August 27, 2020 – February, 2021
More than anything, I think I miss going dancing. I miss the whole hazy, drunken thrill of it—the sweat and the loud music and the absolutely imperceptible conversations between strangers that evaporate come morning. In his text Before Pictures (2016), the late theorist Douglas Crimp called the wild interconnectedness of the disco-era dance floor “boogie intimacy,” describing this moment between two people as “intense and sexy … usually limited to dancing together before each of you dissolves back into the crowd or returns to your ‘partner.’”1 This spark of sensuality is not just a fleeting connection but the overall collective experience of the moment—indescribable and unattainable to anyone that didn’t have the good fortune to be there.
It is this temporary ecstasy that we find in the Museum of Modern Art’s new installation Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s Cinematic Illumination. Against the backdrop of late ’60s counterculture and youth movements, artist Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver—only 21 years old at the time, with no formal training in the arts—participated in the 1969 Intermedia Arts Festival in Tokyo, Japan. He erected a riotous and immersive installation in the Ginza discotheque Killer Joe’s that combined film, sculpture, and installation to create a space that worked in tandem with dancers and club denizens. For this MoMA exhibition, Gulliver and curator Sophie Cavoulacos bring Ginza to Manhattan, translating this vibrant installation to the museum space with intoxicating and transformative effect. Not recreating Killer Joe’s but adapting its wild energy to a new environment, Gulliver and Cavoulacos showcase the interconnectedness of our bodies, our selves, and their natural byproducts: image, movement, and feeling.
The installation itself is a technical marvel. In MoMA’s dark Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, a circular projection screen envelops the space and 18 carefully placed and programmed slide projectors hang from the ceiling, providing a full 360 degrees of visual splendor. As nearly 1,500 slides flicker around the screen to dazzling effect, a propulsive soundtrack of international music (created by Gulliver and Cavoulacos for this exhibition) plays. Viewers stand in the middle of the installation—underneath a mirror ball, naturally—to take in the projections, which inventively combine found media and Gulliver’s own photography to illustrate Tokyo’s innovative and evolving film and performance scene. Gulliver’s choice of images is critical: blurred shots of Tokyo foot traffic, magazine covers featuring ’60s youthquake culture’s finest, and the artist’s own Eadweard Muybridge-esque shots of a silhouetted man jumping are reminders of the kinetic energy of the human body, a reflection of the dancing, drinking, and reckless abandon that took place in and around the original installation.
The inescapable references to physicality—specifically, the sensorial and emotional experience of disco phenomena—illustrate the potential paradox of Cinematic Illumination. The original installation was created for a specific time, place, and moment. It was created with the express intention that viewers would interact with it through the experience of dancing and club-going. It was created, in short, for a context very unlike MoMA. What is the purpose of this recreation, and how are viewers supposed to contextualize the work when it has been so far removed from its original time-space and context?
According to Julian Ross (curator of the complementary exhibition More than Cinema: Motoharu Jonouchi and Keiichi Tanaami, now showing at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works), “the story of Japanese contemporary art cannot be told without recounting the numerous discotheques that emerged in the ’60s.”2 Killer Joe’s along with clubs such as LSD and Angura Pop in the Shinjuku district were havens for Gulliver and his contemporaries, and these nightlife spaces became a vital part to the installations of Japan’s cinematic pioneers. Ross positions these clubs as environments “where the artwork, the space of its exhibition, and the audience influence one another, with the audience partially shaping the artwork.”3 Because of its site-specificity, Cinematic Illusion as originally conceived cannot exist in a conventional institutional space. By collaborating with Gulliver, however, MoMA’s curatorial and conservation teams have cleverly reshaped the aims and scope of the work to fit within an entirely new context. In consequence, Gulliver’s practice is revealed as a necessary corrective to the heavily Westernized narratives that arts institutions often favor when discussing experimental film. While the exhibition focuses on one artist’s practice as an example of post-war Japan’s creative vibrancy, it also succeeds in geographically and culturally decentering experimental art more generally.
In my discussions with Cavoulacos regarding the process of installation, she made sure to stress that this exhibition’s aim was not to recreate the installation as seen in Killer Joe’s decades ago—to do so would undermine the very ideals that make Gulliver’s work so vital in the first place. Tying Gulliver’s installation back to the explorations of Dada and Pop Art, she described the installation apparatus as a “readymade,” able to adapt to different surroundings. Here, the projection screens are adjusted to fit in the Kravis Studio, and small updates, such as the soundtrack, bring the piece into our present era. Duplication may be impossible, but this does not make the installation inaccessible to contemporary audiences.
The reanimation of Cinematic Illumination occurs in an entirely new world: one where contact is limited by an invisible threat and the weight of a collapsing empire bears down on a captive population. We are caught in a moment where we cannot meet on the dance floor, to either cry or celebrate with strangers—no “boogie intimacy.” MoMA’s Cinematic Illumination is a feast for the senses that may not recreate the original 1969 installation in Killer Joe’s but adapts it to this unfamiliar new world. Boogie intimacy may feel like some distant dream, but we can still find glittering fragments of it in the places we least expect.
Douglas Crimp "DISSS-CO (A Fragment): From Before Pictures, a Memoir of 1970s New York." Criticism 50, no. 1 (2008): 15.
Julian Ross, “Killer Joe’s: 1960s Japanese Expanded Cinema in Discotheques.” Broadcast (Pioneer Works), 2020.