Morio Shinoda: Fine-Tuning Nature

Part 1

In the 1960s, as his sculpture first achieved international acclaim, Morio Shinoda indulged himself with one small luxury. He bought a Porsche sports car. It was the joy of his life. He endlessly posed for photos with his car, and he drove it until there were no miles left in it. After the car died, the sculptor lovingly removed its engine, took it apart piece by piece, restored and polished all of its parts, reassembled it, and placed it on a pedestal as a work of art—more particularly as an homage to one artist’s dream of sculptural perfection. Today, Shinoda’s gleaming memento lives on as a centerpiece in the showroom of an exclusive Tokyo Porsche dealership.

TC 5801, 1989. Aluminum, stainless steel, and brass, 165 x 300 x 450 cm.

The story of Shinoda and his Porsche reveals a lot about the artist and his art. Energetic, personable, and charming, Shinoda is a complex and often contradictory man who lives well with both the Dionysian and the aesthete aspects of his temperament. As an artist, he could perhaps be best described as a watchmaker consumed by the artistic issues of landscape representation—a Sumi master exploring nature from the driver’s seat of a Grand Prix race car.

A brief period of study with Buckminster Fuller no doubt contributed to Shinoda’s view of the world as a confluence of tensions and compressions to be brought into both an engineered and a visual harmony. Finding beauty in harnessed mechanical horsepower, Shinoda made Fuller’s lessons his own. Navigating the Japanese landscape behind the wheel of a precision-built German sports car, he lived the dualisms that are everywhere present in his sculpture. The same love of nature that compels Shinoda to live in a house situated in a wooded tract of land outside the city imparts a certain stereotypically Japanese sense of landscape to his work. But alongside this reverence for nature we find an equally intense love of machines expressed in Shinoda’s art—a love historically associated with Western technology and culture. More than almost any other artist in his generation, Shinoda seems to have been hard-wired from birth to produce sculpture that would conjoin the orient and the occident in a dynamic fusion.

Of course, whenever one talks of sculpture in which the East and West meet, the work of Isamu Noguchi immediately becomes a part of the conversation. Curators and historians have long credited Noguchi with the formulation of a thoroughly Westernized, Modernist style of sculpture brilliantly informed by a Japanese sense of forms and materials. Born into a later generation, Shinoda extends Noguchi’s exploration beyond the issue of style. The artistic synthesis he has achieved is a complex transcultural expression connecting Eastern and Western traditions and ideas from a range of disciplines, including science, art, design, philosophy, and occasionally music.

TC 6109, 1992. Stainless steel, aluminum, and brass, 190 x 560 x 150 cm.

Even as he works in the studio, Shinoda seems to be a product of two cultures: one traditional and Japanese, the other postmodern and decidedly Western. His sculptures begin as simple hand-drawn sketches and quickly fashioned maquettes. To move his ideas to the next level, the artist then refines his drawings through the use of advanced computer imaging. As he begins to translate these drawings into a full-scale metal construction, however, Shinoda becomes a traditional artisan and painstakingly hand-crafts each of the elements to be used in his composition—but he does so on the same precision machines needed to create a high-performance car engine. The final product has both a mechanical and a poetic essence. Shinoda has found a way to create a form of high-tech sculpture that remembers the mysterious, organic, and eccentric world of nature.

Throughout his career, Shinoda has frequently traveled abroad to work and teach, far from his studio in Japan. After his sculpture was presented in New York exhibitions at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim during the mid-1960s, the artist found himself traveling, exhibiting, and lecturing all across Europe and the U.S. He presently maintains a second studio in Germany and is actively seeking a situation that will allow him to work for a part of each year in the American Midwest—a region with a history of industrial production and manufacturing that he particularly admires. At the age of 72, Shinoda is still discovering and expanding the internationalism of his vision.

For years Shinoda has created metal constructions that speculate on the forces of tension and compression that he believes underlie the structure of the physical world. He has come to see these forces as creating the delicate balance that supports life and maintains the spirit. Thus, his constructions frequently evoke references to figures in landscape. His signature works comprise mechanical topographies inhabited by solitary lathe-turned brass or stainless steel chessmen. Scale in Shinoda’s work is deceptive. Playing with images that confuse real and pictorial information, Shinoda frequently imparts a certain Giacometti-like Surrealism to his evocations of place. Many of his spare, early small works beg to be realized at monumental scale for outdoor presentation. In point of fact, a few of the early works were actually commissioned for public spaces and were as successful at heroic scale as they had been as table-top pieces.

TC 6215, 1993. Stainless steel, brass, bronze, and aluminum, 80 x 200 x 100 cm.

More recently, however, the work has exploited scale issues typically associated with furniture and large architectural models. Shinoda’s sculpture emphatically references the part-to-part relationships of its components, refusing to allude to the world outside itself. Orchestrating tiers of polished aluminum planes into free-standing or wall-mounted structures, Shinoda creates a kind of futuristic stage-set animated by an array of precisely machined metal bars, blocks, pins, and pegs—elements often connected by taut strands of fine stainless steel wire. Frequently the sculptor “floats” his tableaux on supports fashioned from structural girders that further complicate the issue of scale in the piece overall. The mechanical precision of these works gives them an austere and hermetic character. At the same time, their obsessive elegance and formal eccentricity render them curiously expressive. Constantly loading more and more mechanical details into his work, Shinoda is presently creating some of the most original and compelling sculpture of his long career.

Perhaps the most arresting thing about Shinoda’s new work is the way in which it asserts its own specific “thingness.” Confronting these works is something akin to walking into a room and addressing a concert grand piano with its top propped open but with no bench or stool present that would invite playing or imply a player. Perfect unto itself, the piano could be perceived (variously) as a machine, an artifact, an abstract sculpture, a surreal landscape, a tour de force of craftwork, or an exotic reliquary. Associative recognition notwithstanding, all viewers would ultimately have to address the piano as an object to be understood as a sum of parts referenced to an ordering not specifically implicit in its appearance. So too with Shinoda’s new constructions. The enigmatic thingness of these works evokes both the mechanical perfection of a Porsche and the contemplative perfection of a traditional Japanese rock garden. In the end, however, these works are emphatically neither machines nor landscapes. As new-made things both in and of the world, they confidently reference themselves to an ordering ultimately dictated by the idea of sculpture.

TC 5908, 1991. Aluminum, stainless steel, and brass, 275 x 395 x 162 cm.

In the postmodern era the idea of purity of any sort is by and large presumed to be out of step with the times. Still, something we would have to understand as a kind of purity pervades Shinoda’s quest in sculpture. In fact, it could be argued that it is the idea of pure sculpture that allows Shinoda to synthesize his international life experience into the forms he creates. Seeking to sculpturally express his sense of the equilibrium created when organic and mechanical systems intersect or when the natural and the man-made find commonality, Shinoda advocates the possibility that purity in art may be little more than distilled impurity made visible. Not surprisingly, he has frequently admonished his students to appreciate and seek out “the unstable over the stable, the abnormal rather than the normal.” Because, he asserts, “As long as you accept everything in the world as it is [you will discover] a love of the spirit of tension.”

Shinoda’s ever-expanding circle of friends and admirers is global. It includes a host of other sculptors, along with an interesting mix of painters, poets, ceramists, and performance artists (not to mention a diverse assortment of collectors and curators). For years he has maintained a bond of friendship with most of the artists of the original Fluxus group. Curiously, however, his art has never been identified with any group or movement. Like his mentor, Buckminster Fuller, Shinoda is an original—an independent spirit in his chosen field. Even within the context of contemporary Japanese art, his work stands apart. Perhaps the singularity of Shinoda’s achievement reflects the singularity of the long and complex life experience that inspired it. Perhaps it’s the whole Porsche thing. I don’t know. What I do know is that standing at his lathe and turning a shaft of yellow brass into yet another piece of a world of his own making, Morio Shinoda is a sculptor to be reckoned with. Fine-tuning nature isn’t something that just anybody would want to try to do.

Michael D. Hall is a sculptor, collector, and critic and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Sculpture Center.

Morio Shinoda: Bachelor of Anti-Gravity

Part 2
by Takatoshi Shinoda

TC 6101, 1992. Aluminum, stainless steel, and brass, 240 x 260 x 200 cm.

Morio Shinoda taught in the Plastic Arts and Mixed Media Department at the University of Tsukuba for 15 years, beginning in 1979. He also taught art in the Department of Education at the University of Nagasaki for two years. Under his devoted guidance, many of his students have become unique and successful artists. Some have become well known nationally and internationally, including Tsunekazu Ishihara, (the creator of “Pokemon”), Takamasa Kuniyasu, Daizaburo Harada, Toshio Iwai, Toshihiko Okabe, and Nobumichi Tosa (Meiwa Denki). Shinoda was the 2000 recipient of the International Sculpture Center’s Outstanding Sculpture Educator Award.

The titles of Shinoda’s works mainly consist of the abbreviation “TC” combined with numerical digits, a practice that according to the artist, originated in 1958 with his work Tension and Compression. Following this, in 1959 and 1960, he created works titled Tension and Compression 27, TC 29-3 Circus, and so on. Shinoda’s alphanumeric titles suggest manufacturing numbers, perhaps for prototype cars such as those displayed in automobile shows that are intended to stimulate the consumer’s desire for ownership. These titles, sometimes with the addition of suggestive or descriptive words (such as TC 4428 Floating Industry [1975], TC 5204 Dog Race II [1983], and TC 5802 Hanging Garden [1989– 1991]), demonstrate Shinoda’s exploration, his artistic principles, and the blooming of his creative energy. His earliest sculptures, compressed objects that are suspended in mid-air, manifest gravitational physics as the core of aesthetic expression. These works were succeeded by another “TC” series, simple and yet refined pieces that have been collected by museums throughout Japan.

In Shinoda’s mature “TC” works, geometric shapes and highly polished metallic surfaces construct a symmetrical composition with simple hard edges and a structure based on modular units in which lines are created by means of tension. The sculptures remind the viewer of precision machines, arousing a visual reaction and frustrating the viewer’s desire to think analytically.

TC 5907, 1991. Aluminum, stainless steel, and brass, 25 x 80 x 30 cm.

In some works, the emphasis is placed on the polished metal itself. A continuous coolness plays like a bass rhythm, concealing an emotional substrate. The structural tensions and forces at play in Shinoda’s work resonate in the psychological tension experienced by the viewer. In a series completed during his 1967 stay in the U.S., the forms are more explicitly taken from female anatomy; nose, mouth, breasts, navel, and leg are cast and polished into metal pieces held in suspension by other components of the sculptures—an effect that creates a metallic eroticism. Pathos occasionally flows through other works. One recent piece, 6507 Kagero (1996), embodies the artist’s nostalgia for his childhood: the form reminds us of a fantastic biomorphic mechanism, something like a jet fighter (an image of tension).

The suspension of some elements in these works, supported in tension by other elements, is an integral factor. According to the artist, “The constructions consist of the attraction among the objects. Therefore, they are not directly related to the earth’s gravity. Previously, sculptures existed in relation to gravity. My early concern was to change the form and order of the sculptures by making them free from gravity.” In other words, there is an attraction among the objects created by adding a supplemental angle to the vertical force of gravity. The expression of anti-gravity is the guiding concept throughout Shinoda’s sculpture. Each of his works may be considered an anti-gravitaty apparatus, an abstract topology that reveals “sculptural reality.” In the development of these constructions, the artist introduces three basic elements: base units, posts, and a suspension method. These elements imply the XYZ axis of the three-dimensional sculpture.

The source of Shinoda’s modular units is a tool created by the artist himself, called a “Shinoda Jaku” (“Shinoda Ruler”). The entire composition of each piece uses the Shinoda Jaku to determine the shapes, sizes, basic elements, and modular units. According to my research, the first time the artist mentioned the Shinoda Jaku was in a pamphlet distributed in 1991 at the Asakura Fumio Awards. The pamphlet reads, “I made an abstract figure 1/20 scale of myself during the production of TC 5801 Niihari Village Sculpture Project in 1989.” The Shinoda Jaku is a simple brass figure that resembles a shape in Duchamp’s sketch for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), which can be found in the bottom left corner among the cluster of shapes that Duchamp called the “Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries or Eros’ Matrix.” The particular shape adapted by Shinoda was named “Gendarme” by Duchamp.

TC 6001, 1991. Aluminum, stainless steel, and brass, 240 x 500 x 100 cm.

The artist states, “I voyaged along with this eight-centimeter figure.” Shinoda uses various materials, such as aluminum, brass, and stainless steel: like a master craftsman, he makes parts with a milling machine and lathe, and these are assembled to compose the works. The formal repetition caused by the Shinoda Ruler is apparent in the shape of the jigs and posts, which are connected from the foundation of his pieces to the lines that suspend the mass and planes. The precise arrangements of jigs and posts creates a rhythmical and lyrical expression within these pieces.

The Shinoda Ruler-derived “module” is repeated in his individual pieces. For example, in TC 5116 (1983), which resembles a briefcase, a polished metal plate is suspended within a transparent rectangular box that is in turn encompassed in a wooden frame. The box seems to act as a container to preserve and carry a specimen of “TC.” Tactile 5 (1969) includes a metal object, a “Tactile Module,” carefully wrapped in fur. In both cases, we could say that the “module” is meant to be suspended: the modules are monumental, to be displayed and preserved whatever the scale. One of Shinoda’s largest monumental pieces consists of two kilometers of nylon rope in the Mojave Desert. This work, M1.2 miles Performance (1970), was intended to “visualize the concept of two kilometers,” and, in fact, it remains intact in its original site.

TC 5802—Space Garden, 1989–91. Tokyo Metropolitan Hall Monument, 3.6 x 12 x 1.5 meters.

The size of Shinoda’s pieces is an issue not easily dismissed. The artist has said that wherever the Shinoda Ruler is placed, everything that surrounds it seems to be enlarged 20 times. This illusion may be interpreted as a manifestation of the creator’s reality. Simultaneously, his work often gives the viewer a feeling that his or her body is shrinking. It is also possible for many of his pieces to be viewed as scenery. “As I saw a beautiful mountain I was compelled to build a monumental sculpture there, because the mountain itself was monumental. However, (instead of using the mountain) I decided to first build a sculpture that was scaled to 1/20 of the mountain’s size.” This decision resulted in the creation of TC 5801 Niihari Village Sculpture Project (1985). The artist spread simple units across a grid in an orderly arrangement. He then used linear elements like a web to create a sense of unity in material, with a polarization where the posts are located. A linear attraction circulates throughout the posts and jigs of the structure. Viewers who appreciate the dynamics and nuances of the piece, imagine their bodies in miniature scale, traveling through the work. The relationship of the suspended elements to the entire sculpture creates a “cosmic sizelessness.”

In the majority of his works after 1990, Shinoda has consciously moved toward biomorphic forms once again. Sculpture projects such as TC 5801 Niihari Village Project and TC 5802 Hanging Garden demonstrate continuing growth in his work. Recent titles include words such as “Syumisen,”1“Dousojin,”2“Sansuizu,”3 and “Gyogetsu,”4 derived from Buddhism, Asian social customs, and traditional paintings. Now retired from the faculty of the University of Tsukuba, he is exploring his expressive origins and philosophy. His pieces seem to accumulate into a metallic cosmos.

Takatoshi Shinoda (no relation to the artist) is former editor of Bijutsu Techo, a monthly art magazine, and editor of InterCommunication, NTT Publishing.

1. The sacred mountain of the Buddhist cosmos in which heavenly bodies revolve.
2. Deities in folklore, usually placed at the borders of villages in order to protect them from devils, demons, and evil spirits. They occupy a spectrum of forms from a simple round stone to carved male and female figures engaging in sexual intercourse.
3. Nature paintings that depict a Chinese mythical utopia. The style was developed around the 4th and 5th century in China and became a great influence in subsequent Chinese paintings. It was also adopted in Japan.
4. The moon which is viewed above the horizon.