The Art of the Orient – Flying Low – Achille Bonito Oliva

If modern science has exalted intelligent chance, the celebration of the event caused by the break-up of the rigid relationship between cause and effect, contemporary art, from Mallarmé’s coup de dés up to Brian Gysin’s cut-up used by W. Burroughs, celebrates the possibility of the painful chance of form, now confirmed by the great Japanese artist of the Gutai Shimamoto Group, which renewed the creative process from the fifties on. It introduced a distance and an interval between doing and seeing.

There are two legendary sequences in the history of contemporary art, taken and filmed by the photographer Hans Namuth, and a film director respectively. They show Picasso at work, filmed by Clouzot, and Jackson Pollock photographed during his dripping dance around a canvas spread out on the floor. Pollock’s furor is not satisfied with a vertical hand-to-hand combat with the canvas on the wall or the easel, but requires the psycho-sensory absorption of the whole somatic system. The artist circulates, vacillates, and dances inebriated around the canvas.

But there are many photos, also legendary, that document the pictorial and performative works of Shozo Shimamoto for posterity, where he uses distance to reach his goal in painting, the true object of his creative process.

His creative sequences are marked by the more important stages of the exhibitions of the Gutai Group, of which he was a leading figure.

The Gutai and Mono-Ha groups represent two oriental tribes from Japan, who, thanks to their creative strategy, also changed the mentality of the western hemisphere from the late forties into the decade to follow.

Shiraga, Motonaga, Kanayama, Shimamoto and Tanaka are the artists who interwove the pictorial and aesthetic act into a form of performative behaviour well before abstract American expressionism.

Of particular note:

– the artistic ferment between the late forties and the early years of the subsequent decade in the Kansai region of Japan, (in the Provinces of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe), the environment from which the Zero (Zero-kai) movement of Shiraga, Murakami, Tanaka and Kanayama emerged, which would become part of Jiro Yoshihara’s already formed Gutai Group (Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai) in 1955,

– The development of performance research through their series of historical exhibitions and public performance:

1) the 1954 Avant-Garde Exhibition by Young Artists,

2) the Ashiya City Exhibition, also in 1954,

3) the publication of the Gutai journal: fourteen issues between 1955 and 1965 (copies of the second and third issues were found in Jackson Pollock’s studio after his death),

4) the 1954 window exhibition in the Osaka Department Store,

5) the “Exhibition of Open Air Experimental Art” held on the wharf of the river Ashiya in July 1955 and sponsored by the Citizen’s Art Association, where Shiraga did his first action with an axe and red-painted wooden logs, and Motonaga hung strips of transparent plastic filled with coloured water from trees.

6) The first Gutai art exhibition held at the Tokyo Ohara Kaikan in 1955 was the first time Murakami did his famous performance walking through paper, and Shiraga held his Challenging Mud, two extraordinarily important actions for the future development of the happening, so much so that they were included in Allan Kaprow’s book Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (Harry N. Abrams, New York 1966)

7) the One-Day Outdoor Exhibition on the Muko river in April 1956, where Shiraga presented a second version of his performance with an axe and wooden logs,

8) the “Second Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition” on the wharf of the river Ashiya in July 1956, with performances by Shimamoto and Murakami, Shiraga, Kanayama, and the prototype of Atsuko Tanaka’s famous Electric Dress

9) The Second Gutai Exhibition, also held at Tokyo’s Ohara Kaikan Center in October 1956,

10) the Gutai Art on the Stage Exhibition held in Osaka and Tokyo in May 1957, one of the group’s most radical events, where Shiraga did his performance called Sambaso Ultra-Modern and Shimamoto performed his Destruction of Objects.

In the 1956 “Open Air Gutai Exhibition” Shimamoto’s “cannon work” was so large that the work had to be located outside. Later, this trend led the artist to create his “bottle crash” works.

Shimamoto’s performance is not, then, the revelation of a classical and discreet eye, but the visualised ritual of gestures exorcising the partiality of the real that aims to return to the organic and dynamic origin of life, to a sort of totality contracted into the creative act.

The act of throwing paint onto the canvas from a distance becomes speed, eroticism and the desire to broaden the magnetic field of the work by introducing the element of chance, that leads in the direction of the acknowledgement of a total event, also the fruit of a magical thought.

The magical thought discussed in the books of Carlos Castaneda distinguishes a dual realisation of the universe: one tonal, a pure recording of nature, a statistical confirmation of the visible. The other, on the other hand, is nagual, which proceeds from an eruption of chance, able to open up to new forms of reality.

Shimamoto works at the crossroads of a dual tradition. One is connected with the historical avant-garde, in the strategic figure of Marcel Duchamp with his ready-made; the other derived from oriental philosophy and from the esoteric thinking of Castaneda who leads him to exploit chance. This is brought about by the use of techniques emanating from daily life and the use of utensils which do not belong to the technical-expressive system of the history of art. Shimamoto makes use of the precision of the hunter and the pain of the prey.

Here the artist becomes the one carrying the rifle, with a vision tuned in to the distance of the near and far, ready to hone in on an external detail that immediately becomes a target. The oriental artist uses the cannon or the rifle as a prosthesis to reduce the spatial distance between his body and the reality around him. He uses every kind of surface as a place to explode his paint sprays, chromatic shots which transfix the flesh of the support (canvas, paper, wood) and break it into unpredictable gaping gashes, wounds with no hope of healing.

So these surfaces become a painful shoulder, matter pierced by the destructive shot of the cannon or the rifle which cruelly lacerate all the smooth surfaces, chosen at random – and randomly transformed into something else by itself.

All the material pierced by the artist who strikes, burns, drips and sprays impulsive energy out from his own body space becomes painful. This energy needs a pause, a formally defined target, able to conserve for future memory the aggressive impetus of a need for expression, full of eroticism and the impulse of death.

Because this is precisely what art is: a short circuit of eros and thanatos. The whole basis of life always needs preventative destruction, according to the classical Nietzschean adage. Destruction clears the field, purges matter and then purifies it without waste and remnants.

Shimamoto began, with his cut-up, to dissect, with the sadistic and loving care of the surgeon, the numbed flesh of the painting, mortified by the codification of meaning, by the logical-discursive consequentiality of the image. With its cut, the painting has a seizure of pain and awakening, and loses the rigid protection of meaning and opens up to new possibilities.

Possibility comes into being from the eruption of chance which runs along the planned surface of the written page. Like a geometrical telluric upheaval, the scissors of the surgeon painter turn the words into a mutilated fragment open to new understanding. The appearing of the signifier does not communicate a pacified meaning, but the mysterious beauty of the unforeseeable and the inexpressible. For Shimamoto, the transferral of the operation to figurative art has meant a shift from an identity as surgeon to one of hunter. Creation is always a knocking at the door, an asking permission to gain access to chance, which erupts in this way into the universe of forms.

If the cut-up (cutting the canvas into several parts) allows the formalisation of the inexpressible, the “shotgun” is the basis of the appearance of the invisible, which Klee wanted from art. Basically, Shimamoto also applies to Duchamp’s door, being the good oriental shaman that he is, the apotropaic strategy and magic of Castaneda. He knocks with his rifle, and the door bursts open in the direction of a signifier open on all sides.

And here appear the drips, the burns, anthropomorphic signals, circular shapes, graffiti, gashes of different depths, holes and craters that decorate the surfaces struck by the blows that the artist produces.

Art becomes the painful shoulder of matter, the trace of a dynamic for the transformation of the visible, marked this way by the noticeable passing of man.

Shimamoto’s universe is folded with formal accidents: throwing money, a paintbrush, a rifle shot, paint, the introduction of the outlines of things, tree and men, the presence of leaves, grids, masks, articles of broken glass, photographic puzzles, and lastly, words. Everything becomes image. And this is the effect of an art which always plays on the transformation of the elements. A frenzy, which always includes a quotient of intelligent chance, accompanies the creative event. If Mallarmé’s coup de dés needs a minimum distance, a wholly European domestic space, the conceptual interval between the paper and the hand that throws the dice, the technique of the artist acts in a wholly oriental space, a long interval that takes into consideration the spatial vastness which connects in every case the different continents also through a multicultural art system.

In this way, Shimamoto educates the spectators in an activity of precision that redirects violence to other beneficial and long-term purposes, such as admiring new forms of beauty dictated by improvisation and the subsequent contemplation of the result obtained.

A marrying of two different anthropologies, with the arrival of a new and original one which contains within itself a synthesis able to represent a short circuit between western and oriental thought, between figuration and abstraction, narration and abstraction, all in a single form, that of art.

Achille Bonito Oliva