BOTTLE CRASH: FREEDOM AND CREATION IN DESTRUCTION
Shozo Shimamoto sought to explore different ways to free colours from signifier. From the Whirlpool Series to the 'bottle crash' performances, Shimamoto attempted to initiate a powerful spiritual dialogue with viewers through his innovative approaches. This deep psychological interaction went beyond the expressive functions of colours as a traditional language of drawing. In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, the 19-year-old artist met Jiro Yoshihara and they embarked on a rigorous exploration of possible directions for artistic development in the postwar world. Shimamoto was not only a founding member of the Gutai movement, but also the visionary who devised the name 'Gutai', which succinctly encapsulates the objectives of the movement.
In the mid-1950s, Shimamoto reinterpreted colours with a new approach - destruction. He identified 'opportunities' as a hidden component of the cycle of the universe, in which 'destruction' and 'rebirth' are intertwined. At the second Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, Shimamoto staged his first 'destructive' performance, in which he shot bags of paints from cannon onto a canvas. In October the same year, he placed a huge canvas on the ground, put a rock in the centre, against which he threw glass bottles filled with paint. This was not only the first 'bottle crash' performance by Shimamoto, but also a pioneering piece of Gutai action art that gained attention worldwide. Shimamoto's destructive art was featured in Life magazine and on BBC in 1956 and 1959. He was also invited to participate in the Venice Biennales of 1993, 1999 and 2004 with his 'bottle crash' performances.
Shimamoto's interest in 'destruction' and 'hurling' might have its origin in the US air strikes on Japan during WWII. The artist was 17 years old when he witnessed the casualties caused by the Bombing of Osaka in 1945 and its damage to the psyche of the Japanese people. Instead of pointing to negative connotations of 'destruction', Shimamoto's 'bottle crash' performances are in fact a positive message of 'rebirth'. Shimamoto was also an ardent advocate of peace through art. He met nuclear scientist Bern Porter, the inventor of atomic bomb, in 1996 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. In 2000, he staged the Heiwa no Akashi ('A Proof of Peace') performance in Japan. In 2007, the artist was invited by the Chinese government to celebrate the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China with a 'bottle crash' performance in Beijing.
Through bodily interpretations, Shimamoto merged the spiritual and physical powers of man with colours in an effort to transcend 'time' (the time required for a bottle to leave the artist's hand and hit the ground) and 'space' (the distance the bottle travelled before it hit the canvas). 'I think the throwing of bottles as a method of painting is a form of study of the unknown,' Shimamoto once said. 'More than anything else, I find stimulation in the materialization of an unpredictable expression.' 1 Untitled (Bottle Crash) (Lot 71) and Untitled (2010, Lot 70) were the results of the artist's performances in different venues. After the performances, the artist would decide how to divide the canvas as an act of separating the parts from the whole. The rich details of smearing, dripping, scratching, glass fragments and congealed paint allowed the canvas to take on a new life.
'Freedom' is at the core of Shimamoto's art. He once pointed out that 'the act of painting is to suggest free expression.' After graduating from Kansai Gakuin University in 1950, Shimamoto became an art teacher at Osaka City Middle School. Shimamoto recalled that many students could not afford to buy paint and brushes in the difficult post-war years, but such hardship had inspired creativity in both the teachers and the students. One of his students attempted to paint with his legs and created a bold, energetic ink painting.
Seeing 'freedom' as a core element of his artistic creation, Shimamoto defied the traditional techniques and media of high art, echoing Achille Bonito Oliva's proposition that 'art is no longer a goal but a means.'2 In the 1950s, Shimamoto experimented with innovative ways of creation and expression. In 1957, he published an article titled The Execution of Paintbrushes, which challenged the dominating role of the paintbrush over the paint. 'I believe that the first thing to do is free colour from the paintbrush,' he wrote. 'If in the process of creating the paintbrush isn't cast aside, there is no hope of emancipating the tones.'3 Shimamoto hoped that his art and the colours could be expressions of 'freedom', based on his belief that freedom of the soul was a source of creativity.
Untitled (Whirlpool) (Lot 69) perfectly demonstrates how Shimamoto found freedom on the canvas after casting aside the paintbrush. The Whirlpool Series was created in the mid- to late 1960s with enamel paint and a funnel. Shimamoto dripped paint of different colours through a funnel onto the centre of the white canvas of the three-part Untitled (Whirlpool), creating complicated layers of colours. The artist chose industrial enamel paint for its superb adhesiveness, durability, water-resistance and gloss, and allowed it to flow, clash, mix and intertwine freely to produce unpredictable results. In the mid-1950s, Pop artists in the U.S. began to use everyday items, such as newspapers and magazines, to create works that represented pop culture of the time. Meanwhile, in 1954, Gutai artists in Japan also attempted to free themselves from the technical and material constraints of traditional high art by creating works of art that sought to reveal the inner characteristics of commonly found items. Andy Warhol once noted that 'everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.' Artists in Asia and the West were simultaneously striving to expand the definition of art, ushering in the post-modern era and advancing the idea that the medium and message are equally important in art.