‘Avant-garde art thus revolutionizes the perspective of what beauty means, and at the same time shows what human existence is like’. 1 – Shozo Shimamoto
Shozo Shimamoto believes that art is not merely a matter of using one’s eyes for admiration, and urges that art is an experience. He has been pondering art’s meaning for humanity, and wondering whether art can bring a different feeling to daily human and social life, and also whether art attests to human existence.
Going beyond visual experience
In 1956, Shimamoto created Please Walk on Top (Fig.1) for the “Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition”, and this creation marked the inception of his art philosophy. In a sandlot, he used wood to make a long road about 15 inches high, a road upon which only one person would fit so that viewers, after stepping onto this road, would feel unstable and unbalanced , as if it urged them to get to the end quickly or else immediately jump off. Via this art installation and its experience so different from an ordinary road, Shozo Shimamoto’s art works led to a feeling of fear of losing one’s balance, and this sort of full-body contact experience with art was one viewers had no way of experiencing with their eyes, and one indeed has to mount upon this work in person in order to fully experience its significance.
Shozo Shimamoto’s art philosophy derives from his complete focus on humanity’s heaven-sent senses, feelings and energy. Graduating from the Philosophy Department of Kansai Gakuin University, in 1954, Shozo Shimamoto, together with Jiro Yoshihara and 18 other artists, established an avant-garde group called the “Gutai Art Association”. Shozo Shimamoto named this association “Gutai.” “Gutai is the name made up from two ideograms, the first of which means ‘implement’, and the second, tai, means ‘body/form’. The link between matter and the body is the energy that passes through it: life.”2 From the end of the 1950s, Shozo Shimamoto developed the art performance “Bottle Crash” which combined human energy with avant-garde art, but which was also pioneering post-war "action art", and proposed a constant expansion of the “artistic experience."
Visualization and manifestation of energy
The natural world has a life, and energy is the reason Earth has life and growth. What is energy? The nature of light, heat, wind, hydro- and kinetic energy, and gravity: whether visible or invisible, these are all energy performing. However, what causes people to feel energy the most is a person's breath, and feelings such as touch, exhalation, sweat, tears, thought, sound, smell, taste, pain and exhaustion - these are all proofs of human existence.
The art performance "Bottle Crash" is a manifestation of energy, including Shozo Shimamoto's own kinetic energy, acoustic energy, and free will (Fig. 2, 3). Shimamoto’s kinetic energy, via his arms, uses glass bottles or plastic cups filled with liquid pigment and thrown in the air, and this liquid pigment combines with Shimamoto’s energy. In this empty space (Fig. 4), the liquid pigment has a “time” (the interval between when the bottle is thrown and when it lands), and “space” (the distance between the point from which the bottle is thrown and the canvas, which opens up another independent life. When Shimamoto finishes a performance he is tired, and this attests to the transfer and depletion of energy.
Effects that a brush cannot express
Canvas spread out on the ground records energy, including the artist’s spiritual energy, kinetic energy, and gravity. In Untitled (Lot 39) the bloom of vitality and energy splays out in all directions, with splashes of red, white, dark green, mud yellow, and blue-coloured paint. The black-coloured canvas captures the speed of the paint’s flow, its direction and strength. The texture that appears on the canvas, with such details as elongated drip effects, spots that spray out, and the heavy accumulation of pigments, is formed by Shozo Shimamoto throwing the paint in different ways. Glass shards describe the intensity of the moment the pigment lands. Shozo Shimamoto deliberately uses different pigments with varying degrees of opacity, like translucent red, with contrasting deep mud yellow, so that the kinetic energy of different paint colours assumes a clearer display. Untitled challenges traditional pictorial space, composition, colour and lighting. Impressions from rubbing, drips, scratches, broken glass bonding to paint, etc. the semi-automatically entangled vortex colour, these incidental visual effects are rendered in ways a brush cannot express.
‘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
‘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.’4
The damage to the canvas is an effect a brush cannot produce. "Bottle glass" performance advocates damage is also a kind of beauty. Such beauty is reminiscent of Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi (Fig. 5). Wabi and sabi were originally two separate concepts, but later joined to represent a kind of natural beauty associated with tranquility, simplicity, austerity, and purity. Wabi once referred to a spiritual condition that is unconcerned with material wants, but around the 15th century in Japan, it came to represent a completely new concept: the idea of plain and imperfect beauty. Sabi represented the natural conception of the passing of light and shadow, and a state of beauty found in incomplete or fragmentary things, or in objects that bear the marks of the lapse of time. Nothing remains forever in its most flourishing state, but instead, everything begins anew after the end of a cycle. If we recognize this one specific kind of fresh and resplendent beauty, we should also be able to understand the existence of another kind of beauty, which is calmer and more faded beauty. Metals that rust and rocks on which moss sprouts all exemplify this sabi. This traditional Japanese concept of wabi-sabi finds correlates in the requirement of simplicity advocated by Zhuangzi, in the arte povera, the concept of “impoverished art” in Italy in the 1960s, as well as in the phrase "Everything has its beauty" coined by American pop art icon Andy Warhol — even though wabi-sabi has been rooted in the cultural outlook of Asian people several centuries earlier. Toshio Yoshida's work displays the most natural beauty, the beauty of the materials themselves, without seeking any other kind of additional ornamentation. It reflects the philosophy that emphasizes “truth to material” and “the creative process” that, according to Clement Greenberg, typifies all modern art: “the inherent aesthetic qualities of painting grew directly out of the materials and processes of painting itself.”' 5
Art is in transition from a focus on developing image esthetics to expressing the subconscious and emotions that the naked eye cannot see. Shozo Shimamo thereby enters into investigations of the energy reflected in and recorded by his artistic method to subvert convention, and show the meaning of human existence. Art thus expresses the image of the invisible and emotional. And Shozo Shimamoto, by embodying energy and its recording, has reversed the conventional method of artistic creation by performing the meaning of human existence. “One of our slogans was to go beyond abstraction. [...] We especially sought a centrifugal departure in light of the centripetal origin of abstraction.”6
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 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.
The projects after the dissolution of Gutai Art Association illustrated how Shimamoto extended the global world view of Gutai, deepened his artistic philosophy, and also became a pioneer of Mail Art in Asia, encouraging the public to take part in art by breaking the high-end image of art (fig. 6).
1 Gabriella Dalesio, '5th Chaos, Ugly is beautiful', Shozo Shimamoto, Between East and West-Life, the Substance of Art, editioni Morra, Napel, Italy, 2014, p. 115.
2 Gabriella Dalesio, 'Introduction', Shozo Shimamoto, Between East and West-Life, the Substance of Art, editioni Morra, Napel, Italy, 2014, pp. 10-11.
3 Shozo Shimamoto, The Execution of Paintbrushes, Gutai Osaka, 1 April 1957.
4 Bonito Oliva, Achille, Shimamoto Shozo, Samurai, acrobata dello sguardo 1950-2008 (exh. cat.), Genova: Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, organized by ABC-ARTE, Milan: Skira, 2008, P.26.
5 Jeffrey Wechsler, ‘From Asian Traditions to Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970’, Asian Traditions/Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1997, p. 78.
6 Proclaimed in October 1956, published in December 1956 in the art journal "Geijutsu