If you believe that your art has a spiritual meaning and it helps you develop yourself, such art will truly be on the cutting edge of global culture.
A glorious maelstrom of energy resplendent in rich euphoric hues, Gesshi from 1991 hails from Kazuo Shiraga’s post-Gutai period, exhibiting one of the most arresting palettes within Shiraga’s oeuvre accented by swathes of deep ultramarine reminiscent of the Yves Klein blue. The work’s title Gesshi refers to the Yüeh-chih, an ancient Indo-European group of nomadic pastroralists who inhabited Central Asia from the third century B.C.E. through the third century C.E. One particular tribe of the Greater Yüeh-chih, the Kushan Empire, played a key role in the introduction of Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, via both direct missionary efforts (oral teachings of sutras) and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Also interacting with Greek civilization, the Kushanas also helped Greco-Buddhism flourish, and further integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities. In his post-Gutai years, Shiraga received training as a Buddhist monk, an experience which brought forth an evolution in his psyche as well as a heightened consciousness within his gestural art. Emanating from Shiraga’s dexterous swipes is a sense of transcendent jubilation: whilst preserving the raw tactility of his early works, the current work is celebratory and exultant, superseding anguish with elation.
Born in 1924 in Aagasaki, Japan, Shiraga originally trained in Nihonga at the Kyoto City University of Arts. The artist soon turned to oil, creating markings or scratchings with his fingers; beginning with these early methods, Shiraga’s art form gradually abjured the brush and took its final form in his celebrated foot paintings. In the early 1950s, a period on par with Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, Shiraga shunned the orthodox artistic stance completely. Fastening a rope to the ceiling, the artist swung himself acrobatically across horizontally placed canvases, using his feet and body to cast, heave, kick and swirl thick slabs and layers of paint. Such uninhibited actions allowed the artist to immerse himself within his canvas as opposed to merely pouring or painting from above; by merging body with matter in a cathartic synthesis, Shiraga set himself apart from the mere gesturality of Western Abstract Expressionism and thrashed out an impassioned path of primal expression. Like no other artist before him, Shiraga’s performative abstractions were vehemently inspirited with movement—“not just the movement of his body […] but also the assertion of matter itself” (Ming Tiampo, “Not just beauty, but something horrible”, in Exh. Cat. Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, New York 2015, pp. 21-22).
Concurrent to the development of his foot-painting technique, Shiraga’s career took flight in the late 1950s and 1960s as a result of iconic and internationally acclaimed performances. In his seminal 1955 Challenging Mud, Shiraga plunged himself into a vat of clay and sludge, engaging in a raw and vehement battle with the earth. Afterwards, fellow Gutai artist Akira Kanayama wrote that Shiraga arose from the mud “as if emerging from a bath, refreshed” (Akira Kanayama, “Shiraga Kazuo”, Gutai, no. 4, 1955, p. 9). Another pivotal performance was Shiraga’s 1957 Ultra-Modern Sanbasō. The 1957 “Gutai Art on the Stage” exhibition opened with Shiraga emerging alone on a lit stage, donning a theatrical red costume with a pointed hat and performing dramatic bodily movements. Accentuated by elongated wing-like sleeves, Shiraga’s arm actions created slashes of undulating color against the stage backdrop, constituting an homage to Japan’s oldest celebratory dance, Sanbasō ('divine dance'). As Alexandra Munroe notes, while Euro-American Happenings fused art with life as a critique of commoditized culture, Shiraga’s Ultra-Modern Sanbasō was an “affirmation of art in life after [the country’s] near annihilation of culture” (Alexandra Munroe, “To Challenge the Mid-summer Sun”, in Japanese Art After 1945: Scream against the Sky, Guggenheim, 1994, p. 97).
These performances underscore the centrality of Shiraga’s gesturality within his oeuvre, which is grounded in the concept of shishitsu, meaning “innate characteristics and abilities”, which serves as the driving force behind the shaping of the self. Making art was a way for the legendary master to fully connect with his shishitsu - a means to connect with himself, through himself. Such an understanding is crucial to a full appreciation of Shiraga’s body-based oeuvre: while Yves Klein also utilized the body as paintbrush in his Anthropometries works half a half a decade later, Shiraga’s art utilized his irreducible corporeality to battle with and awaken the raw vitality of matter itself. Such a paradigm epitomized the mission of the post-war Gutai artists who, literally uniting ‘instrument’ (gu) with ‘body’ (tai), rose fearlessly from the rubble of post-Hiroshima Japan to advocate a reinvigorating philosophy of ‘concreteness’ in their war-torn country. Shiraga once said that his art “needs not just beauty, but something horrible” (Kazuo Shiraga, interview with Ming Tiampo, Ashiya, Japan, 1998); by engaging with, and transcending, violence, Shiraga was able to “wrestl[e] with the demons that haunted him and his generation, at the same time opening the possibility of hope for the years ahead” (Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, New York, 2015, p. 23).
In his post-Gutai years, Shiraga not only received training in Buddhism but also re-engaged with traditional ink and brush calligraphy to complement his technique and breadth of style. Such a re-embracing of his oriental roots lends Shiraga’s feet-strokes the essence and soul of masterful ink brushwork, gracing his by-then universally acclaimed canvases with transcendent traces of his Eastern origins. Exuding thrilling vigour combined with exhilarating grace, Gesshi, titled after an important tribe in the development of Buddhism, exhibits consummate choreography, centered balletic tension and sublime balance that communicate the artist’s spiritual mastery of his raw passions: in it we witness Shiraga raised from his angst, revelling in the authority of matter, body and spirit.