Kitty Becher takes inspiration from Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress, 1956, a radical and daring work that speaks to our current anxieties and dependency on technology.
Atsuko Tanaka was a member of the Gutai group, a Japanese post-war art movement that sought to break boundaries and conventions. Her work Electric Dress, created in 1956, is made from 200 electric bulbs, each painted by hand. It weighs over 50 kg and covers the human body in its entirety. When Tanaka first wore the dress, it was suspended from the ceiling at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956. It was produced at a time of rapid industrialisation in Japan which makes the daring, radical nature of the work all the more striking. It is imbued with tension and unexpected juxtapositions: the dress both illuminates and conceals the body, it shields and imprisons; the lights mesmerise and blind the viewer, the colours excite, and the electrical charge threatens. In this way, Tanaka illustrates the many contradictions, anxieties and uncertainties relating to her sense of self and sense of place during a period of immense change. Her work highlights a sense of isolation and loneliness; feelings many can relate to in the current climate.
During the late 1950s, everyday life in Japan was undergoing an all-encompassing transformation. Japan was evolving into a new democratic consumer society. The surge in imported American magazines, advertisements and films brought aesthetic ideals that emanated from Hollywood. Societal changes presented many challenges for women. The female body was becoming increasingly commodified, and changing social norms were creating anxieties around morality, gender and identity. Electric Dress reflects these anxieties. Tanaka puts herself on display, yet her true self is hidden; her body is concealed and impenetrable. She draws the viewer to her but makes her body inaccessible. The dress shields her from the audience and yet this defence is laced with threat. The tangled wires and electric currents charge the work with a claustrophobic sense of entrapment.
Tanaka lived in Osaka, an industrial hub, during this time of rapid modernisation in Japan. The construction of railways and the boom in travel led to a new sense of interconnectedness. The bright, neon lights in Electric Dress reflect the lights of the modern-day city and capture the optimism, hope and opportunity felt by Japanese citizens at this time of change. However, Tanaka also captures a sense of dislocation. Electric Dress captivates and attracts its viewers and yet there is also something harsh and forbidding about this installation. Whilst from afar the dress may be beautiful, up close the lights become blinding, the wires appear threatening and the sense of danger is palpable. As the lights command attention, they simultaneously form a barrier, preventing the audience from coming too close, thereby isolating Tanaka. She appears fragile and lost under the weight of her technical creation. In this way, she touches on the very meaning of human contact in a world yielding to the tyranny of technology.
Tanaka expresses feelings of isolation, dislocation and entrapment at a time of overwhelming change and responds to a unique moment in time, in a strikingly original way. During this time of social distancing, I can relate to the anxieties and tensions captured in her work. Technology has offered us so many opportunities to connect with others and stay informed and yet lurking behind the screen there is a threat; a threat of invaded privacy, restricted freedoms and false information. Whilst the tension Tanaka captures in Electric Dress speaks to our fears, this work is also a source of inspiration. We can see that behind the flashing light bulbs she is lost and alone. Her work visually represents her own personal struggle and her fight to overcome the anxieties and challenges that she faced. However, despite these feelings of unease, Tanaka created something remarkable and truly courageous. This time of lockdown has given many of us the opportunity to escape the flashing lights. Tanaka’s work invites us to retreat, pause and reflect.
About Kitty Becher
Kitty has recently completed her studies in History and the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. Her primary research interests are performance art and German modern art. Last summer, she secured an artistic residency at an art gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Whilst there, Kitty helped to promote the event ‘Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur’, which aims to make art more accessible in Malaysia. During her final year at Edinburgh, she wrote art reviews for The Student Newspaper.
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.