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Shimamoto Shozo

Gutai was formed in the late 1950s in the Kansai region by such distinguished figures as YOSHIHARA Jiro, KANAYAMA Akira, MURAKAMI Saburo, SHIRAGA Kazuo, and SHIMAMOTO Shozo. The group's activities anticipated the great changes that Western art underwent in the early 60s, such as happenings and action painting. Shimamoto may have been the first composer of the period to work with concrete sounds. In this article, the artist, who is still based in Kansai and has become ever more active, introduces his sound work.


In 1957, our group, Gutai, gave the "Gutai Stage Exhibition," which for the first time in the world used a stage as an exhibition space, and the following year, the second "Gutai Stage Exhibition" was held. Despite the word "stage," our performances lacked any of the literary qualities of normal drama, and were limited purely to the presentation of art. Yet, they were presented on the stage, and were based on time; in other words, they were art that changed. For this event, I decided to make something called The Film That Doesn't Exist Anywhere in the World.

This is not to say I had any of the equipment necessary to film such a project, and since this was back in the days when the only money we had was in our pockets, there was no real way for me to buy it. At the time, I was a junior high school teacher, and as it happened, one of my former students was working part-time at a movie theater. I asked him to bring me some 35mm film that wasn't needed anymore, and washed away the images with vinegar. Then I drew some pictures on the surface to make a kind of animation. There weren't any marking pens back then, so I dissolved some dye in varnish and drew each of the frames one by one.

But these were very rough drawings. In one part of the film, I just put dots on each of the frames. Because I had pressed down on the film so crudely, the dots, unlike polished animation, looked as if they were jumping around when the film was projected. There was another part of the film that had lines. They seemed to be wavering back and forth across the screen. I had set out to discover a new form of visual expression with these crude movements. This wasn't the only thing I did. By training two projectors with two different films on a single screen, the picture became even more complicated. Next, I decided that I needed some music.

From here on, my story is about sound. At the time, tape recorders had just gone on the market. They were still quite large and heavy, but since a tape recorder would enable me to create sound, this is what I wanted. So I started recording a variety of sounds. The result was similar to musique concrete, which in translation would be gutai music. As a member of Gutai, this seemed perfect, but for some reason I felt some aversion to the term musique concrete. Although the sounds used in musique concrete weren't made with pianos or violins, they were structured and for some reason, this structure seemed like classical music. It seemed to me that the sounds were combined in a very traditional way.
Instead, I tried to make the sounds I chose unstructured by ignoring changes in their strength or length, and recorded them in as natural a way as I could. This meant, for example, trying to capture the most ordinary sort of sounds that one might hear in daily life such as water flowing out of the tap or a chair being pulled out.

In the October 23, 1955 Kansai edition of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, my recordings were described this way:


"Shimamoto is regarded as a pioneer among the young people in the Gutai group. He began working in modern art before abstract paintings received any attention from the general public. He is a graduate of Kansai University. While studying with the master painter Yoshihara Jiro, Shimamoto was awarded the Asahi Prize in the All-Kansai Art Exhibition, and the Association Prize at the Modern Art Association Exhibition in 1953.

The philosophical basis for Shimamoto's paintings is said to owe much to the influence of his older brother Fumio, a scholar of realism who died at the end of last month.

Shimamoto has performed an incredible number of strange experiments. In each of these, he makes dozens of artworks, which he divides into three major groups: the worthless, the good, the worrisome. The only works he keeps are the worrisome; the rest he throws away. Shimamoto explains, 'The ones that strike me as being good are just an expression of my self at the moment. This has nothing to do with being avant-garde, but it seems to me that the future is hidden away somewhere inside the worrisome ones'....He goes on to explain the difficult struggle that is taking place in the avant-grade, 'The images I have in my head are probably not really mine; they were influenced by seeing a PICASSO, a MATISSE, or some other kind of exhibition. The only thing I can do is put my hopes on the accidental things that arise from my experiments, which I use as a way of discovering my true self. It's easy to decide on a single direction and keeping walking down that road like artists of the past have done, but unfortunately for us there are no directions visible. Even if a certain direction seems interesting to me now, I have absolutely no idea what I should do with it tomorrow. We are haunted by the uncertainty of tomorrow.'

Shimamoto also has an interest in audio works, and commits to tape familiar noises such as the sound of a chair being pulled out, the sound of a kettle being hit, and the sound of water flowing for use in his music. Shimamoto speaks with fervor about his recorded work, 'Musicians of today aren't doing anything creative with predictable sounds like piano or violin. We've set out to create a new world with Gutai music.'"

My movie ran twenty minutes, so I recorded about twenty minutes of sound. This tape was used for the first screening, but the film was never shown again and has been sitting for over forty years in a storehouse. With the passage of time, the film has stuck together in places and broken apart in others. Some pieces of sound have been recorded. Some of these tapes belong to the collection of the Pompidou au Center in Paris, and some belong to the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, but no one can hear how the work was as a whole.

In February, works by 150 artists, who had created new art or actions over the last 100 years or so, were chosen from around the world to coincide with the end of the 20th century and be exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The exhibition ran for nearly three months, went on to Vienna for another three months, and will travel to Barcelona for another three months. Finally, it will be presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo for three months beginning in February of next year, making this a massive project. I was among the artists invited to show their work. Before the exhibition opened in Los Angeles, I visited MOCA for a preview of the show.

As I stepped into the first room, I was astounded. On one wall, there was something by Jackson POLLOCK, the representative of American contemporary art. Next to this, was something by Lucio FONTANA, one of the most representative artists of Europe, and next to that, were two of my "hole" works. On the opposite side of the room, there was a musical score by the American contemporary composer John CAGE. These were supposed to be the four great artists who represent the 20th century. In the catalog for the show, it was also written that the art of the century could be traced back to these four individuals. I was shocked.

Two things surprised me. One was that John Cage, a musician, was singled out as a representative of the century in an art exhibition. But it didn't take me long to appreciate the wisdom of MOCA in making this choice. Magnificent. The second thing was that my work was included among the works of the four major artists. This isn't to say that I didn't think my work belonged at the forefront of world art. I had enough confidence that the concepts I expressed in my work have had some appeal to the world without constantly asserting as much. But my teacher, the late YOSHIHARA Jiro, always used to tell me, "Our country was defeated in the war, and what's more we are Japanese, a colored race. Unless and until we move to a foreign country and become naturalized citizens there, our art is never going to be considered as part of the best art."

My works with holes ripped in the canvas happen to have been made before Fontana's, an Italian, works with holes in them. For a long time, I had been trying to bring this to the attention of the Japanese art world, but no one cared This made me think that Yoshihara had been right. But in 1994, when the "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky" exhibition was held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the curator Alexandra MONROE had found the date of 1950 as the age of the newspaper in my work because my "hole" works were made out of pieces of newspaper that had been stuck together. Since then, the American art world suddenly changed its attitude toward me, and I began getting all kinds of questions from everywhere. In the 1200-page book Art History, used as a textbook in university art courses, three things were chosen to represent Japanese painting: Sesshu, Ukiyo-e, and Shimamoto Shozo. Not only that, these examples are all printed in color.

It seems to me that the reason the originality of Japanese artists never reached the world at large had nothing to do with discrimination against Japan as an axis power or the Japanese as a colored people. Rather, it was the closed-minded predisposition of people in the Japanese art world, who on the basis of their own inferiority complexes and blind worship of foreign people firmly believed that "there is no way a Japanese could make any kind of original art." In light of this fact, I can't help but regret that I never again used the avant-garde music I made in 1958.

In a situation that mirrors the way I was treated in reference to Fontana's work, Yoshihara Jiro told me that it would be impossible for me, as I was not a musician per se, to be recognized after John Cage achieved such popularity and received so much attention for his avant-garde music. This made me very depressed. All at once, my avant-garde music withered and died without most people ever having had a chance to hear it.


Shimamoto Shozo Profile

1954 Helps form Gutai.

1958 Projects two different films on a single screen at the same time. Recorded sound is also used to accompany the images.

1982 The artist's name is listed in a French encyclopedia.

1995 Along with Sesshu and Ukiyo-e, the artist appears on p. 1167 of the American university art textbook, Art History (Strokstad, Marilyn; Harry Abrams, N.Y., 1995) as a representative of Japanese painting.

1997 At the multi-purpose hall at Osaka Prefectural Culture and Information Center, a performance by the artist along with a performance of Mahler's music is sponsored by the Osaka Prefectural Culture Promotion Foundation.

1998 The artist is invited to Los Angeles for the "Out of Action Between Performance and Objects:1949-1979" exhibition held at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where he was selected along with Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, and John Cage as one of four major artists.