Ei Arakawa, ‘Tryst’ Installation view. Taka Ishii Gallery. Photo: Nick West

Radical artists and musical theatre usually occupy different worlds. But suppose they didn’t. What if the story of the post-war artist group Gutai was told in the form of a musical? The struggles they faced, the validation they sought, the leadership they found, the differences they set aside, the critics they wooed, even the untimely demise of their founder. Now, imagine it presented in an art gallery and that rather than live performers imagine if five flashing LED displays resembling Gutai paintings sang the songs. For Ei Arakawa’s first exhibition at the Taka Ishii Gallery in five years, “Tryst” did just that.
A tryst is a private rendezvous between lovers. Uniting painting with performance this installation consists of five handmade LED screens that reference paintings from 1959, a turning point in Gutai’s history. Presented on upright fixtures, one of the paintings rests on the edge of a large green floor mat displaying a back-to-front Art Basel logo. The LEDs shimmer, attracting visitors to walk across the mat, only to be advised not to do so. These details are deliberate. In 1959, Gutai artists began exporting their work overseas. The private rendezvous the title alludes to is the connection between Jiro Yoshihara, their leader, and the French critic Michel Tapié whose alliance paved the way towards what would eventually become a global contemporary art market.
Arakawa’s artistic approach welcomes collaboration. For “Tryst” the artist teamed up with David Zuckerman as composer and Dan Poston as co-writer of the lyrics. Musically, the production is full of cheery melodies and catchy refrains. Just short of 40 minutes, there are nine songs in all, spliced between excerpts of dialogue. ‘One Perfect Painting’ is a dreamy, longed-for ballad that ends with “…coming soon”. ‘¥en ¥e ¥e, ¥en ¥e ¥e, ¥en ¥en!’ contrasts the artists’ financial struggles with the pull of the market. A shady sounding riff lures the listener in and the song builds until the artists chant the names of currencies in punchy staccato.
At the centre of “Tryst” is its leader Jiro Yoshihara. Arakawa’s politically attuned biography introduces him as “a painter, a critic, and also an heir of a salad oil company”. Since this musical concerns alliances, Jiro shares his LED painting with Michel Tapié. The other LEDs pair the artists Kazu/Suda, Akira/Sabu, Atsuko/Tsuruko and Shozo/Allan together. Jiro/Michel states: “I am Jiro Yoshihara, leader of Gutai. I am Jiro, but at the same time, I am not Jiro. Every character is more or less mixed with several other people’s personalities. So I am Jiro, but not Jiro”.
Portrayed as a demanding critic and a dismissive mentor in pursuit of originality, Jiro/Michel is capable of self-criticism but seeks the validation of scholars. At his most vulnerable, he even asks for the assistance from his proteges. Tellingly, Jiro/Michel is also the only character to have a robotic voice, ensuring that he is easy to identify while remaining at a distance throughout, always being difficult to identify with. Another outcome of his android voice is that, towards the end, after a rift forms between factions of artists, some are accused of “joining the robot chorus”.
“Tryst” joins the company of other works by Arakawa that contextualise Japanese post-war art history among the broader history of contemporary art. In the past, the artist has appropriated from other avant-garde groups like Jikken Kobo and Fluxus, collectives whom also embraced collaboration and multi-disciplinarity. It would be erroneous to think of these works simply as homages. “Tryst” carefully sites the meeting of Jiro and Michel as the advent of the global art market.
Art about art always runs the risk of alienating some gallery-goers. Fortunately, “Tryst” is entertaining enough to appeal to viewers unfamiliar with Gutai – it talks to you, not down to you. There are even some familiar mentions of technology – Instagram and email – to put newcomers at ease. But the real attraction of “Tryst” is in the writing and in how absurd it sounds when its subject is set to music.
Following the protagonist’s sudden death, Gutai is left without a leader. Just as its members are disbanding, liberated from the weight of their mentor’s expectations, Jiro/Michel returns from the grave to evaluate the work of his followers for one last time. As ever, he is committed to exhausting the possibilities of his present condition. “I can’t die enough!” he exclaims.

Ei Arakawa, ‘Tryst’ Detailed view. Taka Ishii Gallery. Photo: Nick West

Ei Arakawa was born in Fukushima (1977). The artist lives and works in New York.
Tryst” ran from 10th February until 11th March, 2017.