-Your artistic activity seems characterized by two very strong elements, present ever since the 1950s: the production of “works” and the creation of events. What relation is there between your work and your events?
S.: I used to produce works that were the expression of a violent throw of bottles. Both television and newspapers came to see me often, but not to publish the finalized work, but to describe the scenario of their creation. Initially I was angry when I realized that the final work was almost never shown, but then I started to think differently, both by proposing ideas to change the setting, and by taking on a certain behavior for those occasions. So I can say that the relation between my work and my events have been taught to me by journalists.
- The casting of bottles full of color is the technique that mainly characterizes your work. What are the motives that brought you to this solution?
S.: The young Gutai artists that gathered around Jiro Yashihara wanted to give a new direction to the work done by the master calligraphers (particularly by Nantenbo). In the characters written by Nantenbo we find “nijimi: shades/smears”, “kasure: fading”, “tobichiri: splashes/sprays”, “tare: drips” and other effects that were not possible to express with oil painting at the time. Kazuo Shiraga began drawing with his feet by hanging by a rope attached to the ceiling, Saburo Murakami opened holes by jumping and bursting through large pieces of paper fixed to stretcher frames. I, being physically weaker than them, thought of throwing bottles filled with color paint or making it explode with a cannon. I’ve been producing works through the casting of bottles for a long time now. Throwing with violence, or with gentleness, using a large or small canvas, are all variations. I also try to satisfy any requests made by organizers and to adapt the content of the performance to the scenario. I think that the throwing of bottles as a method of painting is still now a form of study of the unknown. More than anything else, I find stimulation in the materialization of an unpredictable expression. The biggest meaning of this phenomenon might just be Zen. However, I am still on my path even now and it must not be thought that I have reached illumination.
- This aspect of you work brings us to your interpretation of the role of the artist?
S.: I am probably quite far from the most widely accepted concept of artist. The fact of wanting to live an experience born from chance goes further than the simple research of freedom, it is a reality fixed in my heart. I research the truth.
- The technique, both in its western and eastern interpretation, has always had fundamental importance: after the great artistic revolutions of the twentieth century, of which you have been a pivotal part of, how is artistic technique considered today?
S.: Technique is a very important element of art. But I search for a world that is as far as possible from what is considered the traditional artistic technique. That is why, in the art world (in Japan), nobody gave me much importance. I have reached 80 years of age and there has not been one museum in Japan that has given me a solo show.
- You love, and have loved dearly, working in groups of artists. What significance do you attribute to creative collaboration with others?
S.: In the Gutai period, as first disciple of Jiro Yoshihara, I had the role of organizer and binding element of the group. But it has always been difficult for me to contact foreign artists. When in 1976 I became director of the Artist Union group (AU), I learned about correspondence art and began communicating with several thousand artists from all over the world. This system of communication with so many artists whom I did not know made me very happy. Artist Union (AU) was a group composed by artists that had reached a position of relative importance during the sixties. But, as it were, artists who had studied in prestigious universities and had learned the fundamental techniques, tended to stray away from the group, while other less educated artists and those with physical or mental handicaps became members. This type of artist was far from the familiar spectrum of art of the time, but it is thanks to them that a completely new form of art was born, evolving past the most common artistic sense. I then became a University professor for more than 40 years, even though I never acted as a normal professor. At the moment I have about 200 pupils. These students often have many imperfections when compared to the widespread image of the artist, but it is exactly this which generates new vigor.
- While reconstructing the Gutai years, you said that the driving force was the idea that art is supposed to be completely free. What meaning exactly does the word free hold in your concept of art?
S.: During the war, freedom did not exist for us. After the war we were given our freedom back and were initially taken aback by it, but we later learned, more than anything else, the extraordinary nature of freedom. Life is full of problems, but freedom is the key to happiness. It was a tremendous pleasure to express freedom through art.
- One of your most important works in recent times is the monument to peace of Heiwa no Akashi a Shin Nishinomiya, the cement arena that you regenerate every year by casting bottles of color paint every year, on the condition that Japan does not enter war?
S.: It all started in 1986 when Bern Porter came to visit me. Bern Porter was a nuclear physicist that had participated in Project Manhattan during the second world war, but who was shocked by the fact that a bomb was detonated over Hiroshima despite the emperor’s surrender… Bern Porter deeply regretted his contribution to the experiment, became a correspondence artists and began making pilgrimages around the world to ask for forgiveness. In my studio he cried, saying that to expiate his sins eight death sentences would not suffice. In that moment, I decided to promote world peace and shared my pacifist ideas with him. After learning of my activities, Bern Porter suggested me as a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize, which I did not win. I have, however, continued to promote peace and in 1999 gave light to the Heiwa no Akashi project.
- How, in your opinion, can art become instrumental for peace?
S.: I don’t want to use art lightly as an instrument for peace because art and peace are two very different things. When I visited Bern Porter in 1987, I learned how he was conducting a life of austere expiation and how he rejected the use of any type of machinery. Even though his home seemed luxurious, his room was empty. The fridge wasn’t even connected to the electricity outlet, and all he kept was correspondence art for peace. He ate half an onion every day and prayed for the souls of the victims. His was a truly heroic life. There are many actions that tie art and peace, but this tie must not be spoken of lightly. It is a delicate and complicated relationship and its path has not yet been smoothed out. That is why it is a theme that is worth exploring, and it is the theme of my life.
SHIMAMOTO SAMURAI, ACROBAT OF THE SIGHT
by Achille Bonito Oliva
The art does not produce beautiful statues and still life; it produces works that challenge the initial creation of the world, through the figurative and abstract language, always supported by a FURY that, in the time, has gradually run the artist's entire body over from top to bottom. If Michelangelo in the West recognized himself in the form of his anthropomorphic figures, Picasso did the same in the whirling eroticism of his cubist decompositions, and Pollock found again in the lattice of his labyrinths at the “dripping" not so much his image in the mirror but the ANXIETY (ANSIETAS) of the modern condition, in which the man is necessarily indeterminate.
In the East the artists, assisted by the zen culture, welcomed in the creative process theintelligent event, the possibility for a gesture that in its momentum goes to the target due to discipline and get to the form. What Shimamoto does; a painting performer.
Shimamoto’s ambulatory performance is the result of a conscience of the irreversible; LOSS OF CENTER in art and life, and the desire to regain the lost paradise of a just dissolved anthropological unit of the modern city SPLEEN. At the modern dolmen of the skyscraper Shimamoto does not oppose the existential stain of distress but the construction of a labyrinth, which affirms in the future memory the moral quality of the formal order against the amount of indistinct disorder.
“Perhaps Leibniz’s sentence: Cum Deus calculat fit mundus, should be more properly translated: While God plays, the world becomes the world” (M. Heidegger). The Western reason has sought to dominate both the life and the game, by taking the astute notions of identity and dialectics to devise a continue control of the world and its transformations. The Western logocentrism has always simulated attention and adaptation at the dynamic of facts, up to found the totalising notion of history.
The irruption of psychoanalysis and scientific discoveries, burst at the beginning of this century, has reduced the presumption of total control by the individual and then his ability to dominate the whole of reality. The interpretation of dreams by Freud, the quantum of Plank, the Indetermination Principle of Heisemberg have disrupted the Cartesian haughtiness of the Western reason, opening towards directions that the historical avant-gardes, especially the Dadaism, the Surrealism, and in the end the neo-American avant-gardes with the Abstract Expressionism have practiced. The Oriental art has always possessed the rule of a gesture tuning on an interior order.
The traditional art was the result of a technique that longed to transfer on the image the dark vision of the artist, without further interference. On the contrary the avant-gardes discovered the value of interference and discontinuity, the irruption of the event, continuously involved in any activity, in every sphere of life at molecular level and that of daily formation. Western culture, through the art of the avant-gardes, must accept as a value a data that the Oriental culture had already adopted as a world’s formation principle.
In sync with the human sciences, the art of the avant-gardes optimistically adopted the principle of expansion trying, by means of their practice, to enable processes for increasing the sensitivity. The link between human sciences involves the artist’s awareness that, albeit enclosed in a small area of consensus, feels to work towards a progressist and progressive culture, according to a cycle finally joining the East and the West, thus favouring openness to the event and control of the techniques.
Dadaism and Surrealism therefore practice a culture of expansion, the first playing on the “skin” of things, objects, and therefore considering daily life, and the second scratching under the “skin” of the subject. However both the poetics try an expansion beyond the phenomenology of object and subject, beyond the identity principle that dominated the positivist rationalism in 1800. As the reason is no longer able to dominate the world’s transformation processes, so the art cannot conclude its path in the artist’s project with the support of traditional techniques, all based on the control.
If art passes through a proverbial naming of things as a normative recognition of reality, then here it is the Dadaism producing an anti-art, which overturns the attitude of reasonableness and harmony with the world in a systematic attack to it through the recruitment of the world itself, in its fragments and everyday objects, diverted and relieved of their common sense and charged of futility in the direction of the non-functional. So that this happens it is necessary the artist’s awareness of the omnipotence of language, of his free will that allows any gesture toward the world. “The man is no longer an artist; he has become artwork” (E. Nietzsche, The Birth of the tragedy). This awareness allows the Dadaist artist to draw the object, to lift the world up to a previously unthinkable height and move it to a place where he is not any more absolute master but must undergo the enhancement that comes from other forces.
In 1955 in Japan, in the small town named Ashiya, Shimamoto began his adventure with a creative work done in public, a garden where he and other artists make works, the result of a performance in which to do the work is synchronic to contemplate the public, with all the interference of a live event.
The complexity resides in the interpenetration between the artist’s intervention and event, in the rupture of the relationship between cause and effect that allows you to introduce in the work the discontinuous possibility of an element that brings a disturbance, and in this way an increment in intensity to daily inaction. This is possible because the art language has a power of condensation outside the rules of coded communication, a rate of non-sociality that allows new combinations that are not dependent upon any will.
Automatism thus means freedom of speech, behaviour, and aggregation of new senses even beyond the artist’s planned intentions, who rather suggests that other wills intervene in the work to determine an enlargement of the sense, until its transformation into pure significant. This means that the Dadaist artist does not want to switch from one to another certainty, but produce slippages as perpetual movement of the sense that never stabilizes.
In any case, these processes occur in unforeseen ways, not constrained by will but subjected to imponderable rules. So even for the Gutai group, which Shimamoto is part of, a factor of unpredictability enters the art game, this time given by the very nature of the unconscious, which expands and dilates the intent of work. So it remains the Dadaist model, albeit reported under the sign of an inner unpredictability. “The gift of Duchamp for his sister’s birthday was to suspend at the four corners of her balcony an open book of geometry to make it the laughingstock of the seasons” (A. Breton).
The Gutai Group’s artists (Yoshihara, Kanayama, Motonaga, Murakami, Shiraga, Sumi, Tanaka, Yamasaki, and Yoshida) take the free associations to bring in the work, through the psychic automatism that governs the image formation, the functioning of a thought out the traditional logic. The used techniques range from frottage, to dripping, to transfer, to smoke painting, to object-symbols, to photomontages, and to typographical compositions. Almost all tend to send no more conscious control of the creative impulse.
Shimamoto’s art becomes a further practice of the trespassing and the expansion, in the sense that it recovers as a value even the territories of the “stunned thought”, of the impulse directly filtering over the censure of the form and despite it.
This happens in his collages of dirty newspapers, in the burst of painting fired directly onto the canvas in front of an audience involved in the performance.
The image is an explosion of colours that has no longer a single craftsman to relate and does not owe all his paternity to the artist. Now other factors that determine and affect the appearance entered in scene. Stunning does not mean loss; on the contrary it means the acquisition of a further possibility and loss of the pathetic haughtiness that accompanied the work of the traditional Western artist, strong for his logocentrist mentality.
Shimamoto stuns the image by reiterating the technique retrocession, taking back the artistic work in the sign of automatism. But the stunned image, effect of these proceedings, is not at a loss compared to the desire of expansion of avant-gardes. On the contrary it is the effect of an increase that can introduce in the field of creative forces the factors value that are the effect of a non-working and do not require effort or sacrifice; on the contrary they require the availability and instability.
It seems that the reality has always condemned man to go between things in the possibility of a double position: on all fours and upright. Both anyway require the security of interlocution, the obstacle to avoid, and a question that involves and pushes the man toward the final goal of reasonable solution. The first position is created when things are moving by skimming the ground, when the reason swirls on to grasp the tail of the escaping data. The second position requires the soil safety, the optimistic conscience of touching with your feet on the ground and then the logos arms itself of its omnipotence that allows us to walk on tiptoe with the support of intelligence, all of us filled with compunction, certain of the desired goal.
Shimamoto thus makes an unusual gesture, performs a rash move that violate the canons of the reason good living to elbows his way between the rigid poles of things and send them to the air. The art preaches the need of blindness and that is why he orders the artist to walk blindfolded, to close his eyes to better see: what to see? Certainly not the contours of everyday objects but to slam against them; only then the artist feels their thickness becoming aware we do not live alone but between the holy strangeness of reality.
The Japanese artist has liberated us from the gravitational weight, has taught us that many other materials and far other magmas move under the apparent armistice that regulates the distance between solids and our gassed bodies. He drilled the shell and skin of phenomena, to overturn before our eyes the internal bowels, obscurely and endlessly fermenting without dignity.
In order to get at this we must first disarm; the artist must abandon any control and literally abandons himself to the black holes of unconscious. After Freud, art is no longer the drawbridge that leads to vertical purity but becomes the mole that digs deep to suck to the top of form flows and miasma exhaling from a place disqualified to reason and reasonable memory. The unconscious with its stratifications and oxidation, with its circular temporality, pushes with his emergency.
Shimamoto’s automatism becomes the categorical imperative of a new creativity open to impulse that rises like an attempt and affirm itself for its intensity and not for its clarity. The intensity becomes the truth authorizing the gesture of painting, which bandages the many eyes of reason and makes it stumble in the Dionysian field of pure desire. The movements are those of the Onirical space, theorized by Freud, those of displacement and condensation. The automatism of gesture is directly proportional to the automatism of psyche and to the involuntary and rash movement of deep. The matter of art is the unconscious with its energy, is the imagination flying in all directions, spread at all heights and lowliness.
The imagery is mental energy that not only touches the cortical level but gets through the whole artist’s body, as an electric field that generates chains of emotions and triggers impulses that without the experience of art, would crouch inside the groove of dark unknown. Shimamoto’s artistic creativity with its polychromatic burst on ancient or modern surface and objects becomes the harpoon that grabs the bright and night sliver inside the magma of unconscious. The shape brings to light the darkness, promotes the climb and clear statement of the detail that not even the artist can dominate without the warrantor gesture of art.
If modern science has raised the intelligent event, the celebration of the event due to the rupture of cause and effect rigid chain and contemporary art, from Mallarmé’s coup de dés up to Brian Gysin’s cut-up set into use by W. Burroughs, celebrates the form painful event in the West and, with Shimamoto and the Gutai’s group, the stereophonic event in the East.
The magical thought treated in Carlos Castaneda’s books distinguishes a double achievement of the universe; a tonal of pure recording of nature, a statistical confirmation of the visible, and a nagual, that proceeds from the irruption of the event, able to open to new forms of reality.
Shimamoto operates at a crossroad of a double tradition. One connected to historical avant-gardes in Marcel Duchamp’s strategic figure with his ready-made; the other resulting from the line of the group zero and Zen leads him towards the exploitation of the event. This is called through techniques coming from daily life and the use of tools not belonging to the technical-expressive apparatus of art history. Shimamoto endeavours the accuracy of the hunter and the pain of the prey.
Here the artist becomes the bearer of gun, of a view tuned on the distance of close and far, ready to frame an external detail that immediately becomes the target. Shimamoto uses the gun like prosthesis to shorten the space interval between his body and the surrounding reality. He uses canvas surfaces on which to explode little cylinders of colour, shots of bullet that pierce the flesh of the canvas and breaks it with unpredictable and chipped rents, wounds without the possibility of scar.
The Japanese artist has in fact defined these areas paining shoulder, matter pierced by the devastating blows of the gun that cruelly tears the smoothness of the material, chosen at random and turned into other one by itself.
Every pierced subject by the artist’s attention who hits it becomes painful, burns, drips and sprays out driving energy from its bodily space. It needs a pause, a formally defined target, capable to retain in the future memory the aggressive impetus of a need of expression, filled with eroticism and impulses of death. Because art is just that: a short circuit between Eros and Thanatos. Each foundation of life always needs a prior destruction, according to the classic Nietzscheans thought. The destruction is to clear up, to purify the matter and consequently be able to deal with it without waste and slopes.
Shimamoto, by means of the collage, began to cut with the sadistic and loving care of the surgeon the aching flesh because of the writing in newspapers, mortified by the codification of the sense and the logic-discursive consequentiality. With the cut, the literature has a start of pain and awakening; it loses the plastered protection of the meaning and opens itself to new opportunities.
The possibility really arises due to the irruption of the event travelling the planned surface of the written paper. As a geometric land-based sources motion, the scissors of the surgeon-writer set the words back in the condition of the mutilated fragment open to new understandings. The appearance of the significant communicates a sense not at peace but the mysterious beauty of the unpredictable and unutterable. The transfer of the literature to the figurative art has meant to Shimamoto the switching of his surgeon identity to that of a hunter. The creation is always a knock at the door, a request of permission access to the event that breaks in this way in the universe of forms.
If the collage allowed formalizing the unspeakable, the technique of “shotgun” founds the appearance of the invisible, what Klee called art. So Shimamoto applies, as a good shaman, Castaneda’s exorcising and magic strategy at the door of Duchamp. He knocks with the gun and the door opens toward the direction of a signifier that keeps its doors open to all sides.
Here it is the drippings, burns, anthropomorphic signals, circular forms, graffiti, glimpse of various depths, holes and craters that adorn the area hit by hand strokes that the artist produces. The art becomes the painful shoulder of the matter, the trace of a dynamic tending to transformation of visible, marked in this way by the man’s sensitive passage. Shimamoto’s universe is full of formal events: a launching of a coin, a brush, a cannon shot, the stain of a colour, the introduction of shapes of things, trees and people, presence of leaves, grills, masks and pieces of broken glass, photographic puzzles and finally words. Everything becomes image. And this is the effect of an ever played art on the transformation of the elements. A pure Japanese fury flows across the creative event.
The artist teaches the Samurai to a precision that bends the violence to other beneficial and lasting purposes. A conjugation of two different anthropologies, with the approach to a new one that contains within itself a concept capable of combining Western and Eastern Europe thought and the ruling creature with the marginal one.
The art shoulder is painful, because painful is the artist’s shoulder that uses the gun, reducing the range between art and life. Too sore because there is the awareness of form, the need to circumscribe the target that inevitably leads him to cut a detail out the articulated scene of things, according to that mode ascribed by the art history under the category of still life.
The artist feels like the hunter so that to produce survival must always go through the event of death. But the artist does not blindly shoot his eye on the world out of sheer hedonism; always brought to make balanced and calibrated massacres according to formal and extremely precise manners. The accuracy determines in the end the possibility of recognizing the true hunter, one that aims at a purpose.
He does not belong to the hedonism art of the pure massacre. Shimamoto starts with the settled hit and to consequently recognize the success of the hit. The matter is pierced and fouled for avoiding its inaction; the artist uses extra-art techniques to reawaken the numbed tissue of the art itself.
Shimamoto’s universe is not at all peaceful, based on forms always at war with each others; a fertile war that never ceases producing movements of the sense. Only in this way the art remains alive and the still life is accordingly fertile. The colours of these works are never lugubrious and mournful; works always played between painting and sculpture. Shimamoto’s works are in motion, focused on a short and formal pause and not on a complete definition, open to a dynamic that the public can carry on.
A wanted incompleteness enriches this operation; a strategic intensification of the matter sensitivity. The guru acrobat Shimamoto presents his work as the result of a slow progressive discipline that chases the world, the source of ecstasy and danger.
Ecstasy is the initial and final time of the creativity. It favours the attention to the world and produces, all together, the needs of the movement, the removal from pure recognition of things and the reversal of the modifying action.
The danger is the destiny of man, so would say René Char. In this case it means the need of performing violence to property for subverting the false peace that runs between them. Shimamoto is at war without enemies. The introduction to the event avoids facing such a meeting. If there is an enemy, this is the convention, the social code that daily assists the man’s survival to the prejudice of the intensity.
The excellent movement of the art, between surrealist hazard and zen vitalism, helps moving the shooting, burning every inertia and moves to a higher level of existence. Shimamoto expands the boundaries of action and perception by stabilizing the presence of the life event in the Western man, led to the action designed by according reason and usefulness.
The artist is not a conscientious objector who surrenders to the action, a beautiful soul enjoying a peaceful nature. In Shimamoto’s event, he also accepts the inevitability of violence and adapting it to expressive purposes, demonstrating through it how to break the stylistic shell of the world by opening to new feeling and perception. The artist is a hunter for social purposes and uses a deadly weapon to found the life again.
The imagery so releases energy, that the art charges itself to differently condense by opening a double way to the symbolic and material. It unfolds processes and strategies of the image, approaching complementary results because all undergoing the impulse to be spoken by the dislocated articulation of unreality; an unreality that does not live over artists, but stays far below their feet. It is not enough to lift eyes up, not enough to interrogate the sky, as the auspices of the past, but it is necessary to literally scratch under the skin to obtained the removed to the surface.
Scratching is what Shimamoto makes, so discovering for the art what the infantile game practices, a way to wipe the matter soul and lead it to the surface as shadow and subliminal image. The hand is not opposed to reality in attempt to imitate it but supports it by means of the gesture blessed obtuseness that has no direction for their movement, if not the hedonistic automatism one.
Shimamoto is constantly crossed by symbolic and material; cultural and organic energies often trigger the same works in an inseparable co penetration, because the source which he draws from is always the unconscious, where the non organic side of the symbol lives with the strength of elementary energy. Both components are the glue material for a nucleus in which every point is the centre, because it is impossible to exactly measure the extension but only the pulsing level and its continuous, unceasing growth.
The automatism works both as free and open association of data that reinforce each others through their symmetrical alienation, as encouragement for the randomness and spontaneous growth. The matter organises itself at the lowest level, the imaginary flies grazing to the organic matter taking the disguises of the same pictorial matter subject, until they identify each others. The picture becomes the action field of continuous metamorphosis, of a proliferation that is not just growth but also mobile dissemination and open dislocation. Here metaphor and metonymy tend to settle in an inextricable way, painting becomes the point at which the psychic substance falls into the matter of art, where imagination meets its formal approach.
The psychic automatism and the automatic techniques become the process and the method that liberate the unconscious leading it to the surface, respecting the paradox of an impossible unveiling.
The art is no longer a goal but a mean. The artist becomes a man of reconciliation, the one who puts internal and external in a relationship of continuity that tends to lift the real from its separateness state to introduce the direct possibility of deep irrupting on the form surface that nothing rejects and everything keeps.
Shimamoto has an almost colloquial relationship with the unconscious; he speaks with it in the second person with a security of a presence that does not permit denials. The art is really proof of this privileged relationship, the same of a person who has a jus primae noctis always waiting to be exercised and carried out. The search is performed by means of elementary techniques that reduce the subtle complexity of the traditional process, to directly give way to the incoming event and the unconstrained excess of internal drives. Shimamoto’s painting is defined as exuberant, is an affirmative gesture that restores the primacy of the ghost against the static evidence of things. The ghost insinuates in a thousand ways of language, in the germ or larval forms, or in the guise of a perturbing image.
The automatic techniques are the irreducible intermediaries, the sounding lines that dip in dark. The frottage and dripping are the materialization of this technical need, the zeroing in any complexity that favours the basic movements thus privileging the hand autonomy than the eye, the work independence than the artist’s watchful care.
In the fifties Shimamoto practices these techniques, opening operating possibilities for an art oriented over the painting through processes that are based “only on the intensification of irritability of spirit faculties”. The reduction of technical complexity moves the artist toward the role of “spectator” who assists at the birth of the work and refrains from any active and conscious participation, so that the work takes the hand of the artist.
In Shimamoto’s action-painting, in his erotic bursts of painting against painting itself, the ritual gesture is to exorcise the reality and trace the organic and dynamic origin of life; only the art gesture can attract in its whirl the despairing movement of the existing, so realising in short and separated times the totalitarian paradise and the cycles of his humanity. Outside of the moments of totality, the artist lives immersed into the daily dimension, without being able to overcome the separation between man and man and between man and things. But it is understood that the existence discontinuity belongs to the structural laws governing the world and that the event blindness composes and breaks every human action. The visible chaos of things faithfully reproduces the underground movement which runs the further movement of appearance on. It is needed that the artist accepts a permanently unbalanced life open to all streams of the possible. Only through this acceptance the gesture may tune on the universal movement and epiphanically takes lumps of actual and complex existence. The setback is not starting from a frustrated feeling, but from the awareness that only in the moment of artistic creativity sync is set up with the real world and the times of its moving.
The space of painting action is not only closed in the canvas, but also incorporates the fluid distance separating the canvas and the artist’s body which, through a permanent imbalance of his own motor apparatus, performs an effective link with the work; a symptomatic link not only for the achievement, but especially for the put in action procedure tending to propose as a strategy for the individual global vitality recovery and liberation.
So the bidimensional space encloses a potential extroversion which is the American artist’s attitude projection to escape from the inevitability of linguistic sphere, to try direct recovering of the existential data. And the recovery does not happen at the level of the metaphor, which is still a formal sublimation, but through a genuine antagonism with the daily space, raped by the gesture and literally taken.
The intensification of the gesture and the zeroing of the symbolic level are Shimamoto’s painting operative constants, prepared in this regard from his cultural anthropology. The vital acceleration obtained through the art brings the painting toward directions where cultural distillates of symbolic production are no longer possible. This does not mean a cultural backing, but an affirmation of an art that competes with life without confusing or losing in life itself, but at the same time recognising a moment of dazedness beside the existence horizontality.
It is for that in 1955 Shimamoto also realises three-dimensional works, like the six meters long footbridge imbalanced in the two sides and unstable for the public, in order to signify the precariousness of the daily and the indispensable concentration to live in it, and reported inside the gardens of the Biennale art in 1993.
The relationship between European and American arts finds thus an articulation and a conjunction that allow absolutely original results in terms of intensity and intent. In both cases, the art is practiced as a total representation, as the beginning of a progressive vertigo that finds in the creative process its verification moment and full power.
The art matter locates in the fury of this artists’ generation, even if in different contexts, the vital lymph which feed with. It finds in the re-creative action renewing the possibility of being able to resume the ascensional practice of a total gesture.
An intentional sensitivity characterizes them, the result of a collective poetry that wants to found again the life totality, prevented by the partiality of the daily experience. In particular Shimamoto takes the painting Samurai’s natural position, who practice martial arts in respect of the creative action; an incessant actions performance that brings vitality and discipline to the scene. The attempt is to enlarge as much as possible the gesture aesthetic space, to encompass earth and sky. So Shimamoto performed in Naples in 2006 an acrobatic gesture consisted in being raised by a crane up to 30 meters in the great piazza Dante,in order tobomb with bottles of colour the ten meters wide canvas to the ground. Besides, there were two pianos. One played by Charlemagne Palestine, the other one without playing and targeted by chromatic shots fired by the artist, stretched toward the public below like an exterminator angel.
Shimamoto is in the end a nomad samuraiof the art who manages to get at the target, assisted by the intelligent event of a creative process that desires to pierce the inertia of the world and give energy to the community of men.
On a cool evening in May 1957 the Sankei Center of Osaka held an unusual event. In the theater room a group of young artists had organized a strange show by compiling together a series of actions unrelated to each other and hardly associated with any of the classic forms of art. Those young artists were the Gutai group (in Japanese “concreteness”), which, under the guide and teachings of Jiro Yoshihara, was abruptly revolutionizing Japanese art, by thrusting it into the Modern. At the same time as Jackson Pollock’s action painting, which Yoshihara had seen in 1951, Gutai threw itself into visual and formal experimentation, which, by addressing the object-quality of artwork, its techniques, and the codification of its genres, concentrates in action, in the event, in the burning fleeting moment of the expressive dimension of art. When Allan Kaprow rebuilt historical memory – far and recent – of happenings (which had its debut as “new genre” in 1959), he included in full that which was being done by Gutai with its extreme experimentations.
Ever since its creation, Shozo Shimamoto was part of the group. Interested in regenerating artistic codes, Shimamoto, from the start, was directed toward radical and minimalist techniques of expression. In the 1940s he had produced the series of “holes”, sheets of paper on which he acted through chafing until the surface was lacerated and left exposed like an open wound. For “Gutai on the Scene”, instead, he realized a violently destructive action, by crushing a series of glass globes and pouring onto the scene a mountain of ping pong balls that suddenly appeared from the dark. A few years earlier, in 1955, he had exhibited a rickety plank – with the emblematic titled “Please Walk on Here” – on which visitors were invited to pass on. The artwork reached it completion upon being walked on, not as the object in itself.
Hence, ever since his debut, Shimamoto adopted a behavior of radical denial of artistic tradition. Yet, what was tradition for a young “angry” postwar Japanese artist? Hard to say. It certainly wasn’t the national one, in its academic form, but not even the western avant-garde, being so far away. Tradition, for Shimamoto, therefore ended up coinciding with the act of painting – in all times and all latitudes – conveyed by balance, representation, form. Conveyed – as he himself stated in a few brief words – by the paintbrush, emblematic image of a technique that aimed at enhancing form, composition and description instead of expression. In 1957 Shimamoto formulated this conviction in an article/manifesto. In his efforts to ban the paintbrush, which he believed had mortified the material and autonomously expressive qualities of color, bending it to extremes unknown to its nature, through the use of “traditional” techniques (all traditions ideally unified in the example of the Renaissance). “I believe – he wrote – that the first thing to do is free color from the paintbrush. If in the process of creating the paintbrush isn’t cast aside there is no hope of emancipating the tones”, which was what he intended to do by giving to color what is of color, that is, its being a material part of light.
Shimamoto’s unconventional act, the betrayal of techniques and conventions could have taken paths of total eccentricity in regards to painting, as we have seen in the cited examples, but most of all it became a hypothesis of a new strategy of the painting practice, that was translated into an alternate solution of work, without a paintbrush. In 1956, for the first time, Shimamoto created the act of casting bottles full of color onto a canvas. This is an act which he repeated infinitely throughout the years and still today characterizes his “painting”. With this act Shimamoto reacted to all possible forms of paint, to all constructed models of form. Throwing bottles of color and making them explode on the surface of a canvas laid on the ground, the “bottle crash”, determines an unforeseeable situation, an event of which one can direct, contemplate and plan its layout, but which, in the moment it is happening, find its complete freedom.
Other than Pollock’s teachings, which can certainly be sensed, the “bottle crash” technique also retains a memory which is more specific to its nation of origin, which Shimamoto himself manifests openly: zen calligraphy, and particularly, that one of a great master of the 19th century, Nantenbo. “the thing that surprised me the most when I went to see this master – he wrote – was that he used a very large paintbrush and with this he created much larger works than his contemporaries”. Nantenbo, thus, appeared to Shimamoto as very able in both keeping with the ritual tradition of zen writing and in being brave enough to “betray” it with his expressive force and exceptional brushstroke. In the characters of the master “we find smudges, fading, sprays, drippings and other effects that were not possible to express through the oil painting of the time”. The “bottle crash” has the same unconventional action toward pictorial code, it does not want to ridicule or belittle it, but, just as in Nantenbo’s case, regenerate it through chance and spontaneity.
The casting of bottles is what makes Shimamoto most easily recognizable. Technique and sign of style, through this method passes not only his painterly vocation to color, but also his own evolution as an artist. The first "throws", in the 1950s, were energetically impulsive, charged with the anger of a generation (as were the young Japanese of the second postwar) devoid of points of reference and permanently wounded in its memory and identity. Shimamoto was interested in the chance, the possibility that color could act directly on the canvas without filters, that he himself would contribute to the creation of the work with his whole body, but there certainly was an element of vehemence and nervousness in the young "thrower" that we see at work in photos of the time. A certain tragic nature, terribly irreparable.
Although remaining fundamentally the same, as far as technique the "bottle crash" has changed profoundly over the years, enriched by philosophical implications and matured in artistic production. It's as if Shimamoto has progressively developed a larger yet more subtle awareness of what the free action of color can produce on the existential level, if not on a philosophical one. The explosion of colored matter becomes, in his hands, a privileged vehicle of the deep energy that ties human beings with the Cosmo. It at once embraces and witnesses. A strong gesture, even violent for some, and at the same time a leap of happiness, exuberant and vital. A metaphor of life itself, of its being born as something explosively rich in a world that discolors and burns out in the gloomy negation of itself. The monument to peace of Hyogo is emblematic. Every year Shimamoto regenerates with color a cement platform on condition that Japan, during that year, hasn’t been involved in any way in war. Throwing color is to sanction peace; the great performance held in Naples in 2006 had a title that declared its intent: A weapon for peace. This action allows us to move on to the second aspect of the transformations given by the "bottle crash". That which was born as an unconventional technique of producing paintings, has become, effectively, an autonomous spectacular moment, if not a theatrical event in its own right, enriched both by the context and by the chosen method of casting the bottles. This isn't an impulsive gesture anymore, but it is organized as a ritual and celebratory act, milder in certain aspects but always intense for the expressive nature of the act. To widen its range, Shimamoto (as is the case in the Neapolitan event) often carries out the performance while hanging from a high crane, in order to have below him a huge canvas to paint, but more importantly, the horizon of the world. The action of the "bottle crash", then, can be combined with the presence of other performers or of objects, on which color is impressed, thrown more delicately with light paper cups that glide over bodies, canvas and objects determining a certain choreography of colors. Which is connected, equally as often, to a musical moment called upon to participate in the action.
It is so that a spectacular autonomous and self-sufficient event is determined, in respect to the original painterly aspect which is, however, not lost: not in the result - because from that action paintings will be produced - but not even in its intention, in the sense that it is more correct to speak of a spectacular exaltation of the act of painting rather than regarding the works as an involuntary residual trace of a performance. Watching Shimamoto during one of these events is, literally, watching a painter at work, fully projected towards combining chance and intention, accident and form. At the same time, being present at one of his last events -many of which have been held in Italy, in Venice in 2007, in Capri and Punta Campanella in 2008, other than the one in Piazza Dante in Naples cited above - means being immersed, to use and expression by Achille Ricciardi present in the beginning of Novecento and referable also to Kandinskij's spectacular projects, in a modern "theater of color", where painterly material becomes actress of the event in first person.
Scene and paint thus become - as they were already in many ways in that far 1957 - signs, methods of work, techniques too, that dialogue with each other positioning the work of the painter in equilibrium on the fine line between process and product, there where what counts is the act as a physical but also moral action, body but also sign, performance but also form. Theater, finally, but also and always painting.
"Listen, there's a wood louse that really walks a lot, it's taking a walk, and if it takes that road and carries on to the end, it'll reach the sea." This is the title of a child's picture that was displayed at the Ashiya Dobiten exhibition.
Ashiya Dobiten is a children's art exhibition that first ran in 1949 in the city of Ashiya. At that time, those of us who were members of the Gutai Group and worked as teachers of young children showed their work in these exhibitions. However, even if in theory we were the teachers, in reality, they taught us a lot of things, and continually influenced our work.
Experimenting with the children so they could take part in the Dobiten, we really experienced the true spirit of the avant-garde. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the artistic experiments of the Gutai group in the post-war years were largely due to the experience we had with the Dobiten children.
Dobiten is still running and, as always, promotes unfettered painting with all kinds of works, and incredible titles such as "Listen, there's a wood louse..." But not all the titles are so long.
One year I was really struck by a picture a child had done consisting of a big black circle with a lot of red spots inside, and the title was: "The potato's got worms, and it says it tickles." I was touched, and I liked it so much that I use it as my personal motto or proverb.
I talk about it whenever I can. When students come for their first day at university I always start the lecture telling them that potatoes are ticklish. "When you are at home and you go to the kitchen to cook potatoes, you pick them up, but you realise they have worms wriggling about in them. How do you react? Do you immediately think you've been unlucky? Digital people who analyse every possible situation to evaluate whether they gain or lose out have no right to become artists. Rather than going after technical perfection, it is important to have a poet's heart able to think how ticklish a poor potato can be!"
One of my teachings is to give up art if you are only interested in your bank statement. By the way, I'd like to point out that children are quite reluctant to say what the titles of their pictures are. In fact, children get fed up with the continuous corrections by their teachers and their parents who say the title's too long, or it has nothing to do with the picture, etc., etc.
But this oppressive adult behaviour is absolutely unforgivable. Just because adults are convinced of their superior knowledge and greater experience, they assume the right to trample their way wearing their clod-hopping shoes into the dream world of children. However, far from having all this experience, adults should realise that they have long forgotten the artistic sensitivity of the "ticklish potato". And this is where Master Sone comes back into the picture.
Even now, at over 80 years of age, Master Sone still dedicates his life to nursery school children, even though he has to travel a long way every time. When he asks the children what they are painting, they, who see him as an ordinary adult, answer "I'm not telling you", and they stare at him as if to say "Come on, you should be able to see what it is yourself without having to ask me the title, shouldn't you?" So Sone tries again: "Er, but I am a poor old man who didn't go to nursery school, and it's difficult for me to understand..." "What? You didn't go to nursery school? Ah!, well, if you're not very clever, I'll have to tell you", and that's how children usually start talking about their pictures.
That's why the nursery school teachers rely on Sone's method to get the titles out of the children, and even if a child's answer is strange or seems contradictory, in an attempt to admit that they, the adults have lost this extraordinary sensitivity, they don't make objections or corrections. Once when I was an adjudicator at a Dobiten, there was a big sheet of drawing paper with just one blue mark. I wondered what the title might be, and at the bottom it said: "(For me) it's enough'."
If a child says that's enough, it means that that's sufficient. There's no point in insisting that he do more. Another work that caught my attention was a box of sweets displayed without any additional decoration, not even a bit of colour. The title was: "This is Miyo's" [the name of the child]
The nursery school teacher had given it to her telling her to use it as a starting point for her work, but Miyo immediately liked the box as it was, and wanted to take it home with her after the show. In this case, the teacher was right to let her show the box at the exhibition.
In 1987, I went to America and Canada with my shaved head, and then in 1990 I travelled around Europe, from London to Leningrad. In 1993 I went to Italy and Finland. As I travelled, I was welcomed by many mail art artists who wrote their messages on my head, or projected slides or even films on it. In fact everyone was ready to welcome me with their ideas.
In 1988, a student of mine brought me a copy of a magazine that he had found in the pocket of a seat on his JAL flight from Tokyo to Paris. It was a kind of guide to Japan, illustrating the beauty of Buddhist temples, giving information about typical dishes and so on in English. But among the other things, on the cinema pages, one of the curiosities listed was the chance to see a film projected on my head, and there was even a hand-drawn illustration. Unbeknown to me, my shaved head was flying around the world.
In 1987, I sent the mail art artists a sheet of paper with a rear-view outline of my head and a message inviting them to do a piece of work on it. I had around 500 answers. The fact that the responses were so numerous is due to the network system used in mail art, where it is quite common for the artists to copy and reinterpret the original content, print it again, and then send it on to other artists and so on. [...] One day, a very particular piece of mail art arrived.
It came from France, and the author was Pascal Renoir, even if the original was by the Dutch artist Cor Reyn who had photocopied my head and included a message inviting others to add something of their own. Well, Renoir had added photocopies of ten more reduced outlines of my head together with the invitation to add something, and he sent it to me too. I couldn't help laughing when I saw it. The piece of mail art I had sent had multiplied, the number of heads increased, and after various wanderings it had come right back here to me with a note saying "Why don't you take part too?"
There are no property rights in mail art. In fact the spirit is exactly the opposite, as everyone is supposed to invite others to use the content freely. In this way, it is possible that without my knowledge one of my works can be altered, enriched with new ideas, and come back to my address. The American Cracker Jack Kid even sends 3D models of my head.
At the time of the publication of the first Gutai bulletin, the then members, including Masatoshi MASANOBU, Tsuruko YAMAZAKI, Yasuo SUMI, Toshio YOSHIDA, Chiyu UEMAE and Michio YOSHIHARA worked with great enthusiasm. So the majority of their works were very conceptual and were a fundamental springboard for the future Gutai movement. Yoshihara, in the period that may be considered the dawn of Gutai, looked at our work, and spoke to us of the inner conflicts typifying the production of works of art, and also about possible future plans.
Master Yoshihara, owner and director of the eponymous oil company, was known for his very strict management approach and the excellent results of his business. He was also a very strict leader with us young members of Gutai. When foreign artists arrived, we were strongly reproached whenever we made mistakes speaking English or if we used words inappropriate to the situation. So we became very passive with visitors and this too angered our master.
Without adding further examples, let's say that the master was so strict that numerous members left the group. Among these were artists like Hideo YOSHIHARA and Yutaka FUNAI, who would later be recognised throughout the Japanese art world. They probably had a very different way of thinking, but also artists at the centre of the group, such as Toichiro FUJIKAWA, Tamiko UEDA, Sadami AZUMA, Hajime Okamoto and Kei ISETANI also left. At this point, the master felt discouraged and I suggested he try inviting a number of artists from the ZERO group to join Gutai, as at that time they too were also trying to find new forms of art. But personally I was worried because if master Yoshihara continued being so strict, even if new members joined, they too would soon leave. I broached the subject with Yoshihara and then the key word came to him: hattari, exaggerate.
The master, when he invited us to exaggerate, used a Kansai dialect expression, which certainly didn't sound very elegant, but on the lips of such a strict leader, on the one hand, it took on an inimitable ironic shade, and on the other transmitted great courage. I think it could well be reinterpreted as "When you commit yourself fully to an artistic act, go beyond the idea and go beyond its execution."
This memorable expression was an extremely effective encouragement especially for those who had just joined the group. On the basis of this new guideline, as soon as they joined the group, Saburo MURAKAMI, Kazuo SHIRAGA, Atsuko TANAKA, Akira KANAYAMA and others who only did smaller pieces began to try out large works full of vigour. Not only this, but there was real improvement for the Gutai Open Air and Gutai on the Stage exhibitions.
On the other hand, the members who had been there from the start never managed to free themselves completely from the influence of the master's severity, and consequently the development of their works remained somewhat limited.
There has been a recent growth in interest in Gutai, but not many people are familiar with the early days, a period when work was produced under the eye of a stern teacher, and was conceptually rich, a period when the master himself worked with us to print the first Gutai bulletin. That era was a springboard for the members from Sadamasa Motonaga onwards, and for the whole Gutai movement. The more I think about it, the more I realise how much the word "exaggerate" has played a crucial role.
When I invite someone to take part in mail art, they often answer, but what kind of work can I send in? So I reply anything you'd like other people to see is fine. Yet, on seeing that no-one does anything, when I ask why, the answer is always I'm embarrassed because I'm no good. At this point, I explain that mail art is not a stage for showing off technical ability, so it doesn't matter if you are good or not.
At first I ingenuously thought that saying this would be enough, but in reality everyone hesitated and no-one produced anything, so I soon realised my terrible mistake. In saying "it doesn't matter if you're good or not" it sounds as though I'm really saying something like "...but obviously it's better if you're good". A huge mistake. So from then on, I started giving a different answer: "You mustn't be good! You have to paint badly!"
Thanks to this answer, more people started taking part in mail art and working spontaneously. Setting the condition that people paint badly is essential if they are to feel at ease, and this is the most important thing in painting, because it brings us back to its point of origin, which is the joy of painting, and not a test of technique.
But what does not being good, or painting badly mean? To answer this question in practical terms, I asked a number of people on various occasions to work with this in mind, and at the beginning, almost all the paintings they did were confusing and lacking in order. Nevertheless, on asking them again and again to produce more, I saw a new style begin to emerge.
The highly self-contradictory act of painting badly produced a kind of picture that was completely different from the usual. And this is not limited to the world of mail art, because by continuing to paint badly, it is really possible to create an ugly, personal, and unique style. This is how the most interesting new art comes into being, and it is here that creation begins.
From another point of view, if we consider the Japanese hand game janken, anyone putting his hand out with a moment's delay can easily win. When I spoke with the singer Tomoya Takaishi at an event for the disabled , Takaishi played a very strange version of the game with the audience. He began by inviting them to play with him, and when, for example, Takaishi called "stone" and then "paper", the spectators easily won by answering "paper" and "scissors" respectively with a moment's delay. But this was obvious.So Takaishi said: "From now onwards, try to lose on purpose." In other words, if Takaishi called "stone" and then "paper", the spectators had to answer "scissors" and "stone".
And interestingly this was the result: even answering with a second's delay it wasn't easy to lose. Even after several goes, 20-30% of the spectators still tended to make a mistake. For Takaishi, the simple explanation was that the Japanese are used to winning, and only understand the need to do things well.
He had taken part in the Honolulu marathon for 16 years, and that day he spoke of the joy of running to the best of his ability, irrespectively of the result. He also told the story of a marathon runner who had lost both his legs during the Vietnam War, and who took part in the 1988 New York marathon using only his arms. It took him five days to finish.
The world of mail art is much the same, with the same spirit applied to art. There are no winners. People meet within the network, exhibiting their artwork and exchanging opinions. [...] Sadly, however, both Takaishi's speech on the marathon and what I have said about mail art are difficult to understand. [...]
People usually think that colors and paintbrushes are necessary to paint. Till now a form of painting deprived of these two elements has never existed. In fact paintings, paintbrushes and colors have been always considered tightly linked one to the other. In spite of that, their relationship is not so pacific and quiet.
Upon thinking, dyeing substances have usually been subordinated to paintbrush existence. And then the dyes course is no more than the story of a long challenge between them and the paintbrush itself. This story of paintbrushes and colors begins at the same starting point. While paintbrushes and dyeing substances begin to be used, tones are not considered by artists as virtually necessary. Upon using only colors and tones the pictorial aim could be reached. It can be mentioned a comparison with Geometry: a line has not an own thickness but when you are going to draw it on a sheet it takes one; a geometric point has not dimensions but when drawn it assumes them. Similarly, colors without matter do not exist. And, for this reason, dyeing substances has been adopted and used, accepting the mediation created by matters expressing colors, in order to give birth to painting. The tragic story of colors had begun.
After undertaking a way to understand and use dyeing substances, several technical changes have occurred. And in these events, Poussin and Leonardo are the ones less interested in color as a substance, and they have almost defeated its materiality.
When I began using dyeing substances I knew nothing on paintbrushes employed during Renaissance, but I have always been sure that everywhere in the world paintbrush and other stuff were and are still needed uniquely to express color, depriving dyeing substances of their power and becoming their slave in order to create colors for which the dyeing substances are no more that a tool. And Japan offers the best examples of this kind of use. Otherwise, as a line without thickness does not exist, a color without its matter does not become concrete. In every situation and place, dyeing substances offer resistance to paintbrush. And whoever the painting author is, such as Rembrandt, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Utrillo or somebody else, it will be always clear through which technique the picture was undergone.
Even if artist does his best to lavish his spiritual genius through the paintbrush, trying to refuse any color materiality, in every canvas the dyeing substance giving color to the picture will be easily recognized. And a paintbrush cannot do anything to offer resistance to that kind of hostility. On the contrary, cracks and erosions, or any other kind of unexpected color transformation, make us discover dyeing substances inner beauty.
Romantic artistic production or the Surrealist one (Dalì is the Master surrealist) show how a powerful and active paintbrush can be used to capture dyeing material and subject it to the author’s narrative intent. Utrillo and Vlaminck are symbols in the path towards dyeing materials refuse. Their touch painted through a slice was intended to move apart dyeing material reality almost beseeching it. However they were able to completely get rid of it. Manet and Van Gogh had only diverted attention from a visual repetition of natural objects taken as models, towards a subjective representation of images as the author perceives them. But, although their results were magnificent, their relationship with coloring substances had not changed with respect to the past experiences already mentioned.
And for these artists dyeing materials remain an expressive mean too. Utrillo, for example, although using a slice rather than a paintbrush, continues to use a tool to show on canvas his expressivity. His particular way of mixing, in an expressive image, the inner beauty coming from dyeing materials quality, is the unique characteristic that makes him different from Poussin. Till now everybody has failed any attempt to get rid of color materiality through the use of paintbrushes and has been forced to give way to the mentioned compromise.
Today, on the other hand, we don’t want to use dyeing materials quality (not oils nor enamels) by distorting them. I just said it: a color without matter does not exist. Then, in realizing a picture to represent a natural image or an idea, what is relevant is to preserve the matter beauty which can survive also under strong paintbrushes attack. I think the first thing to do is to free color from paintbrush. If upon creating something you do not throw away the paintbrush there is no way to bring dyes to existence. To begin, you can use whatsoever kind of tool: instead of paintbrushes you can use your bare hands or a painting slice. Then you can continue using objects, used also by Gutai members such as watering cans, umbrellas, vibrators, abaci, skates, toys, foots, weapons, and others. And in Gutai performances it is also possible that a paintbrush will appear again. In fact, in our innovative representations something can also come from past. But paintbrushes must be used, now, not to kill dyeing matters quality but to make them more vivid.
When I say that art is astonishment, people react with surprise. We tend to think of art as something aesthetically beautiful, the fruit of delicate labour, but I would say that this is truer of craftwork. On the other hand, art, or the artistic gesture, consists in astounding the public. Obviously, "astounding" does not mean surprising by sudden and brash gestures.
We are said to be living in the information age. A huge amount of information is frenetically exchanged, and people delude themselves into thinking that obtaining just one more piece of information will give them greater success at work. Having said that, when we concentrate on the information we have before our eyes, it is clear that it is not possible to see what lies beyond. Just like in photography, if we focus on an object in the foreground, the background will be out of focus.
In the same way that today's environmental problems are the price we pay for past short-sightedness which failed to look to the future, even now we risk losing sight of the terrible crisis just round the corner. A work of art, however, is a castle in the air. Those who do a normal profession have to be careful where they put their feet to avoid tripping up. They have no choice but to proceed with caution and concentration.
But in the world of art, with its castles in the air, we have to set the focus to infinity and dream of the most distant future possible. The artist's job is to express what he has taken in, without caring about human reality and the way mankind lives. At present, I ask people to do drawings on my shaved head or to project films on me, but the idea is not merely to do something strange. A work of art is free expression in itself. And so, while I gaze at the sky and my imagination begins to work, ideas come to me spontaneously and naturally.
In the same way, painting a picture is a castle in the air too, and there is absolutely no need for any link with reality. The act of painting is to suggest free expression. This is the true work of an artist.
Avant-garde art is not just new art. Many new forms of art which capture the public interest appear in the art world, but they should be called "attempts at original art", while avant-garde art is completely different. When I talk to my friends, they sometimes put forward bizarre ideas ending with an expectant "Interesting, isn't it?" And I get very embarrassed because lots of people tell me their ideas, convinced that if they think of something eccentric, Shimamoto will be bound to like it. But just because the idea is original and new it doesn't mean it's avant-garde.
Living in one's own social context and following its development, an individual learns to adapt and become part of it, even if each one reacts to information about society in his or her own way. Some people approach it logically and others instinctively. In this way, each person finds his own answer so he can live in his social environment irrespective of his level of awareness of how he reacts to the context. Having said that, the problem is the nature of the way society develops. The sociologist Durkheim calls it social cohesion through coercion. However, this social pressure is felt very differently by each person. Just as there are people who make decisions quickly, only taking into consideration what is immediately apparent, there are others who act after considering long term future possibilities.
Avant-garde artists only feel the slightest social pressure: they are not very sensitive to their context and we might even say that only a small minority has any common sense. They are people with their own innate way of thinking, addressed to a remote future beyond immediate reality, expressing their ideas through their art.
If we think about events like the Second World War, or economic development with its ensuing environmental problems, they are considered unbelievable and questionable years later, but history shows that at the time, people thought they were a normal and obvious response. Avant-garde artists, however, express themselves independently of social development and perhaps do pictures of flowers even while a war is raging. This is avant-garde.
I always say that a picture is a castle in the air, and a painter who abandons himself to his imagination does not feel particularly subject to social pressure. In other words, he represents the basic aspects of the human being, after filtering them through a wide-angle view of life and without the limiting controlling factor of common sense. This is avant-garde art.
Many animals, especially catfish, become agitated before a great earthquake happens, while their behaviour is simply incomprehensible to human beings. It's the same thing. Avant-garde artists are often thought to be incomprehensible by ordinary people, and their actions are considered eccentricities simply meant to capture the attention of the public and amaze them.
However, if we try to analyse the history of art, it is clear that the avant-garde has always revolutionised art and sounded an alarm about the way people live, even though it was considered bizarre at the time.
In Japan, when the works of historical world-level artists are discussed, inevitably it is the beauty and the quality of the technique which are praised. This is because the Japanese are an ignorant people who don't even tend their own gardens, and they don't care in the least that these works were created in the spirit of the avant-garde.
When critics talk about Millet, for example, they always emphasise the beauty of his pictures, but he doesn't strike me as a particularly good painter at all. At that time, there were plenty more much better from the technical point of view. But if we consider that Millet himself, influenced by the Rococo, had painted beautiful princesses with their splendid dresses, and then changed direction completely, portraying the beauty of country scenes and couples in poor clothes, it is his avant-garde approach that they should appreciate him for.
The same can be said of Chardin. In an era when one would have expected paintings of magnificent flowers in ornate vases or luxurious interiors, Chardin painted old pans in the kitchen, with potatoes and vegetables poking out. Also of great significance was his pioneering spirit, placing still life at centre stage at a time when it was normally only a secondary subject.
Avant-garde art thus revolutionises the point of view of beauty and at the same time suggests a new way of existing.
In the beginning was Gutai
When, at the end of the 1940, Shozo Shimamoto starts his painting activity, Japan's environment and situation are really unstable and thorny, not only historically and politically speaking, but also from the artistic and cultural points of view.
The WWII defeat and the atomic bomb profoundly touch the country even if they also mean the end of its closure. The War represents a disaster from which it seems impossible to escape and, on the other hand, the necessity of a crucial change in a conservative and traditionally close society.
Also on an artistic base, Japan is showing a willingness to innovate and change. In 1949, for example, the creation of the Association for Independent Artists (Demokurato Bijutsuku Kyokai) and the exhibition organized by the “Yomiuri Shimbun” are significative clues of a particular trend for changes in the Japanese art world.
Another important point to stress is that not only the figurative arts are changing in this period, but also theatre and dance, with the foundation of the Butoh by Kazuo Ohno are symbols of this transformation.
This profound change is also due to a particular contact with the new European artistic movements.
The comparison with European Modernism and its overcoming represent the beginning of a change even if, also in past periods, European and Japanese Arts have already met.
Jiyu Bijutsuku Kyokai and Bijutsu Bunka Kyokai (Association for free artists and Association for Art and Culture) foundations are symbols of new tastes and feelings. But for the first time, in the WWII post period, Japanese artists try to build an own identity distant from the European one.
Gutai group is the first clear sign of the switch to a new art movement.
In 1956 Jiro Yoshihara, founder of the Gutai movement, writes in Gutai Art Manifesto: “Past art appears as a deceit covered with an appearance of meaning”
This document, enriched with autonomy and independence, confirms what is happening to the Country and its art, and it contains declarations similar to other European art projects like the Dada one. The Dada itself, for its radical expressions, becomes a reference point for those Japanese artists.
Yoshihara continues the Manifesto explaining the difference among Gutai, a far past represented by Renaissance and a nearer past represented by Pointillism and Fauvism. Yoshihara's remind to Renaissance results anachronistic: this thought seems to belong to past European artists. Actually, Gutai Group realizes his behaviour binding itself to the first twentieth century European model. Shimamoto confirms this: in one of his most relevant text, in fact, he speaks about his relationship with colours, defining it different from Leonardo, Poussin, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Utrillo, and Dalì's ones.
The new Japanese avant-garde wants to depart from classic Occidental roots. Taking into accounts all Gutai influences is really important in order to deeply understand two kinds of facts: the Japanese artistic movement, developed in the 1950s, creates a new form of art, breaking all ties with past experiences; from 1950s contemporary Art goes international: while Far East area is focusing on Japan, the same happens, in the West, for the United States.
Art internationalization is not a mutual exchange between different cultures and identities, but creates the path for cultural and language uniformity, enriched, time by time, with local and national tastes without loosing its pure origins.
As relevant examples of the mentioned phenomena, it is possible to quote Gutai movement birth in Japan and the United States turn into the starting point of artistic research (see Action Painting, Pop Art, happenings).
For the first time aesthetic reform, brought by historic avant-garde, overcome their traditional boundaries, to reach new and farther geographical areas, like the United States and Japan.
But, in the first case, the environment in which arts is going to develop is really similar to the starting one, Europe, while in Japan the situation is very different. Here, the whole process is complex and multifaceted and lays the foundation for the growth of new and innovative forms of art, as Shimamoto's one.
Shimamoto's meeting with Yoshihara is an important landmark in his education path. Yoshihara is a unique and skilful teacher, influenced by Zen philosophy: he doesn't want to teach in a traditional manner nor to suggest a clear guide or style to his pupils, but to create an occasion for them to free their creativity.
Yoshihara is Tsuguharu Fujita's disciple: thanks to this educative experience, he meets several European avant-gardes and approaches with great interest both to Western and Eastern reforming artistic movements. In 1951 he is really fascinated by Jackson Pollock's artworks during the “International Art Exhibition” and he, himself an innovator inside the Bokujin-kai calligraphic movement, can understand the great innovation brought by the American artist.
As Yoshihara's education is rich in several interests, he becomes a main character in the post WWII Japanese artistic environment. His contribution, through the creation of Gutai movement, is fundamental in order to create a bridge between two really distant cultures as Western and Eastern ones are.
Gutai Group is founded in 1954 and is composed by innovative artists belonging to Group Zero and Genbi (Discussion group for contemporary Art). These Groups are totally different in their origins and courses: Group Zero refuses every kind of technique and painting form, while Genbi artists try to break the traditional painting bidimensionality.
Yoshihara's favourite motto is to better Mondrian, even if he is the artist that has influenced him the most. Gutai is the mean used by Yoshihara to do it.
But Gutai has not an inner uniformity: in fact, it has not an own style and poetic, but is made up of several and inhomogeneous identities. Yoshihara purpose is to combine two tendencies: the traditional artistic code breaking by the creation of a new and different painting key.
Straight after its foundation, Gutai group begins to follow those two principle guidelines, maintaining both of them in an open and complex dialectic in which they preserve an own identity. Actually it is impossible to interpret Gutai movement as a unique and smooth one.
Instead, it is better to acknowledge how much the Gutai experience is a multifaceted and polyphonic one. It is, at the same time, a lot of different things: sometimes forerunner of International Art future developments, sometimes a debtor towards them.
In 1972, immediately after Yoshihara's death, Gutai artists decide to break up the collective work, because of the loss of the movement leader and soul, and to continue their careers individually.
But Shimamoto, which is in perfect line with Gutai and its principles from the really beginning, has never really stopped to be a Gutai artist.
The same Gutai name has been suggested by Shimamoto himself. Yoshihara has hailed it since it was completely matching with his ideas about the group philosophy. In fact, Gutai in Japanese means concreteness, a term expressively representative of the distance to the abstract dimension they were looking for.
So, Group's name itself introduces us to Gutai poetical field.
The problem that Yoshihara and his crew are approaching is not to substitute to the abstract formal solution a different, but still formal, result. What they really want to do is to conceptually recast their way of making art. For Gutai artists, being concrete means aiming to the art's most inner unit, to its physical and immanent nature. It also means to link tightly the aesthetic practice and the formal outcome with the relationship existing among artist, matter and artwork.
Gutai members are especially interested in the building process of their works, and this approach, although characterizes the Group during all its life, is particularly intense in the first years of activity.
In 1958 the Group faced three crucial events: a natural evolution of its own artistic language, the willing to go international through several exhibitions and Michel Tapié's first meeting. The French critic introduces those Japanese artists to the Occidental art circuit. But, including them into the Informal Movement, as he has done, is partially wrong.
The set of these events bring Gutai members to focus more on painting, still striking the importance assigned to the birthing process rather than the final result.
Historically, before any kinds of exhibition or formal Manifesto (written by Yoshihara in 1956), the first group public action is the Gutai magazine first number issuing. This periodical, issued till 1965, is written in Japanese with some English inserts and well represents the innovative Gutai message.
A reader, flipping through first magazines, discovers a lot of information and characteristics on the Group: it is made up of young Japanese artists willing to reform the traditional notion of art, it is composed of different tastes and characters without following a clear guide line and it is more important than the single identities forming it. In fact Gutai is not just a reference word; it is the name of an identity.
Yoshihara writes: “We wish to concretely prove that our souls are free. We are always looking for new propulsions in every existing plastic form”.
Gutai is like a message in a bottle addressed to the entire world, suggesting: in Japan, far away from everything and everyone, a Group of artists want to begin from scratch, destroying and reforming old traditions and Arts both in Japan and Europe.
Gutai has to fly around and, as pointed out years later by Shimamoto himself, is a sort of Mail Art first experience. It has to reach the remote avant-garde house from inside.
Michel Tapié's travel to Japan followed the discovery of a Gutai magazine in Pollock's studio, after the artist's death.
Gutai starting plan is to create a real experimental tribe. Yoshihara's most important teachings to his disciples are: “Never imitate” and “Create what has never existed before”.
Create from scratch, means to abandon the traditional art path to find radically new formal and linguistic solutions. The first collective exhibitions are clear signs of this reform: in July 1955, in the Ashiya city park, it takes place the “1st Gutai open-air exhibition: challenge midsummer sun” and, next year, the “2nd Gutai open-air exhibition”. They are two innovative and unique events, composed not just by a set of existing artworks arranged together in a city park, but made up of a series of creative interventions on a physic place.
Those actions resemble a sort of happening, Land Art, Environmental Art, without forgetting the ideas generated by most famous Dadaist and Surrealist exhibitions.
During those events Shimamoto realized two relevant works: in 1955, he created a pierced metal plate, and in 1956, a small path, composed by some subsequent unbalanced steps, titled “Please, walk on here”. This is an explicit invitation to involve the public.
In both artworks the author wants to start a dialogue, in the first case with surrounding environment, in the second, with the spectators. The plate means an intervention on physical space, for two reasons: the first one is its visibility, the second is because holes represent a perceptual passage, a spatial filter for view, a unique doorstep. From now on, holes become a crucial technique in Shimamoto's artistic course.
“Please, walk on here” invites spectators to use the artwork by walking on it, in a new, provocative way and it realizes itself just when used. From then on, the unbalanced steps create a perceptual tactile exchange with the walker, which feels his balance questioned.
All works presented during the two exhibitions are realized with the same tastes and feelings rather than Shozo Shimamoto's ones. For example in 1956, Sadamasa Motonaga has hung out, on several trees, polyurethane sheets filled with colours. Sun rays, grazing those colours, transform them into real light sources.
Michio Yoshihara (Jiro's son) has dug a hole in which he has put a lightening plastic cube.
Saburo Murakami has created “Sky”, which consists of a vertically orientated tube, inviting people to watch through it to see the sky. (The artwork's title has the same tautological function than Shimamoto's walk board one).
The two Ashiya Park’s exhibitions are a kind of collective exercise and discussion on environmental interventions. The entire plan is organized at a group level, and then single artists develop their own works individually, following the same leitmotiv.
Art becomes a direct experience, while artworks become signs connecting artist's actions with places and peoples. The art experience fulcrum is, now, both the action and the event: the relevance of works external appearance results weakened. This attitude towards the creative process resembles Pollock experience. The characteristics that Yoshihara appreciates about American abstract expressionist works are the pictorial and emotional quality, but also the process of gesture and the creative dynamics (innovative and peculiar).
Those Japanese artists move along the course that Pollock has started, transforming and developing its pillars. Gutai movement first years (till 1958), are characterized by a series of events that emphasizes, on the one hand, the performing act new autonomy and, on the other, the unusual relationship established between artist's gestures and his final result. Gutai stage Exhibition, performed twice, witnesses the Group first research directions. Those two spectacular and theatrical events are realized on the Sankei Centre stage, in 1957, and on the Asahi Centre stage, in 1958, both in Osaka. In both cases artists realizes, through their actions, a theatrical atmosphere creatively impacting on space, time, action and on the artist-public relationship. They are not interested, as Action Painting artists are, in developing a forging atmosphere aimed to mould a final work, but in realizing events exhausting in themselves, during the same creative act.
Yoshihara presents the first exhibition saying: “We would like, for a while, to escape the traditional Fine Art Concept to meet the peculiar artistic place represented by theatre. Acting on a stage means combining together sounds, lights, timing.” In 1966 Allan Kaprow, trying to regulate happening phenomena, in his Assemblage, Environments & Happenings, cleverly notices that Gutai spectacular events must be considered as his woks forerunners.
These artistic products have several common features: they combines space and time taking up a place with an action and making objects and actors real main characters on the stage. Moreover, in this way, they refuse the idea that an artwork is primarily an aesthetic product and create a radically new concept of theatrical art, following Cage's rules, then focussing on a direct animation of space and time, more than on the traditional narrative and representative dimensions of theatre itself.
The line connecting actions and work realization is the most diffused among Gutai artists. They experiment several kinds of performances, without forgetting the importance of painting, which anyway remains on a second level in their spectacular representations. Action now counts more than everything else.
This dimension is undoubtedly the one more in line with Pollock's influences and more emphasised by the French critic Tapié. During his staying in Japan, with Georges Mathieu, he has compared Gutai movement expressive processes with Informal ones, and included the group in that sort of tendency that, in his opinion, has been the contemporary art raise after the WWII.
The relationship between Gutai group and Michel Tapié is a complex, problematic and controversial one; several critics have commented on it, but it is possible to reflect on that relationship further. Actually the critic filter used by Tapié, favouring the group knowledge and understanding, also in the Occidental world, and helping Gutai to go international, has led to a wrong inclusion into the Informal Abstract Expressionism.
Without going further on this argument, it is still necessary to stress that we are not interested in evaluate if Gutai is or not a pictorial movement, or if the Group, without using a painting technique, can be drawn or not close to the Informal.
Moreover, we are not interested in discovering if Gutai artists have been influenced by Pollock, or if they have anticipated Happenings, but we have to change our point of view to deeply understand Gutai.
It is not a coherent solution, neither on a formal plan nor on a poetic one; instead, it is, at the same time, a mental and operative place, where artists experiment several actions, innovating or being influenced by past experiences; a place in which pictorial code results abandoned, but also in which it is impossible to refuse it at all.
Some critics correctly stress how, in Gutai, first signals of Conceptualism and capability of performance can be found, that is because of the experimental tension animating all Group members. Experimenting means approaching new topics, penetrating into them and, sometimes, leaving them. Historically, Gutai researches are performed in a crucial moment, as they are a mix of what is already occurred, or is occurring elsewhere (for example Action Painting) and what is going to occur (Conceptualism and Happenings).
As in the first case, saying that Gutai has been influenced by Action Painting is constraining, in the second one, supposing Gutai influencing Happenings and Conceptualism is naïve.
What is really going on is that the Oriental cultural and geographical foundations, so distant from modern Occidental traditions, allows Group experimental talents to perform different solutions without assuming them as own explicit rules.
Gutai is not the Happening inventor, but Cage himself has not invented it through the famous event Black Mountain College performed in 1952. To allow Happening comes to life, a critic and theoretical elaboration process following mere aesthetic aspects and facts, is needed. And, in New York, at the end of the 50s Kaprow is the one who is going to create the essential requirements for this new event.
Instead, Gutai is the unique main character in starting processes, in moving and transforming balances, and, particularly, in what, links but also separate the creative processes to and from the final result.
This kind of “aesthetic action” is a fundamental part in a huge and complex cultural phenomenon on which nobody can be defined a real and unique father. Historically, it is not so important to define what has happened firstly and afterwards, while it is far more relevant to consider the fundamental change occurred in the whole decade of the 50s, during which, through different times, spaces and modes, the complete redefinition and nomination of Art has taken place to continue in the subsequent ten years. The whole mechanism is a complex and multifaceted one and cannot be treated and studied as unitary and penetrated through a sort of Hegelian dialectic and finally understood only as a progressive overcoming of Art as a mere object or as a work. Works and events are both part, in that precise historic period, of the same relevant art codes questioning and modifying. For a long time refusing and denying painting art has been considered the most innovative and advanced solution. Today, after about fifty years, this consideration has been discussed and critics discovered that innovative experimental power of Contemporary art lays more in the impossibility to consider it a unique, accepted and clear categorical scheme than in a fideistic overtaking.
And the relationship between Gutai and painting shall be read taking into accounts all the former considerations and remarks; painting is not the only artistic experience chosen by the group, but it is not, as well, the most conservative aspect present in it. Painting Art is a component cohabiting with other ones in a complex and polymorphic effort to creatively innovate and experiment.
The lack of a uniform planning line (as it occurs also in Happening and Conceptualism) is the most representative characteristic of Gutai artistic experience uniqueness. And finally it becomes the Contemporary Art research paradigm aimed primarily to a mere and pure research.
The sound of colour
Shimamoto's artistic experience is deeply soaked with Gutai complexity: he becomes a promoter of the, typical of Gutai, willing to experiment, in always different places and manners, every kind of language. The Master's first works, realized in 1950s, before the Group birth, can be taken as a witness. Those pictures are called “Holes” and are realized overlapping several paper layers, colouring and finally rubbing them till they results torn.
Shimamoto does not choose to act like that but reaches the final result by chance and then repeats, in other works, the same technique, assuming it as a own linguistic characteristic. He is, at that time, interested in how to realize painting art beyond any school scheme, and in discovering a way to perform without the technique and shape traditional supports. The artist is mostly interested in colour materiality, in its being an object. A hole piercing screen surface is the result of the physic contact among artist, colour, surface; the pure sign of that contact; the outcome of an action, nevertheless intended to remain personal and secret. It is not a thoughtful choice but the outcome of a procedure. Shimamoto’s and Fontana’s holes are usually compared but the Japanese artist ones don’t come from a concept, as Fontana’s ones do.
The Master hole comes from a pure action and is not the product of an autonomous choice but of what the artist is ready to accept. This is his starting point: in his opinion an artist has to operate allowing painting to act by it. All his work is aimed not to express himself but to become a mean in a pictorial event that has to be accepted totally, including its unpredictability and chances.
Matter, chance and listening link Shimamoto directly and deeply to Zen culture, involving all being layers. In many Zen procedures, the artist accomplishes a gesture, and then lets events flow alone, accepting them without questioning, and this kind of happening does not follow a clear path: it does not want to say anything; it does not want to conceptualize anything.
Art is not a mere representation – in every possible forms it can express itself – it is a spontaneous germination of an event, apparently lacking of an own unique direction or of a stated clear sense, but able to make life quiver.
Shimamoto's pictorial action is like the Zen stick blow that awakes a meditating disciple.
It does not show or say anything but is a sort of preparation to show and say something.
In this way Art behaves in a different manner in the Occidental and in the Oriental world: in the fist place it is out of life and it represents a life overcoming, sublimation, deepening or means to explore it while in the second one is part of life: immediate and pure at the same time.
The artist takes this idea about Art from his Master’s teachings and from his willing to reveal Action Painting and Occidental avant-garde realities showing to his disciples, in the meantime, richness and immediacy of action inside their own cultural tradition.
And this fact is the one striking him most, besides children Art: at that time, in fact, he works with children and he is pleased by their spontaneity and freedom from any concerns to show something at all costs and totally freely given in its being, and being an established part of life. Occidental avant-garde does not interest him at all (especially on a motivational level), even if it is possible to find a sort of continuity linking it to Shimamoto.
But Pollock, whose work is usually drawn close to Shimamoto's one, has a completely different mental and existential implication: a sort of pure aesthetic being.
This attitude finds its roots in Zen culture and direct links in several expressive solutions surrounding Zen itself. An example is Calligraphy: in fact, Shimamoto is seriously interested in it, during his formation, following Yoshihara’s suggestions. Yoshihara has tried to build a bridge between this expressive form, tightly linked to Japan and Occidental culture. And Shimamoto continues what his Master has begun.
The most relevant influences come from Nantenbo, a XIX century peculiar Calligraphy Master: Yoshihara has shown Nantenbo artworks to his disciples. Shimamoto, about him, says: “What I remember of the times when I went to see that Master, is that he used a really big brush and, with that, he realized larger than the ones realized by other Calligraphy Masters of his time” . And after he says: “In those Master’s characters, there were nijimi, kasure, tobichiri and tare (smears, fading, sprinkles and drippings) and other effects impossible to be expressed, at that time, through oil painting”.
What strikes most about the young Japanese artist's mind is that Calligraphy is generated as a unique, unrepeatable, and incorrigible gesture. In Nantenbo this act is enriched with new values: inappropriateness, borders overcoming, differences connected to a chance not just accepted by the artist, but also sought. Nantenbo’s characters are not clear and neat. Their most striking features, the ones making them live are dripping, contingency and stain. Shimamoto decides that panting should be similar than that gesture. And for that reason, during the “2nd Gutai stage Exhibition”, his performance consists on several destructive actions: shatter glass globes, throw on a table a huge number of ping pong balls, coming out from dark as flashes.
The event is built upon a unique, neat, clear and absolute action; an unrepeatable gesture, signalling both artistic action and life impermanence, the most typical Zen conceptual quality.
Even if Shimamoto’s art is self-referential, and it refuses any kind of representation, it is profoundly connected to real life. To definite it better, it is possible to say that it is a fundamental part of being. This is directly shown in its becoming action. Not only in its material fact accomplished by the artist, but also as necessary condition of being, sign and offer.
In 1956 this attitude towards Art finds its right expression in a technique solution used by Shimamoto from then on, a solution that the Master is going to adapt, from time to time, to several situations and modes: the so-called “bottle crash”. Holes are representative of a physical contact between hands and surfaces, and colour is presents in “holes works” only as a tactile matter (they are usually monochromatic works in with neutral shades), while “bottle crashes” are symbols of a radical change: some elements in Shimamoto’s language are excessive, others explodes thanks to a perceptive, emotional and existential vitality.
“Bottle crash” is a technique, maybe an anti-technique that results really simple; the artist fills with colours several bottles and then stretch a large canvas on the floor with a few stones under or above it. Then he crashes the prepared bottles on the canvas, where bottles themselves, they break creating colours explosions.
This is an approach towards artworks and painting realization taking into account really different elements. First of all, an action that has an own autonomy when compared to the final result.
Again in 1956, during the “2nd Gutai Exhibition” in Osaka, “Life” magazine wants to prepare a photographic reportage describing the way in which Group members reach their final results, Shimamoto’s “bottle crash” is hailed as a real brand-new idea.
A sort of conflict with canvas is perceived, an aggressive impulse, a vital, powerful, uncontrolled way to approach Art and colour. It seems, and Shimamoto is really surprised about, that people are more interested in processes than in products; actually, the relationship existing between product and process lives on a thin, unbalanced and not lasting equilibrium.
Shimamoto uses “bottle crash” as a tool to realize works intended to be exposed as pictures, but the process culminating in an artwork cannot be reduced to a pure mean.
Pictures realized with that technique are perceptive explosions, rich in chromatic and dynamic power.
This energy is not the result of a formal choice, but the end of the creative process.
Action giving birth to pictures is integral part of the visual result, but it is more: it is a spectacular act enriched with an own, inner meaning. Painting does not attend to become an image to communicate something, but it expresses itself as it is primarily an action.
The possibility to appreciate the Master's works is divided, then, into two levels intimately related one to the other.
His artistic sign is not finished with the work or the action generating it, but in a sort of terrain vague between them: between artwork and event.
And as the former is intended to conceive to a final result (as it result in a pictorial form), the latter is not just a mere witness of the creative process.
There is a relevant feature in Shimamoto's first works: “bottle crashes” are really violent and aggressive acts. In those first years of activity, Shimamoto also realizes another kind of experiment, following the same feelings that have inspired “bottle crashes”.
He uses small cannon to shoot colours on canvas. Purposes are similar to the ones connected to “bottle crash”. Artwork results from the artist's unintentional act, but also in this case, there is something to add: we mentioned violence, but this word has not to be misunderstood. Our intent is not to exalt violence, nor to considerate it as a aesthetic fact, but to look at it as a relief valve for a dramatic and still situation as the Japanese one after the WWII.
Violence in Art becomes a cathartic reaction to real-life violence, like the war one.
In 1999 Shimamoto started a project: the Hyogo Prefecture gives him a space with a cement footrest and, forehead, a pillar on which an incision signals the work title and intents, Peace Proof. Every year, in that place, Shimamoto performs a bottle crash regenerating the surface, making it alive again, but only if that year peace is maintained in Japan. Artistic act power is used as armour against the world degeneration and a sort of an ideal dam which puts together human energies towards a pacific direction.
Power, pulse, and vital strength are main components of action and they have a clear aesthetic value.
This is one of the most important, but perhaps less known, Shimamoto's characteristics.
Performing art as it is a choice for life cannot be reduced to a mere works production, but it has to contain something more. This is an appeal to brotherhood, communion and exchange.
During the 70s, immediately after Gutai dissolution, Shimamoto abandons painting practising and pictorial actions, and radically changes his work and course.
In fact, he has approached Mail Art experience and, in particular, Fluxus one. He decides to undertake an experiment connected to that form of art: he prints his shaved nape picture and sends it, throughout the world, both to artists and common people, inviting them all to intervene on it. Than he performs the same experiments, but live, in other happenings.
It is not a formal provocation, but in this kind of work Shimamoto offers himself to the public as a sort of empty page.
Donating himself in such a humble way creates a bridge between him and others.
This bridge is created to realize a real communication and a communion sense.
Art is both communion place and condition while artist is a tool.
It is also possible to add that from pictorial works it comes out that the artist is not the author, but who allows something to happen.
This Art idea realizes an exceptional synthesis between the avant-garde utopian vocation and the existential vision provided by Zen.
Shimamoto succeeds in commit to Art the idea flame, peace, without making it an ideological banner.
However there is no ethic in an aesthetic-deprived Art.
Freeing and cathartic potentialities of creative acts show themselves uniquely in a special reflection tailored on language.
It is relevant to mention the text published by Shimamoto on the Gutai Bulletin in 1957: “Aimed to banish the paintbrush”. In this text a sort of linguistic fight between colour and paintbrush occurs. Artistic tradition (Shimamoto clearly refers to Occidental one) seems to be built on the willingness to refuse material dimension of colour, to make it a mere not materialized image. Paintbrush is the primary tool of this willingness, technique is the solution. Shimamoto writes “When I have begun to use dyeing substances I haven’t known anything on paintbrushes used during Renaissance, but I have always been sure that everywhere in the world paintbrushes have been and are needed uniquely to express colour depriving dyeing substance of its power and becoming its slave in order to create colours for which the dyeng substance is no more that a tool.”. The Master’s solution is another: overcoming this “colour tragedy” and use its expressive power as a living element, as pure matter. . Then, in realizing a picture to represent a natural image or an idea, what is relevant is to preserve the matter beauty which can survive also under paintbrushes strong attack. I think the first thing to do is to free colour from paintbrush. If creating something you do not throw away the paintbrush there is no way to bring dyes to existence.
Painting expressive potentialities and its ethic aim are generated by a technical choice. Paintbrush, as Shimamoto refers to it, is a tool of the ego. Technique connected to it is, speaking as Heidegger, a body extension, and through the body itself, an extension of willingness and reason.
Through the paintbrush it is possible to express a mental ego, and for this reason, Shimamoto shows the first experiences of avant-garde artists in which they have abandoned paintbrushes. But they are not sufficient. Artist has to start again from a completely new place: this place is bottle crash. In this way forms, images, compositions are no more determined by authors but by chance; the artwork results from an event in which colour is the main character.
Pollock’s Action Painting has been generated similarly, but the American artist has a strict control on technical processes. Dripping has been always lead by an organized and planned gesture. Chance has been presented in the entire composition but controlled in a planned scheme, while in Shimamoto’s artworks the main character is the chance itself.
Colour as matter. Colour matter is really particular: both tactile and visual. During Shimamoto’s experiments with holes the artist has been interested to the possibility to directly touch colors with hands and so to a tactile materiality. While, in bottle crashes, colour is no more directly touched by the author but continue to assume an own materiality; firstly because it is not a tool of something else (for example a form or an image) but a tool of itself and secondly because it ends up to be mixed with rests (usually broken glasses) after the crash. It is possible to add something more. The Master, in his performances, uses primary, bright, full, colours; absolute colours. Orhan Pamuk writes: “Colour is the eye’s touch, the deaf people’s melody, a cry in the dark” . And this image naturally fit Shimamoto’s research and work.
For him colour is living matter as tangible form of light and energy. Matter is not dull substance, but its origin and most inner quality is being a light vibration. Colour is a tangible form of that vibration and, for that, is a living power. In each throw the artist allows energy to be emitted. And to make it happen, he has to abandon his brush, to overcome his ego and his innate and human desire to express himself. Giving up the ego allows vivid power of painting to come out.
In the last few years this behaviour has clearly and completely developed: bottle crash becomes more complex, various and rich on the action level, involving wider and wider spaces. In 2006 in Dante Square, in Naples, Shimamoto realizes an extraordinary performance: “A peace weapon”. The square is used as a stage and the paving of the space is covered with an immense canvas on which a piano is leaned. The whole event is accompanied by Charlemagne Palestine playing another piano. Shimamoto enters the square thank to a soft cloth tube, reminding a kind of birth. Then, after hailing the public with a sort of hug he begins his pictorial act. The artist is hanged by a crane and hold in his hands a sphere made up of numerous plastic glasses filled with colours. He throws from above with a calm gesture, really distant from the ones characterizing his first performances, violent and impulsive. Crane poses him on the ground and he regenerates himself to continue his action until the piano and the whole surface are full of colours.
Two elements emerge powerfully from such a performance: event dimension and space sense dilatation. The immediate and rude bottle crash becomes an event with a deep ritual and ceremonial meaning. This causes an enrichment of the spectacular moment that, in this way, assumes a special theatrical definition. The “action machine”, born to paint in an impersonal way, has now its autonomy. The pictorial result is shifted to the background and people think to assist to an action realized through the use of colour (with a use of materials process typical of theatrical experimentation) rather than to a performing process created to paint (and this is what Shimamoto really does). The “action machine” is carried out by itself. During other performances, like for example, at Punta Campanella, in 2008, or in Felissimo design shop rooms, in 2007, this way of performing is still more evident because of the collaboration of others performers contributing o the success of the pictorial act. At Punta Campanella performers are girls dressed in wedding clothes and heads wrapped with plastic glasses spheres. These spheres become Shimamoto’s new pictorial “weapon”. In this performance the artist does not only throw colours from above on large canvas posed on the paving, like in Piazza Dante case, but it throw it directly and near the canvas and, in a sort of target way, also on brides, involving them in a chromatic game. In Felissimo case the adopted solution is similar even if people involved wear white gowns or shirts and trousers. In other situations, like at Capri or At Morra Foundation in Naples, the Master involves also memory-objects belonging to different cultures, a Buddha statue, a Milo Venus, or musicians with their own instruments. Melodies presence is a further sign of artistic process dramatization. Sometimes Shimamoto himself compose music for his performances as he does from the 50s, sometimes music is generated by collaboration like in the case of Palestine.
Shimamoto works have to defined “painting theatre” rather than pictorial action. They involve, in fact, a set of elements (an example that has to be cited is the ceremonial and representative time-space system organization) belonging to theatre DNA, and used by twentieth century experimentation as pillars of art linguistic reformation.
However this theatre, even if usable as pure and simple spectacle is, finally, part of Shimamoto’s artistic procedure. When painting has run its course, chance has drawn events and event has finished, acts on the large surface, leaned on the floor, and cuts some smaller canvases. And in the same way he recovers dresses, objects and instruments and creates artworks. This procedure is similar to the one used by some artist that, after working on the performing moment, then, they expose traces. In Shimamoto’s case things are a bit different. He exposed no rest, documentation or witness, but a pure artwork.
Above it has been said that in Shimamoto’s last artworks painting play a role in a complex theatre, now it can be said also the contrary. In fact this theatre exists and finds its existence sense only in operation of pictorial results.
Finally it is necessary to add something. When, at the beginning of this career, Shimamoto’s, have seen Nantenbo Calligraphy, he has been stroked by how in his work codified form and gesture trace combined together and he has appreciated how the latter writes rather than the former. Performing events can be read and understood as writings for which the empty sheet is the world and the artist is the paintbrush. The immediate, curt, offish act of the Calligraphy Master becomes with Shimamoto a body act. It becomes a mean of painting to regenerate, through colours, objects with which it comes into contact.