A few days ago, I visited the exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground at New York Guggenheim Museum. That gave me the opportunity to get to know an artistic movement I was not familiar with beforehand. Although I was not necessarily fascinated by all the artwork presented (the two reasons being that it is somehow odd to put in an institutionalized museum a movement that was frankly against the idea of institutionalization of art, and that rather than showing the artwork itself, we would have gained from having access to the creative process itself as it is the real artistic production of Gutai), some of them compelled me for their relation of the body to the matter.
First of all, let us look at the very name of Gutai in its original Japanese writing: 具体 (as currently learning how to write in Japanese, I became obsessed with characters!) associates 具, the tool with 体, the body/substance, forming together the idea of embodiment or concrete. Let us then look to the Gutai Manifesto written by Jirō Yoshihara in 1956. In it, he explicits this relationship of their art with the matter:
Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter. Gutai Art does not distort matter.
In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out. To make the fullest use of matter is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, matter is brought to the height of the spirit.
We believe that by merging human qualities and material properties, we can concretely comprehend abstract space.
Now that we have the tools (具!) to approach the two art works I would like to introduce here, we can proceed to present them within this broader context of an art movement. The first one, Challenging Mud (see photos below) is a documented performance of Kazuo Shiraga who put his naked body in a large puddle of mud and slowly interacted with it in a sort of physical struggle with the matter. It is said that his body was then bruised and ached from the effort, materializing and serving as a witness of this encounter of two material assemblages.
The second art work is also a documented performance. It was created and accomplished by Saburo Murakami in 1956 under the name Passing Through and it consisted in his body penetrating a series of craft paper screens at high speed. The photographs documenting this performance (see above and at the end of this article) are highly illustrative of the violence of such a material encounter. The decrease of speed of the body is manifest as it crosses more screen to a point that the viewer is allowed to wonder if it will reach the end of the series. Of course, what I am particularly interested in this specific work is the possibility for a body to gather enough energy to actually cross what I have been often describing as a unpenetrable barrier: a wall. Of course, the material is important here and what is possible with paper might not be with bricks (let us not forget that the traditional Japanese partition is made in paper); what is really important here is the visual report of the violence of a body affronting a wall: the pain is readable and the whole left in the same wall is a testimony to the latter’s own form of pain. Somehow, both bodies seems diminished from this encounter (that is what allows us to truly call it “violent”); nevertheless, the joy of the body who “vanquished” the physical assemblage that the wall constituted and the joy of the wall to acquire a sort of artistic uniqueness that celebrates its encounter with the body, sublime this violence to make of it a powerful work of art.