The wind of endings and beginnings: Great White Light Concert
The sound of wind was overwhelming. In its own straightforward way, it naturally, beautifully, and strongly delivered a cool, thrilling message. It seemed as if any other music created by humans, no matter how sophisticated, would simply wither away if faced against its natural power and beauty. Within the sound of wind, even the sound of that day’s guest performers, Taj Mahal Travellers, faltered intermittently. Even though their music aimed to eternally expand through infinite outer space, it could only gasp within this storming wind, just as any creature burdened by the limitations of mortality•1.
Great White Light was full of noises created by the wind from the air blowers hitting the microphones. The artists stood in the center of the venue surrounded by the devices: four loudspeakers and air blowers, all facing outward, with a fixed microphone in front of the air outlet of each blower•3. Seats for the audience surrounded the circle, and a beam projector was set next to the wall. During the performance, Onishi operated the transformers of the blowers, and Shioya the lighting. Hamada performed his “action voice” with four microphones•4. No record was found concerning the role of Kawasumi, but he might have been in charge of manipulating the PA systems. In addition to this setup, Taj Mahal Travellers joined as a guest performer. Initially, they had planned to perform only with the blowers and voice, but just before the concert, they got suddenly overtaken by pre-performance anxiety and decided to invite the guests.
Audience members could move freely during the lengthy performance•5. They could take any seats in the dark space, walk around to feel the air’s flow, sometimes even check out the devices used, and also get in and out of the space to have dinner or chat. Butoh critic Miyabi Ichikawa described this situation as this: “Great White Light’s self-indulgent performance liberated not only the performers, but also the audience; allowing them to move in and out and letting their mind wander freely.” Comparing it to other works like Andy Warhol’s films and La Monte Young’s music, he then judged “There was the rise of an eternal moment where the real and the unreal stood on the same horizon.”
Hamada described Great White Light as a “band”•6. It was Onishi who thought up the concept, and Shioya, being an architect, designed the space. According to Hamada, Great White Light is a hippie slang term that refers to drug flashbacks•7. After the performance at the Kishi Memorial Hall, he recalled “moving around many places to make concerts for about two years,” but no detailed accounts of it have been found yet. Later that same year, jazz critic Teruto Soejima and art critic Yoshie Yoshida co-organized an event called “Global Art Vision,” in which the artists also participated. But it was not sure whether it was their own performance or just stage design•8.
With its mixture of art, music, architecture and other elements, Great White Light could be said to be a work of “intermedia art” as it was called in those days. Or, we could also see it as a piece of “environmental art”, a genre that had growing exposure since the late 1960s. Onishi, the oldest in the group, had already produced works in these genres since the late 1960s. One thing that brought the four members together was 1970’s Osaka Expo, which was the apex of “intermedia” and “environmental” art in Japan. At that moment, their activities were framed under the influences of the leading figures in Expo ’70: art critic Yoshiaki Tono, architect Arata Isozaki, and artist Masunobu Yoshimura. In addition to that, their performance also shared a common background with the psychedelic and hippie culture of the day. Be it “intermedia art,” “environmental art,” or psychedelic and hippie culture, cultural trends in Japan reached a turning point with the arrival of Expo’ 70. Therefore, Great White Light could be seen, in a sense, as a resonance of Expo ’70. However, in the recording, we can also recognize a musical sensibility that can be linked to loud-rock and noise music, which were emerging at the time as if replacing the art of the 1960s.
Let’s see how Great White Light was constructed and deconstructed throughout the members’ activities before and after the performance.
Born in 1936, Seiji Onishi studied painting at Musashino Art University, and from the late 1960s on, started making works using enormous plastic balloons filled up with air or helium gas. Those works were called “Air art” in those days, a sub-category of “environmental art”•9. From the same period, he also started working in the field of commercial design, completing works like a window display with styrene foam particles stirred up by air blowers, or huge balloons suspended from the ceiling of a skating rink•10.
In 1970, Onishi participated in “Expanded Art Festival”, organized by Miyabi Ichikawa and presented at Kishi Memorial Hall. Video artist Takahiko Iimura projected his video work onto Onishi’s balloon. In the same year, in the work he showed at the “Aspects of New Japanese Art” exhibition in The National Museum of Modern Art [in Japan] he presented air itself as a piece, using air blowers to blow through and around various things like trees, walls, or humans. In the Expo ’70, he took part in Home My Home which happened within the “Expo Museum of Fine Arts” organized by producer Yoshiaki Tono•11. Under the coordination of Masunobu Yoshimura, Go (Goji) Hamada and video artist Hakudo Kobayashi joined Onishi in dealing with the theme “My Home’s hidden side”, placing objects inside a mock-up of a public housing room.
Soon after Great White Light, Onishi presented Circom-Sounds in “The 10th Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan” held at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. This work consisted of a microphone suspended from the ceiling and three air blowers on the floor blowing into it. Also, in a 1972 solo exhibition, he presented casting works made by vacuuming sheets that pressed objects like hands or tree leafs. In 1981, he published “Works.” It was around this time that he also edited the tapes, to make the LP record mentioned above•12. He then moved his base to Gent in Belgium, producing painting works covered by a kind of black paint obtained by mixing red, yellow, and blue.
Born in 1944, Goji Hamada studied sculpture at Tokyo University of the Arts•13. After graduation, he met Masunobu Yoshimura and created objects for the Textiles Pavilion at Expo ’70 as a member of Yoshimura’s production team. Expo ’70 prompted him to launch a company called “Kantsu [Penetration],” together with Kazuo Kawasumi and Hakudo Kobayashi. During Expo ’70 he was in charge of a program called “Beam Penetration & Mad Computer” at the Festival Plaza. This program was planned as a show involving Yokohama-based motorcycle club Kentauros, live performance by Yuya Uchida and Flower Travellin’ Band, and even a robot and light effects, which ended up with a huge confusion at the venue. After Expo ’70, the company “Kantsu” only managed to survive for about one more year, leaving some commercial designs including ABAB Akafudado Ueno store•14.
The relationship between Hamada and Taj Mahal Travellers was so close, that Hamada held concerts to raise money to help the band fly to Europe. He also went to Europe in 1972, partially due to a problem with the “Aspects of New Japanese Art” exhibition, which he caused by inviting Flower Travellin’ Band there. That year in Düsseldorf, he met Joseph Beuys, and in Berlin he performed Wailing Wall, his first performance. After returning to Japan, he continued his activities as one of the country’s pioneering performance artists.
Mitsuyoshi Shioya was born in 1943. Having learnt architecture in university, he participated in the “Festival Plaza” section of Expo ’70 under the direction of Arata Isozaki. After Great White Light, he started a company called “Earth Workers Ltd.” with his wife, interior designer Ayako Shioya. The company designed science museums all around Japan, such as Niigata Science Museum and Akashi Municipal Planetarium. Their role included the planning of each place’s exhibitions, and their activities also covered broader enterprises like local community development and the design of Masunobu Yoshimura’s studio. Besides his activities with the company, he also participated as a performer on “Sports et Divertissements: Erik Satie performed by 17 people,” an event organized by Goji Hamada in 1977•15.
They created various plans for cultural facilities, one of which was “Library of Sound”•16. Conceived as “an archive of sound culture which closely inspects sound cultures from a regional perspective in order to further comprehend them by using an all-encompassing spectrum of sensitivities” the library plan consists of five rooms: “Place to Stock Sound” with various sound media collected, “Place to Encounter Sound” to facilitate communication, “Place to Taste and Digest Sound” with audio devices, “Place to Experience Sound” with a variety of instruments, as well as a “Place to turn Sound into a Science.”
Born in 1947 and brought up with music education, Kazuo Kawasumi turned to art and started his career in the art scene under the influence of Ushio Shinohara•17. In Expo ’70, he worked with Hamada’s company “Kantsu” creating objects for Yoshimura. In the “The 10th Contemporary Art Exhibition of Japan” in 1971, he presented Great Vibration, sixteen loudspeakers placed in line on the floor, with the sound of heartbeats synchronized to the blinking of a light bulb. In 1972, he held a solo exhibition featuring prints using molded plastic as the medium. Later he moved to New York, travelling to different places to exhibit his works. In Japan too, he exhibited Montauk in 1989, a panel with built-in loudspeakers playing the sound of waves, and in 2005, Transmigration, an assemblage of percussion sounds and a video of his own heart.
From 1970 to 1971, the members of “Kantsu” wrote essays in a series called “Situation Art” for the “Tenpo Design [Commercial Space Design]” magazine, in which Kawasumi was in charge of writing about sound•18. In an article with the subtitle “From Muteness to Vibration,” he discussed his plans for his “Vibration Project” that aimed at shaking human spirits by controlling sounds outside the human hearing range. As concrete examples, the article had illustrations of a sofa, bed or bathtub with built-in vibrators.
This brief overview of the four artists’ careers reveals more differences than common denominators. It is difficult to find a shared interest or motivation among them, except the general tendencies of the time in which they coexisted. It is even unsure whether Onishi and Shioya were interested in sound in particular before they made performances together. However, shortly after Great White Light was performed, all of them experienced a turning point in their careers. Since then, they never reunited to make art together. Rather than seeing the performance itself as a reason for their changes, it would be more natural to think that Japanese society in the early 1970s itself was in a time of transition. It was the moment when the post-war Japanese economic miracles started slowing down. The cave stormed with the wind generated by Great White Light was a soundscape of this transitional period.