Colours of Destruction
Even if my method seems shocking and violent – crushing bottles and shooting cannons at the canvas [...] I’m just working on creating beauty.
– Shimamoto Shōzō1
Paint does not start to live until it is liberated from the brush. We need to revive the paint and let it live.
– Shimamoto Shōzō2
Ferociously resplendent in its explosive chromatic exuberance, the magnificent Explosion 64-1 (Lot 604) is a rare early period “bottle crash” masterpiece hailing from Shimamoto Shōzō’s Gutai era that still remains in private hands. The signature method involves Shimamoto hurling glass bottles full of coloured paint onto large canvases laid out on a hard surface or stones; as the bottles shatter and burst, the explosions of paint create dazzling patterns of extraordinary vitality and vigour. First performed in 1956, Shimamoto’s iconic and ground-breaking “bottle crash” method is one of the artist’s most important contributions to early Gutai that drove forth a pivotal force in the post-war period – one that epitomized revolutionary creation via destruction and regenerative liberation via complete and utter annihilation. In 1958, Shimamoto’s seminal Material Destruction series at the “Gutai Art on the Stage” exhibition involved him violently smashing objects such as a glowing light globe, a tube with thousands of Ping-Pong balls or a large cube filled with confetti; while in an iconic outdoor performance in 1955, Shimamoto blasted paint from four-meter-long cannons using acetylene gas, creating fiercely dynamic forms on mammoth vinyl sheets suspended on tall trees. These theatrically destructive events married performance with painting, igniting the blazing vivacity of paint whilst merging volatile material and human spirit. In effect, Shimamoto’s language was the first to make energy visible, “fix[ing] the explosive form [onto] the paint itself”,3 in Gutai leader Yoshihara Jirō’s words.
A founding member of Gutai who gave the group its name, Shimamoto was its most relentlessly radical innovator. In the 1950s and 1960s Shimamoto presented a dazzling plethora of radical interdisciplinary experiments that only decades later came to be recognized with terms such as “interactive art”, “media art”, “installation art”, “conceptual art” and “performance art” – epoch-making works that pre-dated Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” and Fluxus in Europe. In July 1955, at Gutai’s debut exhibition at Ashiya Park in Hyogo Prefecture titled “The Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun”, Shimamoto presented Please Walk On (1955) – a horizontal contraption comprised of wooden planks that either held immobile or sunk under a person’s weight. Audience members were invited to walk on the device and experience sensations of instability and unpredictability – an audacious conception of art, which up until then, was only something to be looked at and never touched. Also around this time, Shimamoto made a sculpture with razor blades; produced scratched and colorized films, projections, and sound works that render him the pioneer of media art; and performed his legendary outdoor “cannon” and “bottle crash” works either on stage or in large arenas surrounded by audiences. The stunning scope and breadth of Shimamoto’s experiments, which pre-dated all the Western experiments and conceptual works in installation and performance art, was unprecedented; as Tijs Visser observes: “In the course of his work, Shimamoto has independently obtained results which normally only more than one artist could achieve”.4
Indeed, Shimamoto’s trailblazing innovation stretches back to his Holes series beginning in 1949 where he perforated sheets of newspaper to reveal the different layers as well as the painting’s wooden backboard. The series bears an astonishing affinity with the spatial experiments of Lucio Fontana conducted in Italy, also in 1949, with neither artist being aware of the other’s efforts. In a letter to Tate in 2002, Shimamoto recalls how Yoshihara was dismayed upon encountering Fontana’s work in 1954: “Yoshihara said that no matter how much we insisted that mine were created first, no one would believe me in this backward Oriental countryside in a country that had just lost the war, so he instructed me to stop producing the Holes series. Since the dates can be seen on the newspapers I used, we were indeed eventually able to prove that they were created during those earlier years, but that was not until much later”.5 Gutai scholar Katoh Yoshio observes that “making and ripping holes in the sacred ground of the picture plane was something no artist had ever imagined doing”6 – an extraordinarily bold and revolutionary act for Shimamoto who, unlike Fontana who was originally a sculptor, was never formally trained as an artist.
In 1962, Shimamoto was the first Gutai artist to be honoured with a solo exhibition at the newly opened Gutai Pinacotheca. Shimamoto was also the editor and publisher of the international Gutai journal, printed in both Japanese and English, which was distributed to artists, critics, journalists and curators worldwide and constructed a critical communication network that extended to France, the Netherlands, Italy and the United States. After Gutai disbanded in the 1970s, apart from continuing to perform his “bottle crash” paintings to audiences around the world, Shimamoto also became involved in mail art and vast network projects that anticipated today’s information and net-based society. Through mail art, Shimamoto was interested in searching for a way to promote peace through art, as he did in his later years through re-enactments of his seminal “bottle crash” paintings. Heiwa no Akashi (“A Proof of Peace”), performed annually from 2000 onwards at the monumental site in Nishinomiya Yacht Harbour, involved Shimamoto suspended in mid-air, dropping bottles of paint onto concrete canvases in a striking image that evoked media images the atomic bombs. The present lot is the original precursor to Heiwa no Akashi and an iconic statement of freedom and peace in the era of rebirth and reconstruction in the post-war period – a dazzling torch that burns, impetuous, joyous and resilient, over half a century after its creation.
1 ‘Breakthrough Performance: A Conversation with Shozo Shimamoto’, Border Crossings, vol.17, no.2, May 1998, p. 42
2 Shimamoto Shozo, published in Gutai no. 6, 1 April 1957
3 Yoshihara Jiro, published in Shozo Shimamoto, exhibition catalogue, Gutai Gallery, Osaka, 1962
4 Tijs Visser, Between East and West, 2015
5 Giorgia Bottinelli, “Holes”, Tate Blogs, 2002
6 Katoh Yoshio, translated from Japanese by Christopher Stephens, 2015