Perhaps the first artist to look critically at the pollution of environmental and cultural ecologies under consumer capitalism, Tetsumi Kudo (1935-1990) is lauded for his prescience and original use of found materials. Yet this praise sometimes arrives at the expense of his torchbearers who get accused of co-opting his apocalyptic intellectual property any time a terrarium wanders into the studio. This protective art historical bubble around Kudo feels especially obsolete when you spend any time looking at his work, which goes to exquisite lengths to dissolve the boundaries between nature and plastic, author and machine, individual and mass. Codependency is not a dirty word in Kudo’s world; it is an essential principle.
Kudo’s call to abandon the myth of individuality is brought to life in Hauser & Wirth’s second survey exhibition, “Metamorphosis,” which focuses on the late Japanese artist’s different container work series: cubes, dice, gardens, and cages. These for the most part arrive on pedestals where their inhabitants can be inspected closer to eye level, a vantage which allows for the full gore of each scene to wash over. This display method which proliferates in Kudo’s drawings, gives the show a herpetarium quality. Each assemblage is a new movie with the same recycled cast of cum-caked caterpillars and loose eyeballs. Some of these grotesques are eating pills out of metal troughs For Your Living Room - For Nostalgic Purpose (1966) [pictured], while others hump a crucifix made of circuits La liberté de l’étalon (1972-1977). Even from afar, we can see their little acrobatics are hopeless. These poor phallic creatures are decomposing faster than they are building and yet there is still a tenderness afforded to their suffering in the careful way they are posed and housed. Kudo makes it easy to see fragments of ourselves in their mangled wholes. Perhaps this is the curse the late conceptualist leaves behind for those intrepid enough to follow. His material directness is so persuasive that anything it touches is automatically transformed into a vital organ of its collective body. It’s hard to imagine any artist let alone any object or substance resisting his stylistic gravity. I found myself falling into it. —Kat Herriman
Tetsumi Kudo, For Your Living Room - For Nostalgic Purpose, 1966. Cage, cotton, plastic, polyester, resin, paint, pills, 17 1/8 x 20 x 12 inches. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy Hiroko Kudo, the Estate of Tetsumi Kudo. Photo: Jessica Eckert.