I remember in the immediate months after September 11th stumbling onto an article in New York Magazine entitled “Sooner or Later…it will happen here.” The article described with utter certainty the inevitable detonation of a nuclear weapon in Times Square, and recounted in perverse detail the city’s transformation into a scene of hellish ruin.

As I was just entering high school in New York, the article for me conjured a series of terrible fantasies—visions of my neighborhood contorted into a landscape of otherworldly cataclysm, one all the more heightened by the pervasive sexual angst that characterized the turbulent midway of puberty.

Looking at the work of Tetsumi Kudo (D. Tokyo, 1990) on the advent of a traveling retrospective of his work mounted by Hauser and Wirth (in conjunction with Andrea Rosen) in its London and Zurich galleries, the anxieties I experienced at that time come back with full force.
The work on display conjures a sense of environmental collapse with a degree of atomic anxiety that hearkens back to the height of Cold War science fiction. Like J.G Ballard’s The Drowned World, the earth is an irradiated jungle, populated by a cast of grotesque creatures that underscore its abject circumstance. Kudo’s hothouse terrarium Cultivation of Nature & People Who Are Looking at It (1971) is inset with cacti and monstrous snails, all rendered in cheap fluorescent paint, a disembodied phallus worming its way across the foreground. Elsewhere, bizarre groupings of exotic plants contort into nooses and mottled prisons, as in Portrait Ionesco (1971), where the disembodied head of Eugene Ionesco emerges from a grouping of mutated plants like an undead terror.

Atomic anxiety, nature in revolt, and the ugly realities of the new ecology

Kudo, born in Osaka in 1935, trained in Tokyo and, ultimately living between Paris and Japan, made work that reflected the political crises of his era: the threats of atomic annihilation and environmental collapse fuse in his rendering of a post-nuclear wasteland. This motif offered an immediate political resistance to the U.S. occupation of Japan, while also commenting on the worsening state of Japan’s environment due to the unfettered adoption of new petrochemical technologies.

Examples of this attention rebound throughout his work. Human Bonsai – Freedom of Deformity – Deformity of Freedom (1978) depicts four strangled phallic plants, a useless thermometer poking out of the barren earth. A comment on nature in revolt, Kudo’s incessant use of phallic imagery implies a categorical impotence—humanity’s inability to control the environment with technology.

Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition comes at an appropriate moment, as many of the themes Kudo treats figuratively are experiencing a general resurgence of interest. It places Kudo in a thematic nexus of artists like Mike Kelley, Paul Thek, Paul McCarthy and Alina Szapocznikow. Kelley himself was an early proponent and scholar of Kudo’s work, and his influence shows.

Kelley quotes Kudo in an essay entitled “Cultivation by Radioactivity,” published in accord with Kudo’s 2008 retrospective at the Walker: “It’s important to think about the links between nature, polluted by a proliferation of electronics…the decomposition of humankind, and the old, traditional hierarchy of values. These values are breaking down…they will eventually produce a completely new form of ecology in our society and the cosmos.” Kudo may have been writing in 1971, but forty-five years later, the ugly realities of the new ecology he spoke of are becoming more and more apparent.

Tetsumi Kudo (Japanese, 1935–1990) was an artist who lived and worked between Paris and Japan. He is represented by Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.

A solo show of Tetsumi Kudo’s work is currently on view through 26 February at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, mounted in conjunction with Andrea Rosen Gallery.

Alexander Shulan is a writer and independent curator based in New York, where he is the founder of LOMEX. He is Associate Editor of KALEIDOSCOPE.

Image: Graft '72 (Greffe '72), detail, 1972. Courtesy of the artist; Hauser & Wirth, Zurich/London; and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo credit: Jessica Eckert.