At a glance the terrarium-sculpture of the Japanese avant-garde artist Tetsumi Kudo appears inviting. A small furry brown mouse with his back toward us sits still in the greenness of his surroundings. But up close the lushness is only an illusion. Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit gives us instead a post-apocalyptic world where the landscape of muck and mucus—albeit acrylic—cover the ground, beneath which visible diagrams of circuitry lie; where humankind has lost complete control of technology. While curators and critics debate the degree of humanity there is in Kudo’s work, the artist’s message is no matter how dark and dismal the path technology and consumerism lead us down it will ultimately force us into a “new ecology,” toward a hopeful future.
Trained at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Kudo had first turned painting into performance art, smearing the pigments onto canvas with his feet and fingers. He went on to creating biomorphic sculptures out of kitchenware, and started to incorporate ‘electronic circuitry diagrams’ into his cynicism-filled collages—echoes of the Dadaists in his “Anti-Art” campaign.
In the early 1970s (before his work swung ostensibly inward) he issues, with urgency if not belligerence, his “New Ecology” manifesto. “Pollution of nature! Decomposition of human[ism]! The end of the world!” he writes, railing against humankind’s abuses of nature. Topical, we’re told, for Japan at the time—a country in protest of environmental erosion, of the petrochemical plants polluting its ponds and rivers and streams.
Crammed with waste and ersatz human noses, transistors for cattails and a caterpillar-like phallus, and the mouse, Cultivation by Radioactivity signifies decay. “Conquered nature is starting to take its revenge.” Both Kudo’s words and works seem premonitory today. His legacy, however, was the ‘atomic’ 1950s; the decade in which he came of age. And, according to many, his art should be considered closer in spirit to Godzilla than to environmental activism. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that he ends his manifesto with a recommendation, a solution that is, shall we say, less than a practical one. “Irradiate humans,” Kudo commands, “to reform their conservative and egotistical heads.”
 Ryan Holmberg, “Tetsumi Kudo: Nuclear Angst and Ecological Breakdown,” Art in America, March 2009.
Additional sources: Katie Kitamura, “Tetsumi Kudo,” Frieze, July 10, 2008; Roberta Smith, “Tetsumi Kudo,” New York Times, July 4, 2008.
(Image: Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1970, plastic bowl, wood, cotton, plastic, polyester, artificial hair, electrical diagrams, artificial soil, transistors, paint, and toy mouse, 9-13/16 x 18-7/8 x 18-7/8 inches, Walker Art Center, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)