Summary

In a letter of 16 July 2002 to Tate, Shozo Shimamoto explained that he devised Holes, 1953, when he got hold of some silver paper and started ‘playing around with a hole punch’ in his studio in Nishinomiya City, Japan. At that time the artist was making other works with the same title (see, for instance, Holes, 1954, Tate T07897). To make this work, foil sweet wrappers were perforated with a hole punch and pasted on a sheet of plywood painted black; a wash of black ink was then thinly wiped over the surface.

Shimamoto was one of fifteen young painters who were the original members of the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association), founded in 1954 under the leadership of the established painter Jirō Yoshihara (1905-1972) and disbanded in 1972 after Yoshihara’s death. The name ‘Gutai’ was proposed by Shimamoto, the secretary of the group. It has been translated into English as ‘embodiment’ or ‘concrete’, and has been described by the writer Bruce Altshuler as meaning ‘immediate and direct expression, and related to the behavior of children’ (Altshuler, p.176.) The work made by the artists who adhered to the Gutai movement was far from being stylistically uniform, but was typified by a shared interest in materials and the art-making process itself rather than the finished work. Gutai focused on materials – both traditional art materials and more unorthodox ones, such as water, mud and chemicals – in a way that blurred the distinction between creative and destructive action. Artists sometimes performed ‘actions’ of an often very physical and violent nature. Saburo Murakami (born 1925), for example, ran through a number of life-size sheets of paper and collapsed with exhaustion at the end in 1955 and 1956, while Kazuo Shiraga (born 1924) wrestled with clay and was extensively bruised by the pebbles in it in 1956. Another ‘action’ by Shimamoto involved the use of a cannon to shoot glass bottles full of paint at a large sheet of canvas suspended from a tree during the 1956 outdoors Gutai exhibition on the banks of the Ashiya River.

With Holes, first exhibited at Shimamoto’s solo show at Sogo Department Store, Shinsaibashi branch, in Osaka in 1954, the artist explored the action of piercing in a ritualistic, ordered manner. In a 1957 article for the Gutai magazine, he advocated the use of ‘utensils’ in the making of art, arguing that paintbrushes had been invented to ‘castrate’ paint. (‘The Execution of Paintbrushes’, in Gutai, no.7, 1957, quoted in Action et émotion, p.119.) Holes is an important experimental work for Shimamoto, who in his recent letter to Tate described it as ‘the forerunner’ of a larger work that he showed at the first major Gutai exhibition, the Experimental Outdoor Modern Art Exhibition to Challenge the Burning Midsummer Sun, held in a pine forest on the banks of the Ashiya River in July 1955. The 1955 work (reproduced in Shozo Shimamoto, pp.10-11) consisted of a large sheet of zinc held up vertically by wooden posts pushed into the ground; it was painted blue and pierced in several places, so that in the evening any light shining through it gave it the appearance of a starry sky. As with many works by Shimamoto, a surprisingly graceful appearance belied the violent nature of the making of the work.

The early 1950s were an important moment, both socially and politically, for Japan: the country was starting to overcome the difficult post-war period and the first efforts at reconstruction were taking place. Of the period Shimamoto has said, ‘the time was disastrous for us [Japanese] because it was right after the War and we had been defeated. So people didn’t want to see destruction and violence, and they didn’t want to accept what they had done. So what we did was completely neglected by the audience.’ (‘Breakthrough Performance’, pp.41-2.) The artist, however, feels that his work transcends the violent nature of his techniques: ‘Even if my method seems shocking and violent – crushing bottles and shooting cannons at the canvas – because I am an artist my purpose is to make the work beautiful, to show the beauty of everything. I’m just working on creating beauty.’ (‘Breakthrough Performance’, p.42.)

Further reading:
Action et émotion, Peintures des années 50: Informel, Gutaï, Cobra, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Art, Osaka 1985
‘To Challenge the Sun: Exhibitions of the Gutai Art Association, Ashiya, Osaka, Tokyo, 1955-57’, in Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, New York 1994, pp.174-91
‘Breakthrough Performance: A Conversation with Shozo Shimamoto’, Border Crossings, vol.17, no.2, May 1998, pp.41-2
Shozo Shimamoto, exhibition catalogue, Beaconsfield Contemporary Art, London 2001

Giorgia Bottinelli
September 2002