Takehisa Kosugi performing for Merce Cunningham at the Joyce Theater, New York, 1988. Photograph: Sabine Matthes
The wide scope of material performed at the Whitney likely came as a surprise to those who are more familiar with Kosugi’s work through these landmark albums. A genuine sense of fluxus-style playfulness was displayed in many of the earliest pieces, with John Cage’s influence looming and laughing over it all. (As part of Nam June Paik’s 1984 live television installation Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Kosugi performed alongside Cage in a small group that played only amplified feathers and dried cactus leaves.) The sound of mundane objects, human breath and simple movements were the connective tissue between each of these pieces. The first, Micro 1 (1961), consisted solely of a large sheet of butcher paper being tightly crumpled around a live microphone and then left to slowly unfurl without human interference for the next five minutes. The work captivated, as the initial stream of popping sounds led into a hovering silence, occasionally pierced by a magnified papery shift. Other pieces in a similar vein of mid-century performance art felt like a genuine product of their times. When Hamazaki rode a bicycle on stage while static spouted from the radio in his handlebar basket, it was amusing but carried none of the shock that it surely must have for audiences in the 1960s.
The later pieces from Kosugi’s career demonstrated his interests across the more strictly musical spectrum. For Op. Music (2001), he and Izumi sat behind a table covered in electronics and effect pedals. In the darkened theatre, the duo used individual light bulbs to trigger sensors that unleashed a strata of wavering feedback, accumulating into a dense sheet of harsh noise: on the second day, Kosugi performed Catch-Wave, though it only bore a trace resemblance to what is heard on the album. (Not that it should – improvised music doesn’t trade in songs.) Beneath an immense video projection of a gradually undulating ocean, Kosugi played amplified and delayed violin into a furious wash of notes and feedback, with the occasional stray melodic line connecting what he was performing to the piece’s original iteration.
Given that Kosugi is now in his late 70s, and was also recovering from a back injury in the days prior to the performance, the retrospective involved an impressive degree of athleticism. For Anima 2/Chamber Music (1962), the artist writhed around on the floor inside a custom-made full-body cloth sack, outfitted with a variety of slit openings. He shook a few percussive objects – a can of coins, dry soup mix – while making an escape from his bind. A palpable sense of relief was felt in the audience when he emerged unscathed, Houdini-style. When Kosugi performed Film & Film #4 (1965) on the first evening, there was a similar sense of exertion. While a 16mm film projector cast a blank square of light onto a large framed piece of paper, he made a small cut into the sheet from behind. He then slowly opened it, starting from the middle and moving outwards until a telescoped square of light from the projector could be seen on the wall past the stage. As the paper was sliced away, the two squares of light, foreground and background, created a beautiful visual while Kosugi continued to slowly strip away the screen. Eventually, all of the paper was removed and merely the square of light remained. There was a rising tension to the artist’s actions as he visibly strained to reach the uppermost strands of paper hanging above him. Finishing it felt like a monumental accomplishment, despite the piece’s modest premise.
That one artist has applied such a diversity of materials (paper, cloth, plants, violin, electronics) to such a breadth of pursuits (music, dance, publishing, performance art) is remarkable. Even more astounding, as the programme at the Whitney demonstrated, is that Kosugi has maintained the same sense of energetic curiosity after five decades of consistently exploratory work.