Interview with Shozo Shimamoto
-Your artistic activity seems characterized by two very strong elements, present ever since the 1950s: the production of “works” and the creation of events. What relation is there between your work and your events?
S.: I used to produce works that were the expression of a violent throw of bottles. Both television and newspapers came to see me often, but not to publish the finalized work, but to describe the scenario of their creation. Initially I was angry when I realized that the final work was almost never shown, but then I started to think differently, both by proposing ideas to change the setting, and by taking on a certain behavior for those occasions. So I can say that the relation between my work and my events have been taught to me by journalists.
- The casting of bottles full of color is the technique that mainly characterizes your work. What are the motives that brought you to this solution?
S.: The young Gutai artists that gathered around Jiro Yashihara wanted to give a new direction to the work done by the master calligraphers (particularly by Nantenbo). In the characters written by Nantenbo we find “nijimi: shades/smears”, “kasure: fading”, “tobichiri: splashes/sprays”, “tare: drips” and other effects that were not possible to express with oil painting at the time. Kazuo Shiraga began drawing with his feet by hanging by a rope attached to the ceiling, Saburo Murakami opened holes by jumping and bursting through large pieces of paper fixed to stretcher frames. I, being physically weaker than them, thought of throwing bottles filled with color paint or making it explode with a cannon. I’ve been producing works through the casting of bottles for a long time now. Throwing with violence, or with gentleness, using a large or small canvas, are all variations. I also try to satisfy any requests made by organizers and to adapt the content of the performance to the scenario. I think that the throwing of bottles as a method of painting is still now a form of study of the unknown. More than anything else, I find stimulation in the materialization of an unpredictable expression. The biggest meaning of this phenomenon might just be Zen. However, I am still on my path even now and it must not be thought that I have reached illumination.
- This aspect of you work brings us to your interpretation of the role of the artist?
S.: I am probably quite far from the most widely accepted concept of artist. The fact of wanting to live an experience born from chance goes further than the simple research of freedom, it is a reality fixed in my heart. I research the truth.
- The technique, both in its western and eastern interpretation, has always had fundamental importance: after the great artistic revolutions of the twentieth century, of which you have been a pivotal part of, how is artistic technique considered today?
S.: Technique is a very important element of art. But I search for a world that is as far as possible from what is considered the traditional artistic technique. That is why, in the art world (in Japan), nobody gave me much importance. I have reached 80 years of age and there has not been one museum in Japan that has given me a solo show.
- You love, and have loved dearly, working in groups of artists. What significance do you attribute to creative collaboration with others?
S.: In the Gutai period, as first disciple of Jiro Yoshihara, I had the role of organizer and binding element of the group. But it has always been difficult for me to contact foreign artists. When in 1976 I became director of the Artist Union group (AU), I learned about correspondence art and began communicating with several thousand artists from all over the world. This system of communication with so many artists whom I did not know made me very happy. Artist Union (AU) was a group composed by artists that had reached a position of relative importance during the sixties. But, as it were, artists who had studied in prestigious universities and had learned the fundamental techniques, tended to stray away from the group, while other less educated artists and those with physical or mental handicaps became members. This type of artist was far from the familiar spectrum of art of the time, but it is thanks to them that a completely new form of art was born, evolving past the most common artistic sense. I then became a University professor for more than 40 years, even though I never acted as a normal professor. At the moment I have about 200 pupils. These students often have many imperfections when compared to the widespread image of the artist, but it is exactly this which generates new vigor.
- While reconstructing the Gutai years, you said that the driving force was the idea that art is supposed to be completely free. What meaning exactly does the word free hold in your concept of art?
S.: During the war, freedom did not exist for us. After the war we were given our freedom back and were initially taken aback by it, but we later learned, more than anything else, the extraordinary nature of freedom. Life is full of problems, but freedom is the key to happiness. It was a tremendous pleasure to express freedom through art.
- One of your most important works in recent times is the monument to peace of Heiwa no Akashi a Shin Nishinomiya, the cement arena that you regenerate every year by casting bottles of color paint every year, on the condition that Japan does not enter war?
S.: It all started in 1986 when Bern Porter came to visit me. Bern Porter was a nuclear physicist that had participated in Project Manhattan during the second world war, but who was shocked by the fact that a bomb was detonated over Hiroshima despite the emperor’s surrender… Bern Porter deeply regretted his contribution to the experiment, became a correspondence artists and began making pilgrimages around the world to ask for forgiveness. In my studio he cried, saying that to expiate his sins eight death sentences would not suffice. In that moment, I decided to promote world peace and shared my pacifist ideas with him. After learning of my activities, Bern Porter suggested me as a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize, which I did not win. I have, however, continued to promote peace and in 1999 gave light to the Heiwa no Akashi project.
- How, in your opinion, can art become instrumental for peace?
S.: I don’t want to use art lightly as an instrument for peace because art and peace are two very different things. When I visited Bern Porter in 1987, I learned how he was conducting a life of austere expiation and how he rejected the use of any type of machinery. Even though his home seemed luxurious, his room was empty. The fridge wasn’t even connected to the electricity outlet, and all he kept was correspondence art for peace. He ate half an onion every day and prayed for the souls of the victims. His was a truly heroic life. There are many actions that tie art and peace, but this tie must not be spoken of lightly. It is a delicate and complicated relationship and its path has not yet been smoothed out. That is why it is a theme that is worth exploring, and it is the theme of my life.
Lorenzo Mango-Andrea Mardegan