Axel Vervoordt Gallery

Kazuo Shiraga

Kazuo Shiraga

VlaeykensgangAntwerp, Belgium Thursday, September 6, 2012Saturday, October 20, 2012

Antwerp, Belgium
Thursday, September 6, 2012Saturday, October 20, 2012

Kazuo Shiraga
6 September – 20 October 2012
Opening on September 6th, from 6-9pm

About the artist
Japanese avant-garde painter Kazuo Shiraga was born in 1924 in Amagazaki. In his quest to transform the essence of human energy into matter, he invented his own form of action painting and live art 'happenings'. Shiraga’s career spanned six decades and his artistic philosophy and revolutionary techniques were a great influence to many European and American artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein and Robert Motherwell.

Central to Shiraga’s work is the concept of shishitsu. This term primarily means “innate characteristics and abilities” and in a philosophical understanding refers to a psycho-corporeal essence in ourselves that defines us and shapes us over time as individual human beings. For Shiraga making art was a way of fully connecting with one’s own shishitsu and making it resonate through paint.

In his writings he defines it as follows: “The physical constitution with which someone is born is that person’s initial capital for living. No matter how that person lives and acts, that asset, that constitution, and the sensory psyche related to it make up what I call that person’s shishitsu. That for me requires a more precise interpretation than what is commonly called human nature. The growth and development of that person is the growth and development of his shishitsu, his shishitsu evolves.” (published in Gutai no. 5, 1 October 1956)

For Shiraga, shishitsu is the driving force behind the shaping of the self. It is a paradoxical force, overcoming the duality between body and soul, between consciousness and unconsciousness. The concept is comparable to what existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said that “experience precedes essence”. The self is created through an accumulation of actions. With everything we do, we absorb life and it shapes our own life. Stimulations and impressions are absorbed by one’s shishitsu. Shishitsu is our life shaping personal memory and thus a very intimate energy that makes the self essentially differ from the other. According to Shiraga it should be everybody’s quest in life to come into direct contact with his or her personal shishitsu and to express it in the fullest way possible.

With the idea of expressing shishitsu, Shiraga asserted what the proper nature of artistic activity should be. His philosophical approach to art fully coincides with the artwork produced by the members of Gutai, a Japanese avant-garde movement (1954-1972) of which Shiraga was one of the founders. The Gutai members were incited by their leader Jiro Yoshihara to make art that did not represent anything but rather presented the intensity of the creative act itself. Gutai artists became one with matter and with their action.

Also the artists were told to be truly original in their work. They had to create something that had never been made before, using techniques that had never been applied before. Only the expression in accordance with one’s own self is truly creative. Or in Shiraga’s thinking: an artist should not have himself contaminated by someone else’s shishitsu.

In 1955, during The First Gutai Exhibition in Tokyo, Shiraga dove into a pile of mud and wrestled it into sculptural shapes. During this performance, called Challenging Mud, he made use of his entire being in all dimensions to unconsciously express his existence in matter. His own body replaced the traditional paintbrush and so the artist literally entered and turned into his work. The contact between body and matter was violent yet extremely creative. Shiraga became truly one with the action, he became full and empty at the same time. He had entered the dimension of his shishitsu.

A few months later he wrote: “One has to dare to imagine and undertake something senseless. A dimension in which something that now appears senseless will no longer be senseless […] One will feel as if one had entered a dimension, which is neither rational nor irrational. It is a world of an endless cave, a zero space […] There one enjoys all possible spiritual games and one becomes fuller and fuller. When at last rationality like emotion surpasses every human phenomenon, the difference in the quality of each person will come to light clearly.” (published in Gutai no. 4, 1 July 1956)

In the summer of 1954, Shiraga took his first step inside the canvas with his bare feet, holding on to a rope that was suspended from the ceiling. This technique was to become his artistic trademark.
The choice of painting with his feet initially evolved out of an attempt to eliminate deliberate composition and consciousness from his work. Painting with your feet on a slippery underground is not an easy undertaking. The canvas becomes like a true arena in which to act without being able to rely on your consciousness. Shiraga’s art is born out of a battle between the unconscious power of the body and the conscious power of the mind that is continuously trying to give structure. The artistic act is an attempt to reconcile flesh and spirit. In his art the artist thus overcomes the self, is reborn over and over again out of his own creative battle.

Shiraga’s canvas is no longer a space in which to reproduce, re-design or analyse an object. What is to go on the canvas is not a picture but a ritual event of rebirth. The violent swooshes of paint do not represent anything, but are mere traces of a short-lived shishitsu.