Atsuko Tanaka wore her extraordinary flashing "Electric Dress" - with its layering of multicoloured lights bulbs and light tubes - at an exhibition of the Gutai Art Movement in Tokyo in 1956. And it's clear from her current retrospective exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, that she spent most of her professional life, from 1956 onwards, responding to this single piece of work. "Electric Dress" is regarded as a dramatic reaction to Japan's postwar technology and consumer boom. Indeed, Tanaka took her inspiration from the neon advertising in Osaka.
As if mesmerized by the flashing lights, Tanaka transmuted "Electric Dress" into an abstract painting practice that sustained her until her death in 2005. Like "Electric Dress," these paintings are performative. She laid her canvases on the floor and walked around them as she brushed and dripped paint, creating a network of wiggly lines that connected an array of coloured circles. Looking at these intensely worked paintings, you find yourself unpicking Tanaka's process; you move across the gallery in front of her larger canvases while you trace individual lines, remaking her connections. So, as a viewer, you sense the original performance.
The Ikon Gallery exhibition - "Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting" - is the most comprehensive survey to date of her work presenting 100 works from 27 collections.
Of course, you can't look at drippy paintings without making some pretty obvious art historical connections. And I scampered off to see if there were any direct links with Jackson Pollock who started his drippy paintings in the 1940s. There's certainly a nod in his direction in the excellent catalogue in an essay by Lorenza Barboni. Back at my studio, I made an online search and soon pulled up a letter that now resides in the online Archives of American Art. The letter was written by Shozo Shimamoto on behalf of the Gutai group to Jackson Pollock on 6 February 1956, several months before Pollock's death. Shimamoto enclosed two copies of the Gutai group's magazine and invited Pollock to comment on their painting activities. "Please forgive our audacity," writes Shimamoto. This correspondence was only uncovered in 2006 by Tetsuya Oshima, a Japanese curator.
So, even assuming Pollock did not reply, it's intriguing to see evidence of the Gutai group looking 'west' at American abstract expressionism and the emergence of performance within Pollock's practice. Can we regard Tanaka as a Far Eastern successor to Pollock? Well, maybe. But Tanaka took performance to a whole new level and "Electric Dress" is recognized as an important precursor of today's performance art movement.
The exhibition includes a 16mm film - "Round on Sand" 1968 - by Hiroshi Fukuzawa, recording Tanaka drawing with a stick in the sand along the shore of Awaji Island. It's an elaborate performance. She creates a complex drawing of circles and connecting lines. The completed work stretches along the shoreline. Ambitious, yet modest. After all, haven't we all scratched images and words along the beach with sticks and spades.
This is what I admire most in Tanaka's work; the everyday nature of her child-like forms, and the feeling that you are time travelling, walking alongside her as she makes her art.
There's still time to catch this first UK retrospective exhibition of Atsuko Tanaka's art practice (closing 11 September) before the show moves on to Espai D'Art Contemporani de Castelló, Spain (7 October - 31 December 2011) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Japan (4 February - 6 May 2012).