The Start of Disappearance: As Things Deny Things, 1969
Today, it has become possible to use anything as an object of art. Things of nature, processed or reformed things, and even such elements as fire and gas are directly or indirectly used in art. In this chaotic era, where everything is at once raw material and creation, what is at the forefront of this art-making consciousness? At one time it was technique, at other times methodology, action itself, and imitation. And today, in the second half of the twentieth century, it is dominated by an ambiguous word called idea (kannen). This word is invisible to the eye and emerged as an analogical interpretation of the historical language, which is a human convention. All the more because we cannot see it, we think idea to be something mysterious yet weighty, affording it a certain status prompted by both the ritualistic nature of language and our blind gullibility. Why must idea be suddenly presented in the discipline of art? Perhaps because the act of seeing has always been forced upon humans in a visual culture, to the point that we cannot believe in anything formless. I do not know whether we see, and therefore a thing to be seen exists, or whether seeing is idea’s function of representation—but we can only perceive idea by glimpsing it, to say the least. To our eye, even a conceptual construct consisting of numerous ideations appears as a single idea. But just as ideas have no necessity to produce things, we have no reason to necessarily read a conceptual construct in a visible form.
Many of us artists draw a sense of confidence in our works from the outdated misconception that condones formal but condemns conceptual imitation. But it should be the other way around. Since art is in every respect a visual medium, we should in principle condemn formal imitation.
We confront an idea and produce a form, or attempt to explain it by using signs and words. But should and could ideas be explained? What are “these things” in which both visible objects and abstract linguistic spaces exist without contradiction? While things are something to be spoken about, language is something with which to speak. Don’t we need that which engages neither of them?
Recently it has become so common to use things found in nature that few of us are surprised to see rather strange things displayed as art. Why do artists so readily bring in elements that form nature itself, such as wood, stones, soil, and water? I can understand that one sees a parallel in the convention of “making” something of their own and the concept of “choosing”—that is, making by choosing without further intervention. When one chooses a thing, he unconsciously knows that he simultaneously discards something else as an integral counterpart of action. There must be some justification if one chooses and presents as a substitute of idea things that have not been chosen or made by humans but long existed in our everyday environment since time immemorial. Natural things are beginning to be used as something in between ideas and things that humans conceptually cognize. When we realize that ideas cannot be underwritten by things and events but can only be justified by ideas themselves, the object displayed is left hanging between idea and the concept of that object, no longer belonging to either.
Humans think that because conceptual thought exists, it can be expressed by an object. However ideas and objects exist not on top of each other but side by side. In art I detest such seemingly dignified terms as “Conceptual art.” What allows such terms is the premise that idea can be expressed by a visible object or event. Art that flaunts idea is not necessarily conceptual, nor does it represent an initial thought. So long as human thought moves in a vertical manner, the artist is unable to match up the cognitive and representational functions because humans possess a manner of thinking that can be repeated independently of time and space.
In 1969 stones and dirt from outside were brought to Earth for the first time. It was “moon matter.” Thus the moon at once became present in reality and remained fictional. Even now, as the stones and dust from the moon are being examined, the moon itself remains a mysterious, unknown thing. The stones and dirt that the scientists study are indeed of the moon, but once they were brought here, they lost their locational designation “of the moon” and became simply “stones and dirt.” When we see the stones and dust, we vaguely imagine the mysterious entity that is the moon but we cannot really sense it in our skin in its historical planetary facts, its structure, its geological data, and its living environment. If we know anything, it is the abstract fact that the stones and dust were transported from the moon to Earth across a vast space, and the paltry scientific data relating to them—stones and dust, that is, that have lost their specific designation “of the moon.” When we say “the moon is round,” we have a flat image of the moon rather than the thought that it is purely made up of dirt like Earth. Even if we brought the moon down here [for inspection], we would not see much difference in its stones.
When one chooses or discerns something, he references other things or certain ways of thinking. He compares it with similar things of the same kind, or with similar forms, to determine whether it is strange, useful, dangerous, and so on. The stones of the moon gain the label “of the moon” only when they are compared with those of Earth. Without something to give us a relative view, we evaluated the moon only through a name, “moon,” that was no more than fictional. When one saw the stones of the moon, one was not amazed because they were different from our own, but because of the recognition that the stones of the moon are in fact the moon itself, and because its dust, which can be easily blown away, contains a [different] world, an enormous entity with its own history and time and space.
Robert Smithson, who divided a triangular wooden box [into segments] and filled it with stones from a certain location, no doubt needed not just any stones on the ground but those of a specific American region. They had to be not from Europe or the East, but unmistakably from a specific place in America. His choice points to the most painful aspect of American culture that is based on virtual imagery; this is because the nation of America has not rested on such things as ethnic consciousness, climatic features, and linguistic order as fundamental to its formation. Yet even Smithson failed to completely transcend the vices of America’s virtual culture. Since he had no clear real entity to transcend, he had to record his collection of stones through its location, date, and situation. Notably, even this record was not handwritten but typed and printed.
When Smithson transferred stones from one place to another, he was one step closer to moving away from object-as-concept, toward a form that was not an object framed by the symbolic designation of a stone. That is to say, he felt in the stones the weight of America itself, which could not be recorded by a typewriter. He tried to capture the weight, distance, time, and space all together: that is, the America that cannot be spoken of. He unambiguously placed stones inside the triangular box, but I wonder if what he actually put inside was the nation of America that Americans are forgetting, one consisting of endless muddy wildernesses that will last for years to come as long as Earth continues to exist, and whose culture of fictions will quickly turn back to wildernesses once it is over.
Smithson made a connection with nature through the act of transporting, and he attempted to preserve human-to-human and human-to-culture relationships by making his divided triangular box. In other words, with a simple act of delineating the form, he planted in the viewer the intention of freely choosing this form and invoked the common gesture of creating a box. This means that the viewer at the least unconsciously recognized the America that existed in actuality in the box’s stones. Although the viewer does not share any language about stones, he can share with others the common topic of the boxes, because the box is a man-made structure.
Smithson’s Nonsite work is not so much an expression of material as a product of his actions. Although an object exists there, one cannot see its real entity. Smithson used the stones and the wooden frame because of some idea, but he tried to evaluate everything in a side-by-side manner—be it ideas, stones, wood, and photographs, as well as typewritten records and actions—in order to make an object present there. The work thus always condemns the real image of America. Today, when raw materials have become part of art making, we come to know the fact that things are forced to expose their characteristics; that ideas are directly connected not to their presences but to their characteristics; and that, conversely, ideas have no more expanse than things actually presented there. Ideas by no means go beyond human thoughts. There must be a good reason if natural things have spread among artists as components of art making (dependent on exterior elements) in such a short period of time. Japanese people come into contact with nature and see things in such a way as to immerse themselves deep in nature’s landscape, deep in time and space. In doing so, they must see everything appear side by side in their alternate vision to see the invisible. Simply put, what enables this immersion is the credo of Eastern metaphysics that everything is nothing. This spirituality, wherein what is present is also absent, prevented Japan from devising ideas that allow a shift to the next generation.
The roots of materialism and structuralism date back ages. Because they have been called by different names, we have paid little attention to them. Human action is based on repetition. Why is it that in the midst of doing the same thing again and again, one comes to believe that he does it for the first time and won’t repeat it again for the rest of his life? Because humans do not use an act to establish a meaning; that is, because an act only proves the act itself. It is a concept akin to “sound.” The space that a single person possesses over his lifetime constitutes a zone of time that flows not vertically but horizontally. One can certainly memorize various events from the past. However, that proves nothing. One memorizes only his act of memorizing.
When we had to break down the concept of an object with the object, what we did was to let “it” be known with minimum human intervention. Only when we clearly recognize a tree as a “tree” and soil as “soil” can we grasp the object for us to break down. In doing so, we create an artificial nature that the human brain can freely manipulate from the nature in which human consciousness is immersed.
The simplest method for separating individual things from each other is to use different materials under the same thought. This brings out the specificity of each material and results in the unexpected effect that the crux of thought can be instantly visualized. It helps the generalized thought to acquire an absolute super-logic underscored by a specific conviction. Rubber stretches. Glass breaks. Sand, though granular, holds a certain form. All these prompt the viewer in the direction to “feel something” other than the direction to “see.” What we want from things is their extreme states, not that they must be in these states. But at the moment when a thing’s specificity is revealed, the thing can repudiate and transform itself.
If things can maintain their extreme states, there must also be other relative states they should absolutely never take. The greater the difference between the two, the greater sense we have about the directionality of things to transform into something else. Things can leave a state in which there is something and enter a sensory dimension in which there is nothing.
We have mastered how to freely use other components by applying the same methodology. Yet, in every instance, contrary to our intention, things more and more invade the act itself, thereby deepening their relationship with humans. As a result one has to compete with others for new materials. And by frequently changing materials, one drags the invisible down to the visible world—indeed, a descending operation. This has been the peculiar way in which ideas manifest themselves with no methodological foundation.
In this methodology, if something is made based on a separate idea, the result is a representation of the characteristics not of a material but of an act. Thus, without constantly changing materials, we may change ideas and the ones who think them. Just as things have certain characteristics, our gestures and acts also have definitive characteristics, which differ from person to person. Even if the same thing is made from the same material and the same method, we can still clearly see a different act. Only at this point can we discuss whether each case involves thought at all. We then realize that the limits of actare defined not by those of things but by those of thought. We did not question when new materials revealed the same worn and overused ideas. But well-used materials expose the limits of action and confirm that ideas must be isolated from one another and move to an invisible dimension.
If artists make things intelligible only to them, this merely exposes a sort of distorted stoicism in them.
As I observed earlier about Smithson’s box and natural stones, we should pay more attention to materials that have undergone artificial refinement. Contrary to our initial understanding, natural things have no possibility of transformation in the sense that humans could remake them. We unconditionally accept soil, stones, and water, yet we are unable to think of, create, or use that which may replace them. We never doubted that natural things were the basic source materials from which humans create things. However, as soon as we tried to present and see man-made products, they bounced back to us as false entities. Moreover, they even attempted to shed their non-changeability. Humans hold clear preconceptions about things in terms of their states of being and structure; humans cannot completely hide their preconceived belief that “I know it,” the degree of which varies from person to person. If one is too uncertain to affirm “I am here,” how can one squarely face the presence of things themselves?
Humans refuse to see a new world that lies beyond their cognition.
At a gallery in the city I happened to see a work by Kishio Suga, consisting solely of wax, that reveals his nonstandard cognition. In this work, we must comprehend not only the changing nature of the era and the extreme state of action, but also his doubt about controlling things with things. Seeing this work, one must squarely confront the “actual existence” beyond natural things.
An attempt to deny things by things through a combination of man-made and natural things was made by Nobuo Sekine, who once placed a large natural stone on a stainless steel rectangular column. At first glance, the natural stone gives the illusion of floating in midair. But that is a trivial matter. Rather, we must perceive the weight caused by the stone indeed existing over the rectangle. When we come near it, we feel as though the stone may fall on us. At that very moment, when we imagine the stone falling off the column down to the ground, the huge stone disappears from our sight. What we see is no more than “a landscape with a stone.” In this sight, the stone has lost its concept as “stone.” The stone vanishes the stainless steel column, denying its own being as a “stone.” The column merely represents a passive state of bearing the stone. We look at the stone, but not the weight of the artist’s idea that exists parallel to it. We see a state of emergency (wherein all cognitions are discarded) that necessarily
arises when things deny every concept and existence of things. A slim space in which the ideas barely coexist depends on the justification that it must be a combination of that stone and that stainless rectangle, no matter who sees it. It constitutes an intense moment, when this condition, wherein man-made and natural things merge and are at rest, assumes an actual existence.
When more than two materials exist in a relationship unbreakable by any dynamic force, they possess a sense of crisis. This sense of crisis not only concerns their positioning, but the [state of] humans themselves being adrift and the crisis of ideas shown by artists. A Butoh dancer asserts that his body contains a square box. This statement is premised upon the contradiction that while his body and the box are clearly of equal value, there is something that is neither the body nor box and cannot be anything other than the body and box.
We must find a new position when we arrive at the moment when idea no longer becomes an idea, material loses its role as material, existence no longer becomes existence, and action becomes unable to perform its role as action. Unless art at least aims to drastically change linguistic spaces, fixed concepts, climates and geographies, anthropological structures, religions, and spiritualities—rather than addressing the state of things, human actions, and the petty world of ideas—we shall have a sure death in art.
We are now challenging our times. We must realize that the fluidity of ideas and the changing thinking of things have at last come together in our everyday space; and that making things is not a completed function of representation but constitutes merely the starting point to another space that is enormous and undefined.
Translated from the Japanese by Oshrat Dotan
Originally published as Katsuragawa Sei (pseudonym of Kishio Suga), “Shōmetsu no kiten: Buttai wa buttai o hitei shinagara,” SD, no. 62 (December 1969): 51–53; reprinted in Suga Kishio chosaku senshu: Ryōiki wa tojinai (Selected Writings of
Kishio Suga: Spheres Will Not Be Closed), exh. cat. (Yokohama: Yokohama Museum of Art, 1999), 45–513; and in Mika Yoshitake, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha (Los Angeles: Blum & Poe, 2012), 219–222.