The Perspective of Time and Space of Japanese “Mono-ha” Art


Minsheng Lecture



Pan Li

Guest: Pan Li
Date: Saturday, August 14, 2021
Time: 13:00-15:00

Join the lecture via:
Tencent VooV Meeting ID: 887 959 320
Second Meeting ID: 914 300 1958

Nobuo Sekine, Phase—Mother Earth, 1968, earth, cement

The naming of “Mono-ha” (もの派, literaly translated as “school of things”) is wrong in both Japanese and Chinese translation. We misunderstood this art movement since the very first place, reading at the face value and interpreting “mo” も as subtance. From this interpretation, different oriental cultural meaning or contemporary language is derivated from the “materialized” nature of this school of art.

Susumu Koshimizu, Paper, 1969 (recreated in 1994), stone, paper

This is where we misunderstood. Although Mono-ha artists use natual materials such as unaltered wood, stone, earth etc. to assemble compositions in an extremely simple way, they focus more on unmaterialized and non-subtantial status, which include the interrelationship among things, the space between objects and the surface of them, the concept of conceivig space as an element of the artwork and the shifting of “arena” because of it. There is a Japanese way of epistemology and ontology within Mono-ha Art.

Yoshishige Saito, Untitiled (Part), 1989, Paint on Wood

It is impossible to talk about Mono-ha without mentioning Yoshishige Saito (1904-2001), who is the founding person of Japanses abstract art. His wooden installation underlines the openess of structure, especially within the relationship among points, lines, and surfaces. In his words, “air can flow freely” in his works. Saito’s works, always dwell on the indefinite conceptions and relationships between space and time, namely “Time Space Wood.” Therefore, Mono-ha art was mainly inspired by Saito’s meditation of space, instead of expressing through materials.

Kishio Suga, Parallel Strata, 1969 (recreated in 1994), Paraffin wax
300 x 240 x 150 cm

Kishio Suga once said to me: “The existence of objects must be companied by a certain ‘state,’ or the concept of ‘surroundings.’ In other words, objects do not exist in isolation, but in a certain status, which is surrounded by a rich layers of relationships.”

Katsuro Yoshida also wrote: “ ‘Mono-ha’ sounds like using objects as works, but what I think about is a certain state. If I compare one object with another, what I focus more on is the present status;” “If there has to be a name, I think ‘school of status’ or ‘school of state’ is better.”

Although Mono-ha artists use natural materals and industrial manufactered objects a lot, they pay more attention on how to place and composite them so that they would be free of their original nature and a new alienation is produced. As for the relationship between usage of natural materials and traditional Japanese aesthetics, Lee Ufan said, “We mix industrial products and unaltered materials to testify the relationship between ‘making’ and ‘original state,’ so the so-called ‘return to nature’ or ‘return to the East’ are both misinterpretation.”

Lee Ufan, Relatum, 1978 (recreated in 1990), stone, iron

Through looking into the special perspective of time and space within Mono-ha Art, we can look into the core of Japanese culture more profoundly. Perhaps, most of us knew that the two common Chinese words “time” 时间 and “space” 空间 come from the invention of a Japanese scholar who translated these two words from English. More importantly, the shared character间 (in Japanese it reads as “MA”) reveal a specific opinion of nature and Japanese’s understanding of rhythm, which shapes the spiritual world of Japanese.

Therefore, the relationship between objects and space in Mono-ha Art is closely connected to Japanese perspective of time and space. Though it is not an art movement that tries to bring back the past, the Japanese traditional perspective of time and space as well as methodology can be traced within this movement.

The Arte Povera movement happening in 1967 Italy shares similar choice of materials with Mono-ha Art. It is also a reference to Mono-ha artists to discover new ways of expression. Arte Povera is aimed at breaking the limit of traditional high art and redefine the terms and concepts in art; while Mono-ha pays more attention to building a relationship than objects, a way to criticize the concept of individual-centered “making.” Through reflecting and comparing the expressions of these two art movements, we may have a clearer understanding of the differences between the artistic concepts and methodology of the East and the West.


Pan Li

Expert in history of Japanese art. PhD. Professor and PhD supervisor of Shanghai University Fine Arts College. Visiting Scholar at Department of Art History, University of Chicago. Guest researcher at Tokyo University of the Arts. Member of China Artists Association. His works include: “Japanese Art: From Modern to Contemporary,” “Ukiyo-e,” “Japanese art from Meji Restoration to 21st century,” “Art Master Tsuguharu Foujita,” “The Stories of Ukiyo-e,” “Presence: Dialogue with Famous Contemporary Japanese Artists.” He has translated numerous books from Japanese to Chinese, including: Kenya Hara’s On Design, Yuko Hasegawa’s Inrto to Contemporary Art, Yomoto Koichi’s Yokai Museum: The Art of Japanese Supernatural Being. He is the curator of exhibitions “Fused Worlds: Retrospective of Asain and Europian Classic Prints” and “Ukiyo-e: A Dream Journey to Edo.”