Art beat: In a mad scientists garden

Tetsumi Kudo in retrospective at the Walker

LOWRY HILL – The lesson of the mad scientist parable is simple: mess with nature and you’re gonna get burned.

Viktor Frankenstein? Dr. Moreau? Seth Brundle (of David Cronenberg’s 1986 “The Fly” remake, now an opera)? Dead, dead, dead.

The storyline isn’t so clear-cut in Tetsumi Kudo’s work.

The kind of melding of man and technology or man and nature Kudo depicts in his strange, often grotesque, assemblages isn’t a tragic mistake or the consequence of scientific hubris; it’s an inevitable change. Kudo framed it as metamorphosis.

“Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis” at the Walker Art Center is the first major U.S. retrospective of the provocative Japanese artist’s work. He was 10 years old when World War II ended, and his coming of age in postwar Japan shaped his career and vision as an artist, exhibition curator Doryun Chong said.

Chong said the trauma of nuclear warfare was a recurring theme in Kudo’s work, as it was for many Japanese artists who emerged in the 1950s and ’60s. His generation also lived through a time of dramatic social, political and technological change.

The dark side of that technological revolution was a series of high-profile environmental disasters in Japan. In some cases, outbreaks of mysterious diseases were traced back to industrial pollution, Chong said.

In a series of mid-career works from the 1970s Kudo plays mad scientist, building a terrarium to house human body parts that crawl like bugs and a garden that sprouts metal plants with human limbs. It’s as if these hybrid creatures evolved in a cesspool of industrial pollution.

It’s no wonder Kudo’s work resonates with a modern audience. We live in a time when iPods sprout from ears like newly evolved organs and genetically modified organisms have a place on the dinner table.

With his art, Kudo argued humans had little power to alter the destiny he imagined for us. He framed it as impotence, and used again and again the image of a detached male reproductive organ to underline his point.

He insisted, though, that the symbol had another meaning. It was a chrysalis, wherein a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

Kudo’s work is nothing if not provocative. His imagery makes for a difficult-to-view, at times unsettling exhibition. But it’s rewarding, too, to follow the artist’s personal evolution.

In his later works, Kudo seems calmer, more introspective.

He imagines the souls of artists floating upward, trailing colored string behind them. In “The Survival of the Avant-Garde,” an entire body has unwound into yards of that same colored string.

After so many years contemplating the future of humanity, Kudo seemed to be considering his own fate.

Go see it

“Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis” runs through Jan. 11 at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. 375-7600.