Shigeo Anzaï’s ‘documentalist’ photographs capture the spirit of a key moment in Japanese art, at a confluence where a new emphasis on process and gesture was being echoed by an influx of international artists working in the same style. From the 1970 Tokyo Biennale, a seminal exhibition which brought together works by Richard Serra, Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke, amongst others, Anzaï photographed the intimacies of these artists constructing their installations – resulting in a delicate exhibition within an exhibition at White Rainbow. Yet the presentation moves beyond just an archival display, also highlighting Anzaï’s understanding of the new artistic process, which he reflected in his own documentation.
Anzaï was only persuaded to pick up a camera for the first time shortly before the Biennale’s opening, by none other than Lee Ufan. Ufan was one of the central figures of Mono-ha, a new Japanese movement that privileged the object in its natural state and investigated the performative process of its journey to art object. The Tokyo Biennale and the six years that followed, documented at White Rainbow, demonstrate Anzaï’s observation of this rich creative period through the closeness of his relationship with its artists. He captured moments that now seem iconic – such as Richard Serra drawing a circle on the pavement in chalk, or Christo wrapping a staircase for 30 minutes before the installation was taken down by the authorities – that would otherwise have been lost forever. He understood the intricate ephemera of what was taking place before him, and ensured it would enter into art historical narrative.
The thread of the exhibition gradually expands beyond Anzaï’s images of fixed installations, progressing on to a new fluidity of movement that began to take place during this time. This was the birth of site-specific artworks that interacted with their surroundings in a kind of humorous mimicry of form – such as Nobuo Sekine’s work in Shiki City Plaza in May 1972, which carved a huge section of rock out of the ground and lifted it into the air. Anzaï also represented the development of artists’ practice over just a few years, showing how rapidly American Minimalists such as Sol LeWitt eroded figuration in the work of Japanese artists such as Jiro Takamatsu.
‘Index I’ reveals a tension between Anzaï’s simultaneous position inside and outside of the art he depicted. He preferred to be considered a ‘documentalist’ rather than an artist, which implies a certain respectful distance from the subjects of his photographs – and yet he reflected their artistic processes within his carefully constructed compositions. It would be a mistake to deny him any of his own artistry, which elevated him from a mere witness to an active participant in the contemporary scene he was recording. It is this oscillation between the artist and the observer that makes this exhibition so fascinating, and so perfectly captures the avant-garde zeitgeist in Japan in the early 1970s.