama - reclaiming the thingness of things. The raw and deflated nature of the original materia precedes the philosophical and artificial conceptualisation of the l’object d’art.

Overlooked and misinterpreted for decades, Mono-ha has recently captured the interest of many big names in the buzzing international art world, mainly thanks to the dedicated contribution and devotion of some Western and Asian gallerists, collectors and curators; including Tim Blum and Mika Yoshitake. This exhibition appears as the gratification eventually articulated by the international art world for unwaveringly cradling this precious abstract seed.

Courtesy of Aki Gallery, Taipei.

As a result, the exhibition at Aki Gallery opened within a growing expectation and revived attention to these artists, a stream of excitement overflowing and rushing loudly. This year Mono-ha artists were, in fact, given a solid space at main stalls in Art Taipei, the art fair that has simultaneously delighted the Taiwanese art scene the past month. Asian Art Centre 亞洲藝術中心 displayed the beautifully craved wooden works of Mono-ha artist Koshimuzu Susumu in conversation with the founder of Gutai movement, Jiro Yoshihara, and alongside rare pieces of best-selling Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki. Gallery Takeda Art also unveiled stunning and rare pieces from Point and Line series created by Mono-ha founder Lee Ufan in the 1970s. These gems undoubtedly triggered the exhilaration as well as envy of many hungry collectors. 

The revived adoration of Mono-ha in the global art market in the past few years, accompanied by a simultaneous interested in Dansaekhwa (Korean Monochrome Painting) and Japanese Gutai Movement, corresponds not only to an international taste for abstraction, but it chimes in rhythm with a fast-growing Asian art market. It also articulates a desire to cross the boundaries between the dichotomic categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’ towards a cross-cultural artistic language.  

Within this context and frenzy for Mono-ha, fused with a piercing influence of Japanese art and culture in contemporary Taiwan, the show at Aki Gallery was greatly anticipated. I was astonished by the comprehensiveness of artists covered, the orchestrated encounters between interdisciplinary mediums, and the uninterpreted, unsettling sense of calm radiated by the artworks which elevated the exhibition to a coronation of the movement fifty years after its genesis. To the delight of the audience – especially those educated within a Western artistic education – Aki Gallery eschewed the monopoly of Lee Ufan as the main representation of Mono-ha, realising the potential for other five superb artists to converse with each other in new and unexpected tones. As we walk through the three floors of the exhibition space, we feel the vibrant, panoramic and unhealable essence of the unarticulated embracing us.

Courtesy of Aki Gallery, Taipei.

Literally meaning “School of Things”, Mono-ha emerged as an art movement in 1968, led by Korean-born artist Lee Ufan and Japanese Nobuo Sekine. Inspired by the desire of presenting the world ‘as it is’ and refusing to interfere with the natural essence of matter, these artists used raw and untreated materials such as charcoal, dirt, stones, plates, steel and wood to respond to the dystopian process of industrialisation taking place in Post-War Japan.

As we enter the exhibition at Aki Gallery, the screen print of the installation Phase–Mother Earth by Nobuo Sekine, considered the beginning of the movement, greets the viewer. A cylindrical piece of earth emerges from the ground, paired with an adjacent circular hole of the same dimension. This work epitomises the essence of Mono-ha: the meaning of art lies in the object’s relationship to the surrounding space and interaction with the viewer - as well as in the capability of the environment to cradle and liberate the hidden spirit of the material. The artist is thus a humble ‘enabler of encounters’, a facilitator of the relationship between untreated material and space. 

The first room also features Koshimizu’s Work Bench – Table Cloth of Ariadne, which combines a chestnut table with an interweaved white hemp cloth. Leaving both ends of the rope untangled, the thread seems to suggest the ambiguity of interpretation and the unfolding of time. The passing of time disclosed by the cord resonates with the chronology of Mono-ha hung on the opposite wall, which buries the movement, its institutional representation and reception within the lava of history. The hall’s hybrid display leaves the viewer equally confused and exhilarated by the unpredictability of the show and its variegated shapes. Generally speaking, I found this unsettling reality to be more exciting, unabashed and provocative than the actual unrevealing of the exhibition upstairs. 

Courtesy of Aki Gallery, Taipei.

Kishio Suga’s sculptural works reign supreme on the second floor. Suga delicately stresses simple materials and forms by orchestrating encounters between wood, paint, metal and stone. The physical object appears to exist before its conceptualisation, elaboration and framing. Since Suga’s works unfold in space and need room for elaboration, having an entire room dedicated to his beautiful creations is undoubtedly a precious gift. Although we are able to savour the beauty and simplicity of his oeuvre, the curatorial arrangement lessens and stifles like a possessive cloud its unrestrained dance with spatial enigmas. Where I expected a game of construction and destruction, flooding and leaping, an embrace of the accidental, the exhibition ebbed into a listless and almost casual display of his body of work.

The last floor features rarely seen and elegant prints by Lee Ufan among the works of Koshimizu, Haraguchi and Takayama. Lee Ufan’s oeuvre is limited to lithographs, leaving among the audience an inevitable sigh and yearn for his Point and Line paintings. However, I am tempted to interpret this change of direction more as a positively divergent and less mainstream choice than a shortcoming. Dictating stillness and absence of movement, the display again holds space for reappraisal; while a desire to break the boundaries of canvas silently gets louder on the empty floor. 

While a comprehensive exhibition of Mono-ha artists is an inspiring contribution to the dynamic Taipei art scene, satisfying the thirst of the art market, the choice of the artworks itself appeared less rich and impressive than promised. The curator seemed caught between pursuing historical contextualisation and building a poetic concoction of mediums and artists, rather than allowing the art to vividly interact with the space and freely speak of its true essence: the transient encounter between matter and place which constitutes the fundament of Mono-ha. While it was spectacular to see these rare works displayed together, I could not avoid wondering what new insights and conversations might have been possible had the curator given them more self-determining curation and poetic sense of revival. 

Courtesy of Aki Gallery, Taipei.

Written by Maria Dolfini, a Contributor to Arteviste

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