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.