When we think of Japanese art, we tend to think of the subtle and the austere, of Zen calligraphy, haiku, and rock gardens. But in the mid-1950s, many Japanese artists who had survived the devastation of World War II formed the Gutai movement, which bore striking similarities to such Western developments as action painting and performance "happenings." Kazuo Shiraga became famous for using his whole body to make "paintings" in mud pits, inviting curious observers to take part. Going the opposite direction, Akira Kanayama used a remote-controlled toy car to drip paint on canvas, while Saburo Murakami stretched papers onto large frames and then crashed through them. The new sense of physical freedom and exuberant absurdity these artists brought to Japanese art flourished, and today performance art is in full bloom in Japan. Local audiences will have a rare chance to see it when "Criminal" -- six performance artists fresh from the Nippon International Performance Art Festival -- stops here at the beginning of a world tour.
Seiji Shimoda, director of NIPAF and active in Japanese performance since 1975, combines minimalist poetics with unusual uses of physical space. Kazuhiro Nishijima brings the movements and feelings (and an actual iron buoy!) of his seaside hometown to his performance. From the new wave of performance comes "Smelly," a Japanese TV show competition winner who is cheerfully described as "vulgar, immature, and senseless." Also performing will be Mamiko Kawabata, a young artist who explores feminist ideas with subtle action and humor, and Shin-Ichi Ari and Yukio Saeguso, who combine physical tension and social criticism. "I know some Chinese medicine ... always include a little poison. Recently I feel performance art should be this little poison for making art good medicine for sick today's society," writes Shimoda, in broken but somehow eloquent English, summing up the group's show, which begins at 8 p.m. Friday at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Ninth Street), S.F. Admission is $6-8; call 626-5416.