Mono-ha and Minimalism 

by Koji Enokura

With this painting I conclude the series of artworks from the Japanese art movement Mono-ha. Seeing all these works made me think about how similar Mono-ha and minimal art really are. Why is that?

Mono-ha started in Japan around the sixties and seventies, which is about the same time minimalism grew strong in the USA. Mono-ha is usually translated rather awkwardly as “school of things”, but that’s a misleading name: Mono-ha works are as much about the space and the interdependent relationships between those “things” as the “things” themselves. Making the viewer become aware of his position in relation to the work is also something which the Mono-ha artists aimed for.

Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. 

Obviously these are very different goals, if not even contradictory. Mono-ha cares more about the way the objects relate to each-other, while minimalism is very cold and egoistic – it’s interested only in itself. Much of minimalist aesthetics were shaped by a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Minimalists wanted to remove suggestions of self-expressionism from the art work, as well as evocations of illusion or transcendence – or, indeed, metaphors of any kind. What you see is what you get – no hidden meaning.

The work of Mono-haists was also anti-modernist, primarily sculptures and installations that incorporated basic materials such as rocks, sand, wood, cotton, glass and metal, often in simple arrangements with minimal artistic intervention. More experiential than visual, Mono-ha works tended to demand patience and reflection. 

So, here’s some common ground – both art schools were born, as it’s usually the case, out of the revolution against the old. Let’s take look at the visual aspect of both movements.

Minimalists were obsessed with distancing themselves from the artwork. They often wouldn’t create their sculptures in a studio. Rather they would order them from different factories, which would manufacture them according to design by the artist. An example for this were the works of Donald Judd. 

The Mono-haist’s aim was simply to bring “things” together, as far as possible in an unaltered state, allowing the juxtaposed materials to speak for themselves. Hence, the artists no longer “created” but “rearrange” “things” into artworks, drawing attention to the interdependent relationships between these “things” and the space surrounding them. The aim was to challenge pre-existing perceptions of such materials and relate to them on a new level. For both artistic and practical reasons, the often site-specific pieces were usually destroyed.

Both art schools wanted their art to be as anonymous as possible. But unlike with minimalism, where this distancing is understood as crafting pure, mathematical, cold and precise geometrical shapes, Mono-ha is much more natural and random. 

This is important, because we can make conclusions about how both cultures understand this “objectivity”. For the minimalists it was all about using technology – soulless machines and tools, that create art, without realizing it. Because that is the antipod of humanity, isn’t it? Man vs. machine. 

The Japanese see things very differently. For starters we must understand that the natural world (“objective”) and experience of nature (“subjective”) are not wholly distinct. The Japanese don’t divide the world into “objective” and “subjective” as does the West. This means that nature is objective and therefor the right tool for materializing the ideas of Mono-ha. That’s why we see so many natural elements – rock, branches, dirt – in the works of Mono-ha. I believe some of the works by Robert Smithson, an American minimalist, embrace this idea. 

Minimalists attempts to create objects, that represent nothing but themselves, led to a new emphasis on the physical space in which the artwork resided. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the works of Fred Sandback. That’s the goal of Mono-ha and here I think we begin to understand why both art movements look so familiar to each-other. But the important question here is was this also to goal of the minimalists?

Personally, I don’t think so. You see, minimalism is about relieving the artwork from the burden of having a meaning or expressing an emotion. Achieving this means stripping the artwork down to it’s bare minimum so “hidden meaning” is out of the question. Carl Andre’s floor pieces are a nice example of this – “Where is the art? There’s nothing hanging on the walls?” Well, you’re walking on it. So this new emphasis on the physical space around the artwork as seen in the works of Dan Flavin is a byproduct of the minimal aesthetic of the object. 

In Mono-ha the artists seek exactly this relationship between the object and the space around it. That’s why Katsuhiko Narita can take a couple of large pieces of charcoal, place them in line and exhibit them as art.

So, let’s recap. We started off with two art movements, that originated at almost the same time in different parts of the world. They have different artistic ideas and concepts, they chase very conflicting goals – minimalism is individualistic, it’s all about the Self (a very American concept) while Mono-ha is about the way the collective interacts with itself (a very Japanese concept). But because of the way the works of both art schools interact with the space around them minimalists and Mono-haists create similar artworks using simplicity as a way of expressing their different ideas. 

But I think their ideas are just different sides of the same coin. Minimalists pursue simplicity and in this they discover a new relationship between objects. Mono-ha pursues new harmonious relationship between objects and uses simplicity as the way to achieve this. 


I’ve used various sources like this and this and some of thisthis and this…and my head.

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