Shozo Shimamoto Between action and matter, between Gutai and Art Autre – Italo Tomassoni

Action and colour as matter1

Having banned the brush, Shozo Shimamoto, a dominant spirit in the work of the Gutai Group, reached a sort of aesthetic monotheism gained after following a path that developed with extreme internal rigour from the drawings of the fifties to his mature works. What might be defined as the map of his “graphic” works highlights a beginning that refers to Japanese calligraphy. The choice and use of paper already place him in a physical relationship with the support used for the work. The transparent and fragile tactility of paper invites in him a spatial scanning on which he measures the rhythm of time and he articulates new semantic.

The presence of the time factor in Shimamoto’s painting has been emphasized by art critics. Achille Bonito Oliva deciphered an entire exhibition2 developing the theoretical implications suggested by this insight.

Punctiform paths marked by a hypnotic rhythm follow the succession of ring-like forms repeated in sequence until they prefigure the overflow of the markings over the edge… It seems evident that the biological vitalism of the pigmented tissue deposited on the support, guides – as if under the effects of a subliminal electric anxiety – the trend of the swarms of signs. When the body of the mark comes to a stop and settles, the matter occupies the space up to the edges of the surface.

This invasiveness of the mark foreshadows an intolerance for the edge of the support, which is the first sign of a dilation of the artistic action that presents itself as virtually emancipated from the surface and as a spatially and temporally unlimited gap. Effectively, Shimamoto’s page offers itself to the experience of the artist and the public as though spread out over time, on the infinite horizontality of liquid and multiple spatial displacements. This is the lesson that Shimamoto also imparts to his pupil Yasuo Sumi who, ever respectful of the hierarchical masterstudent relationship, created an imaginary sign language that was linguistically autonomous but synchronous in its occurrence with the signs produced by the master.

Sumi’s line, like Shimamoto’s and unlike Manzoni’s, is virtually infinite, even though Sumi’s “comb” patterns are less conceptual set, being, instead, related to linguistic areas ranging from Mark Tobey’s calligraphy to the European gesturalism of Hans Hartung and early Fontana.

The power of the mark, that Shimamoto endows with the most authentic meaning of his message, conditions the fluctuation of writing paths which never appear “closed”, developing freely in space, in search of unexplored passages driven by their inner dynamism.

Similar, and correlated to the graphism of the mark, is the path of the colour-mark. Colour, for Shimamoto, does not give material form to a thought that is distinct from life. It is the means by which the distance between real space and created space is overcome. Colour follows the same kinetic and corporeal scheme as marks, in an economy where the mind governs premeditation, while the body forms a whole with the manifestation of matter.

And all this happens as part of an experience that is always unique. This experience is put into practice through “Actions” (modes of creation profoundly different, in terms of the circular flow between the artist and the short circuit of the event, from both Happenings and Action Painting) that the Group also proposes as a means of realizing possible theatrical performances on stage. Presenting itself as a vehicle of direct revelation, colour involves the artist’s emotional core, dragging him away from an imploded and centripetal kinetics towards a burst out and centrifugal overspill. Here a sensorial regime, enhanced by an accelerated metabolism, balances quantity and quality, subject and object, the inside and outside in the context of the same epiphany before its eclipse.

The coloured matter melts and blurs, at the mercy of harmonic or dissonant shock waves that open windows onto the world with spectacular deflagrations resolved in the burning moment in which they appear.

An upsidedown ready-made that gifts to the world spectacle that can only be the start of a new beginning. An incessant movement where it is not the artist who controls the work but the work of art that works the artist and establishes once and for all the rules of its own phenomenology. The creative result becomes the accomplice of a pervasive force that passes through the artist’s body, absorbing its vibrations and subjugating itself to the ultimate and sublime gamble of chance immediately afterwards.

All the senses work to produce what Shozo Shimamoto calls Chaos, actually a Chaosmos that records the emotions and thoughts of unprecedented and hitherto unseen apparitions, seen for the first time, each time. This primal originality depersonalizes the work of art and situates it in the area of an original, mythical, anonymous, inscrutable Parousia, light years away from Western rational subjectivity.

It is enlightening in this regard to remember that an artist like On Kawara, who handed over his art entirely to North American and Conceptual Art, conceives his work as a mechanical recording of an event that comes together and ends in the space and time in which the work is produced.

This approach is remarkably similar to the temporal and spatial synchrony of Shimamoto’s actions, which are, of course, purified of any conceptual superstructure.

Shintoism and Buddhism are the ethical bedrock of this view of art which, in Zen philosophy, provides a means of knowing the world. Zen, from the Sanskrit, means meditation, a human condition that is combined in Shimamoto’s works with the dynamic impulse that springs from vital energies. On this plane, the coordinates of the experience of Western thought, space and time, become, respectively, place and void within the perception of silence. This is a metaphysical zeroing that differentiates Gutai philosophy from that of Group Zero in Dusseldorf (1951)3 and the esotericism of Yves Klein. During a trip to Japan, this great French master, attentive to oriental philosophies and practices, a follower of the mysteries and martial arts of Japan, was strongly impressed by the gruesome traces of human figures charred and calcinated on the walls of houses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.4

This experience would have repercussions on the “Anthropometries” to which Klein would devote himself with conscious liturgical rituality, in a philosophical context that confirms how Gutai found itself placed, also because of this tragic destiny, in another dimension, beyond the frontier of the imaginable.

Analyzing the work of Artaud, Jaques Derrida writes: “The theatre of cruelty is a hieratic theatre. Regression towards the unconscious runs aground if it is not able to awaken the sacredness of the ‘revelation’, the ‘manifestation’ of life in their first adaptation”.5

Spiritual devotions and material actions, the absolute and the relative, fuse in the revelation of art as they fuse in the lesson that flows from the gesture of the Samurai and the act of the Kamikaze, from which there is no return. Such a vision of the world is unthinkable outside the thousand year tradition of a people driven by the transcendent with their sense of hierarchical order that seeks the regulation of life precisely in “revelation”.

In Shimamoto too, devoted, despite his creative autonomy, to the great Shiraga, and ardent follower of Kitarò Nishida’s philosophy, spiritual state and material action flow into the living physicality of the work where, transcending any dualism, subject and object, actor and spectator, absolute and relative, adapt to life through the mysterious practice of art.

In all his works, Shimamoto shows that he is convinced that the mind is superior to the body as long as it transpires through a language that is able to establish connections with life, freeing the hidden forces of the unconscious and exposing itself to the risk of what the West has described as “removed” and as a “slip”. And since something is always brought into play and comes into being in language, what has been “removed” and then liberated becomes an opportunity for a fortunate creative event. This is what Freud, Jung, Lacan, and psychoanalytical philosophy in have theorised in Europe.

Shimamoto has the brush become a thing of little use on account of the uncontrolled vibrations produced by what takes place in the liberated colour, such that it eventually needs to be eliminated altogether. Once the dependence on this appendage has been overcome, Shimamoto goes even further, showing that he can do without the mediation of the hand. Thus, paradoxically, the act of painting is dematerialized through matter, which becomes one with the artist’s body, emancipating it from its own physical limits. At this point, any intermediation between the imaginative event and its being unloaded onto the ground is performed as an expression of the primordial energy of creation that Shimamoto identifies with the biological energy of birth.

The unbearable nature of the conceptualization of such a state necessarily takes on, and surpasses, the received idea of form, perceived as an archaic legacy and unacceptable limitation on the creative power of chance.

For Shimamoto, the beauty and strength intrinsic to matter and colouring agents reside in their primordial naturalness, deprived of any form of planning and thrown into the world with the destiny-laden energy of its presence alone. The work of art is the medium that serves to release this energy, polarized on the action of the artist as immanent proximity fixed on the entropic point of its dispersion. It is in such conditions as these that the rejection of the metaphorical aspect of the work reaches maturity, and an art that expresses itself without design takes form. The material, freed by its own strength, breaks through and sinks into the depths of its womb, erasing and reaffirming its dazzling identity in every work. Its uncontrollable self-revealing invites the viewer to find the meaning of the message and the power of enlightenment for him or herself. It is here that the prodigious counterpoint of an action lies, one that, through matter, points the way to the immaterial.

Having rejected the painter’s tool, the artist can no longer be a painter. His work comes from something else, is something else. He relies on other devices and explosives: small cannon, Molotov cocktail bottles, pigments sprayed from above, catapults, improvised tools and instruments are called upon for this creative gambling session. The artist does not guarantee the effect. He takes aim not so much with a view to hitting a target but to cross its boundaries, touching it and transubstantiating it into another identity.

Targets like the Nike of Samothrace and the grand piano become excellent deposits of chromatic entities stratified and accumulated on their physical essence to divert their simulacrum as well as their functional and historical identity. In every move, the creative moment takes place at the unrepeatable moment when the Molotov cocktails explode, gashing the secrets of the universe with colour. Can we perceive, in these actions, eavesdropping on the depths of the unconscious, that which has been removed of the blinding and burning nihilism of the atomic explosion?

The chance informing the arbitrariness of Shozo Shimamoto’s performative practices warns that we are at a turning point from which it is not possible to turn back nor to imagine the future. The work, suspended from the present of its appearing, momentarily stops time. As in the case of surrealist illuminations, it repeats the rite of the throwing of dice or the surprise of an “Exquisite Corpse”, from whose lexicon the obligation of metrics and the constraint of syntax are abolished.

The instantaneous ritual of the action imports the zeroing of rules that have stratified the grammar of art history over time. A zero degree that starts from the limitation of meaning granted to the extensions and dimensions of the supports that in Shimamoto are both virtually and symbolically transfinite, capable of dragging down into the vortex of a mise en abime that is no longer literary or metaphorical but joyfully real.

For this reason, the final dimension of the work can be expanded or reduced without causing any weakness to the whole, multiplying it in the many parts into which its epithelium is cut (Cut-Up), allowing time to contract or dilate with the explosion of the action. The creative flow, appropriately uninterrupted, does not suffer the limitations imposed by the extension of either the boundaries or the time of the event. Having overcome the concepts of beginning and end, the artistic action opens up to the involvement, as in life, of fragments of experience and reality, whether accidental or deliberately entrusted to the artist manipulation. Hence the inclusion of heterogeneous objects that offer themselves to the perception and contribute, albeit occasionally, to constructing the physiognomy of the product. Each time, the work collects and releases unknown and unexpected realities, freed from the repressed, arriving at the limit of excess, at a totality that recognizes itself only in itself.

At the end of the process, matter-colour stops at suspended moment in time when the modern vexation of life and the existential oscillation between Being and Nothingness is quelled.

The dance of Shimamoto’s painting thus takes place along complex routes that are never “interrupted” or divided, always illuminated by a dazzling light and supported by a thrust that seeks to annex extended territories beyond a formal (Apollonian) vision of life to reach horizons whose nature does not proceed from a rational request. This does not mean erasing form forever but guaranteeing that the work be connected to the Dionysian urgency of the unexpected and the indefinable. It has never been possible to conceive to break free of form in the work of art, totally free from what the work has to ultimately and materially become if it is not to become disappearance or dust. However heretical and subversive the theoretical stance of Shimamoto’s work may be; and however much his art may transcend all boundaries, it is never totally beyond art. The skin of Shimamoto’s painting is not a container but an organ that resists non-being. Anarchic and free as it may be, it can never be separated from its own body, from the body of painting, being bound to it by a physiology that precedes and surpasses the philosophy of Nothingness in the objective impassibility of itself and of the beauty of the word. Even if it is thought to be outside form, its multicoloured ghost continues to belong to the category of art; it quietly keeps its ontology alive, and, since it cannot be a separate entity at the risk of not being, it claims to belong to something that does not happen outside of itself, even if it holds, within itself, the cruel project of its annihilation. In this fatal condition, Shimamoto leaves a vast quantity of testaments and traces on the ground, closing the circle of an artistic and human parable that has never ceased to enrich, despite itself, the world with a flood of blinding beauty, drawing us into its eschatology.

One wonders whether the act of painting, thus cleansed of all overload, removed from the rules of history and entrusted only to the seductive body of its apparition, will be able to maintain the intensity of its meaning, closing it within itself. Or whether, on the other hand, it will run the risk of being overwhelmed by the secularized mirage of projection beyond the confines of the artistic.

But at the same time, one also wonders whether, once all the action and all the Cut-Up that has become quartering – and despite the arbitrariness, chance, anarchy, and improvisation, along with the games of chance, the unknowable, and the cruelty –have finished, painting cannot gain the upper hand once more, after the game is over, even if just as matter. The body of art, brought almost to the point of disappearance, goes on marking the time of life.

When the work cools down, far removed from the dazzling delirium of its birth, the tables of ancient laws resurface. If artists have renounced the superstition of symmetry, narration and closed form, they did so because symmetry, form, and narration had precluded the force of the material that consumed in itself the most authentic and profound representation of the creative genius. In this economy, what was neglected was the fact that colour too, once freed – in its absolute and primary nakedness – releases a force that can become form precisely because of its fatal aesthetic charge.

This is the secular miracle performed by Shimamoto. He brought back to life not only the oblivion of form, narration, and image but the whole game of art, multiplying its power of seduction through a freedom that can allow the re-emergence, after the eclipse of modern times, of the integral power of another beauty through colour and its uncontaminated formativity.

This allows Shimamoto to take painting one key step beyond history and what the radical thinking of the closing years of the 20th century meant.

For, at the point of rupture between history and life, between form and the formless, physics and metaphysics, that dogged search for the absolute in the relative takes root, one that connotes the depths of the soul of oriental philosophy, committed, more than any other, to the exploration of the mystery of life and being in the world.

For Shimamoto, it is art that can restore us more than any other human enterprise to a state that seeks to touch what is prelogical, prerational and even preconscious, projecting itself beyond history and beyond utopia. Surprisingly similar to what Joseph Beuys was saying in Europe at that time6, this profound contact with the mystery of existence is otherwise unthinkable in languages other than the metalanguages of art. And this is why all of Shimamoto’s actions reveal that it is not thought that makes art appear but only the work of art, either through its peremptory vehemence or else its ineffable sweetness, that suggests, and prior to any logic, the answers that no philosophy or religion can provide. This work, coming from the absolute and colliding into the relative, is a proximity that involves, that mobilizes material perception and surprises the gaze in the expression of its historicity through comparison with the world of its forms. The cascades of colour illuminate the darkness, pointing the way where they become manifest, undergoing a transformation as they arise, never ending, but eternally returning like Origin and Myth.

1For an Italian bibliography regarding Shozo Shimamoto, see Achille Bonito Oliva, Shozo Shimamoto. Samurai acrobata dello sguardo 1950-2008 Skira Milan 2008; Achille Bonito Oliva, Shozo Shimamoto. Opere 1950-2011. Oriente e Occidente. Palazzo Magnani Reggio Emilia, Allemandi & C. Turin 2011; Gabriella Dalesio “Shozo Shimamoto. Tra oriente e occidente. La vita materia dell’arte” Ed. Morra Naples 2014; Romano Gasparotti “ShozoShimamoto e l’esperienza artistica quale esperienza poetica del pensare” Ed. Morra Naples 2917; Achille Bonito Oliva “Spazio nel tempo” Exhibition Catalogue, Palazzo Sant’Elia Palermo
2“Shozo Shimamoto. Spazio nel tempo”, Exhibition Catalogue, Palazzo Sant’Elia Palermo, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva. Ed. Morra Napoli 2018
3Four artists, Shiraga, Murakami, Tanaka, and Kanayama, became part of the Gutai Group from Group Zero. Zero Kai.
4In her essay “Shozo Shimamoto tra Oriente e Occidente”, Gabriella Dalesio cites a reflection of Yves Klein’s published in 1961 in “Zero” where the artist, a follower of oriental philosophy and practising the discipline of Judo, albeit stating that the Gutai artists would adopt his method “extraneously”, recognizes that these artists “transform themselves into living brushes. By immersing themselves in colour and rolling around on canvas, they become representatives of ultra-actionpainting”.
5J. Derrida “La scrittura e la differenza” Edition du Seuil Paris 1967, Italian edition. Einaudi Turin 1971
6Italo Tomassoni “Beuys Burri” Perugia 4 aprile 1980.