Yoshi Wada with Tashi Wada
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive
Cosponsored by the Berkeley Center for New Media
November 17, 2013
By John Held, Jr.
I was just discovering Fluxus art in the mid-seventies, still a good decade away from its mainstream acceptance, when I traveled to New York and met Yoshi Wada for the first time. I had become fascinated with the movement, still ongoing at the time I met Yoshi to quiz him on a sea voyage he had taken with George Maciunas, impresario of the far flung Fluxus empire; Milan Knizak, then a dissident artist now the Director of the Czech Republic National Museum; and Robert De Niro, Jr. (yes, the film actor), at the behest of his mother, a prospective shareholder in the event of establishing a Fluxus Island in the Caribbean.
Yoshi was a witness to this and other seminal events in the life of Fluxus, operating as George Maciunas’ chief handyman and collaborating with La Monte Young, one of the founders of minimalist music (along with Terry Riley), who had a profound influence on the beginning of Fluxus in 1962. Before Yoshi came to New York in 1968, he had visited the Gutai Pinacotheca in Osaka, Japan, meeting the Gutai artists, recent darlings (Guggenheim Museum exhibition and catalog, January 2013) of those currently deconstructing and decentering Eurocentric Modernism.
Yoshi’s most recent performance at the Berkeley Art Museum with his son Tashi, a graduate of Cal Arts and an accomplished composer in his own right, was nothing if not international with the addition of bagpipe and drum played by traditionally attired Scottish musicians. Their addition provided a striking visual effect to the proceedings amidst the various clutter of electrical chords and industrially derived instrumentation.
Electric bells were placed in various locations throughout the vast museum atrium. It was reminiscent of Gutai artist Atsuko Tanaka’s installation, “Work,” which incorporated electrical bells into the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition in 1955, encouraging those in attendance to press buttons to activate the bells for any duration they pleased. Those random bursts were recreated in Wada’s piece, each bell different in tone, capable of and susceptible to modulation, making it a very satisfying component of the overall work.
The Gutai influence was also felt by the addition of industrial steel drum barrels (labeled from Brazil), which Wada would strike with mallets at intervening intervals. Gutai explored an object for its “concrete” essential, and Wada used this to his advantage, striking the barrel at different points to produce various bass tones.
The event was an hour long and went by rather fast, had lots of visually intriguing moments and hardly a soul from the audience vacated the premises, a rare occurrence for a musical performance as difficult as Yoshi’s can be for the newly initiated.
The reason for this difficulty is that Yoshi’s sound works have only partly to do with traditional music composition. The priority is with filling an environment with sound waves, creating vibrations that penetrate the inner ear and generating a physical effect on the listener. Despite the interesting visual effects (the bagpipes, the industrial instrumentation), it’s probably preferable to experience Yoshi Wada by leaning back on a cushion (which were provided), closing your eyes and being overtaken by the physicality of the event.
Yoshi, who just turned seventy the week previous, has been a San Francisco resident for over a decade now, performs regularly in Europe, and has had a number of recordings produced in Japan. Despite his varied geographical residencies, his direct exposure to Gutai and Fluxus, he remains a quintessential San Francisco artist – independent, consistently innovative, low key yet fiercely committed. I sought him out nearly forty years ago for his cutting edge activity, and I continue to seek him out for the same reasons now.
For more information visit Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.