The full expression of Hijikata’s Butoh psychodrama by Yasuo Kuroda's photograph
In my research of Butoh, I couldn’t help but notice it being described in all manner of uncomfortable words like “bizarre, grotesque, taboo” or even “seditious”. I found that interesting given that these descriptive words could easily be transferred to the most ordinary of expectations that befall every single human being I know in the grotesque year of 2023. Butoh emerged in the late 1950’s as an avant-garde dance that sought to break from the more traditional Japanese and Western forms. According to the internet, those were kagura, buyō, bugaku and classical ballet. One look at a Yasuo Kuroda photograph at Nonaka Hill Gallery in LA and I'm thinking about death. It was instantaneous and a flawless saturation that was directed and specific, via the camera, the mechanical answer to the limitations of our eyes. One can only develop a limited vantage point from their small bodies in the tiniest of space that they occupy. We’re very, very small, yet the person behind the camera directs the gaze and shows a person new ways of looking at things, convincing them that they are an embodiment of a universe. It pans, tilts and captures and the implications of that may well be taken for granted, given just how ubiquitous images have become. However, it’s not lost on me that Kuroda’s camera has transcended the limitations of an audience and compressed Tatsumi Hijikata’s performances into documentary, photographic masterpieces that contain within them the full expression of Hijikata’s Butoh psychodrama.
The I-10 is on fire as I was sharing the gallery space with four other people who looked to have never seen art in their lives, much less photographs of lean, cut anonymous men painted white. They’re wearing reflective orbs on their heads and had on what appear to be ceramic penises strapped to their midsections with brunette wigs draped over them. The photograph, along with the others, suggest a specific social reality of these men, one of unapologetic abjection that exists concurrently and in complete opposition to the given conservative conditions. It’s avant-garde at its best.
The photos have captured performative life, the visceral, vascular, analog form that seems to contrast strikingly to the more detached, unfeeling and jaded form that I’ve become accustomed to. It’s possible that seeing so much stuff, so many images of nothingness amped and hyped up to be more than what they actually are, has created an ecosystem of a drifting meaninglessness. Kuroda’s photographs are an antidote in a way and Hijikata’s performances are courageous, to say the absolute least. His human body and the complexity of an emotionally dense interiority faces outward at the inevitability of finality. Death has become his subject and expresses itself within and decisively against a conservative cultural framework, becoming form. Art, after all, is a human activity, a perpetual becoming. It’s clear the performances and photographs have content and more importantly, they aren’t content.
Kuroda’s photographs contain within them the residue of the time, the era of the original rupture of Butoh. There's something to be said about the originals, Tatsumi and Ohno, since they did the hard work. They performed in front of audiences with everything at stake, where the risk involved was significant. Happy as I am to have read that Butoh has grown into a worldwide institution, I bow in the direction of Hijikata, the choreographer and one of the founders of Butoh. I can only imagine the performances, the scandalous unfolding, the real-time groping for a new expressive physical language that emerged from the trauma of death by nuclear bomb. All of this while facing centuries upon centuries of Patriarchal tradition.
The value of the photographs, as written about on Nonaka Hill’s website, were less about documenting Hijikata’s dance performances, but more about “...the newfound contributions to the inherent dilemmas of his project. They exist in their own dimension separate from live performance.” This is a very beautiful statement on what Art actually is and consistent with what older, wiser people have told me: Good Art is itself a problem that creates more problems. The meaningful work, the most impactful and resonant type, comes from a place of extreme vulnerability and risk knowing full well that you can’t unring the bell.
More information about the show:
“Kuroda’s photographs depict two final performances in 1973, Quiet House and Yobutsu Shinto, that preceded Hijikata’s self-seclusion until his death in 1986. They therefore confer these ephemeral events a frisson of elegiac and metaphysical feeling. It was, after all, the dead who Hijikata thought to be his audience: “I would like to have a person, who has already died, die over and over inside my body…I may not know death, but it knows me,” he once said. Representing dances of the dead and for the dead, Kuroda’s photographs captured them emerging from inky blackness into searing whiteness, starkly amplifying Hijikata’s deft physical vocabulary. One frequently sees Hijikata’s blurred face, entranced and blank, as his body was engaged in various moments of staccato movement; in other images he emoted daemonic violence or comedic pathos—or both. There are processions of dancers in costume: one mise en scène features them with woolly erect phalluses; and another, from presumably the same performance, globes sat atop each of their heads in an apparent daze. Divorced from the context of the entire performances, these moments in time (and out of it) have retained a mystical and emotional weight in the 50 years since they took place.”