Shiro Masuyama, Self-Sufficient Life, Millennium Court Art Centre, Portadown October 2015



  1. Foregrounding


Three still photographs and a video of each of three of his more recent projects illustrate the artist’s commitment to ideas that are both activating changes in the art system, and reflecting deeply felt concerns about the developed world where he lives.


One of them is born from recognition that modern society became disconnected from the earlier skills of supporting life and from the scientific fundamentals that enable re-learning of processes that support life. This exhibition shares some of the concerns recently formulated outside art, also in a book by Lewis Dartnell  The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm.


Formulated as questions they range from concepts to tools, for example: What key knowledge would you need to start rebuilding civilisation from scratch? Once you’ve scavenged what you can, how do you begin producing the essentials? How do you grow food, generate power, prepare medicines, or get metal out of rocks? Could you avert another Dark Ages or take shortcuts to accelerate redevelopment?


This art exhibition does not provide – nor does it aim to do so – answers, it points nevertheless to a need for revival of forgotten crafts. It is doing it in a personal document, testament of a man born into a highly sophisticated culture becoming aware of its shortcomings, vis-à-vis a disaster like an earthquake. Turning a document on so-called lesser arts (shearing, spinning, knitting, weaving) into video art provides a freedom to linger on personal experience and enhances the ways to express respect for the people who have collaborated on the chosen concept, even when it must have appear to them less than necessary.


For the visitor of the exhibition the video provides an impetus to question the life support provided by the complex contemporary western society, as well as the ease with which its citizens ignore the values of what they perceive as old fashioned and not productive.



Each of the three videos privileges ‘the other’ – be it an animal, a farmer, a herder, a shepherd, a woman knitting or spinning or a man spinning and weaving. It is one of the paradoxes of Masuyama’s art practice that he shares a method of ‘foregrounding’ with early 20th Century Modernism, the theory of which privileged not the skills to support self-sufficient life but the self-sufficient, autonomous work of art. The principle of foregrounding anything in a flow of ideas is one of the inventions of early 20th Century Modernism, namely the theory of art by V Shklovsky.


The abandoning of commitment to autonomous visual art had already surfaced in Masuyama’s first public installation when he was still studying for his Master’s Degree in architecture.


  1. Privileging


In 1996 he constructed a set of covered benches with cut-out silhouettes of male and female associated with public conveniences, and installed them along the Tama River at equal intervals. Inspired by observation of courting couples in the open air the new shelter increased their privacy.


Already in this early work there are signs of his concept of art which ‘privileges the other’: the spacing of the benches as well as closure of their shape to a passer-by and opening towards the river protect the privacy of the couples – they cannot be easily seen or heard.

In relation to Masuyama’s not yet fully formulated concept of visual art Tama River project was a result of reconnaissance – of observation of the spontaneous repetition of people’s activities on that site.  Masuyama responded to the use established by others.  He chose to make the site more user-friendly.  This principle of respecting the site’s found function appears throughout the three videos in the current exhibition.


Is it site specific art? Here is the definition offered by the Guggenheim Museum:

Site-specific or Environmental art refers to an artist’s intervention in a specific locale, creating a work that is integrated with its surroundings and that explores its relationship to the topography of its locale, whether indoors or out, urban, desert, marine, or otherwise.


In all three videos the found sites are defined by a previous use, that is stable, be it a pasture, a farm, a park, café or a caravan. Masuyama follows that use with an aspiration to facilitate and enhance it.


In some cases, he follows the established way of inserting sculptural forms into a site still relating the addition to the older original use. I have in mind the recently installed Five Apples, 2015.


The apples refer to various myths and stories, e.g. Adam’s apple. The various shapes of the fruit strengthen the relaxing, joyful, and playful character of the park. The installation is therefore both site-specific interference and meaningful response to the People’s Park in Ballymena.


  1. Adding to the art system


Connected to the needs humanity may face in an event of future collapse of the developed world two subjects appear more often than others: shelter followed by food as priority.



Parky Party, 2004 was an installation of a bar with Masuyama distributing drinks.  Such a combination of installation and consumption has been pioneered by Rirkrit Tiravanija since 1990. He immersed cooking into conceptual art of the period. It is reported that he still works that way:


In June this year Tiravanija was cooking up Thai food in Basel, Switzerland, on the Messeplatz, the large public square outside the annual Art Basel fair, as part of a collaborative project with German architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller (who were responsible for the bamboo and steel huts that housed the cooking and eating) and Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi (recipes). Commissioned by Art Basel, We Dream Under the Same Sky was an extension of Tiravanija’s self-sustaining artistic community in Thailand, The Land. It was self-service and people also cleaned up after themselves. The characteristics of a visual work of art disappeared under the visible similarity with commercial self-services.


Indeed, even Tiravanija expressed his doubt: ‘It is a workshop rather than an installation,’ he told Artinfo, ‘a workshop rather than a project, a workshop rather than a work of art, and a collaboration rather than a conception by a singular person.’*1


It may not be a coincidence that a current call from academia to accept food as art appeared in social media: ‘Tasting an heirloom cultivar prepared in the classic way is like discovering a lost masterwork,’ says Shields, a professor of literature at the University of South Carolina.  ‘It’s like listening to Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, a Renaissance choral masterpiece for eight five-part choirs. When you hear it, you sense what heaven must have sounded like then. It’s the same when you taste restored cultivars prepared using recipes of an earlier time.’*2


  1. The inspiration


The inspiration for the exhibition title came from observation of rural life in Peru, where people manage without western infrastructures, without electricity, supermarkets, cars, and internet etc.



Masuyama has not experienced that kind of life before. It was observable in Northern Ireland as late as in 1980s. When we built our cottage in the corner of the forest, our neighbours had no electricity, no indoor toilet, no bathroom, no washing machine etc. They managed admirably with a car battery for a black-and- white TV and liquid gas for cooking and baking. To get connected to electricity was too expensive.


That rural life was a safe ground for family life and for small scale farming and husbandry, preserving old skills in small pockets of the prevailing culture. The increase in dependence on fossil fuels coincided with intensification and industrialisation of agriculture, and with the erroneous erosion of respect for nature.


Science and art are still working on better answers to the question of how to live. In that sense, Shiro Matsuyama’s subject matter is anthropocentric.


At first, the subject matter appears as a clear story about man’s attitude to a selected animal in three different locations: sheep in Sligo, Ireland (2012);




alpaca in Puno, Peru (2014);




and Bactrian camel in Mongolia (2015).




Painters throughout millennia included animals in images for various reasons. Those differences do not diminish the attraction of the appearance of natural forms across time, space, and cultural contexts.




Look at the Altamira bison paintings – their power has not weakened even though their intended instrumental value may have vanished into the past. It is the vitality of forms and hues that hold the value of the images. The observed characteristics are superbly rendered without using a compositional rule. I sense, on the walls of the cave, a diary of remembered encounters as autonomous moments of the painter’s respectful observation; walking, standing, and watching the powerful animals – Alive.


Masuyama focuses on work with animals, on activities that are life supporting regardless of the time and space.


Humanity and nature have twisted and swirled throughout time, from that respect for nature to greater exploitation. A step in between has been the influence of ideology, placing animals low down on the scale of creation. Artists have used animals to portray the negative characteristics of humans; numerous images of The Temptation of St Anthony offer a veritable index of observed and imagined animal creatures.




More light-hearted and vivid are, of course, medieval marginalia – images of animals burdened with human sins and vices.


At the opposite scale of values, the images of lamb as a metaphor for sacrificed God survived the denial issued by Darwinism, archaeological evidence and Modernism.


Modernism facilitated a bypass of religious ideologies, weakened the established morality and added unexpected art to the previously established system of art: unmade bed, manufactured objects, lens based images, sound, body movement, and now cooking, knitting and weaving.


Masuyama presents the relationship between man and animal as both complementary and hierarchical. His project twists away from exploiting and domineering over an animal towards making amends, by making and giving back to the animal what was taken away. The whimsical concept bears a serious message: if you take away, try to give something back to nature.  It is also reminiscent of hieratical offerings.


  1. Links to aesthetic thoughts


During the 20th Century the visual arts system reached the ‘Anxious Object’ just before moving openly towards an idea as art. This Conceptual art connected moral issues, whether connected to politics or environment, to the viewer’s power of association. The risk that the connections would fail was real.


The subsequent paradigm of visual arts includes time based ephemeral actions, any configuration of two- or three-dimensional objects, found objects, and lens-based art, even sound, in a plethora of configuration.


The public is often bewildered and expected to accept that the artist knows better. Intriguingly, a priori factor for resistance has been singled out by some recent surveys:

Asked why they attend art galleries, more than a third of the visitors stated that they attend art galleries because the visual arts are an important part of who they are, highlighting their personal identification with the art as a significant factor in their decision to attend. *3


The idea of ‘personal identification’ is not only significant for the engagement of audience, it is defining the taste of an epoch, the commissions by patrons, and the intention and intuition of the artist to make a work of art. In turn, it demands from an artist understanding of the population’s range of identification with what art is.


Unless he or she takes Croce’s stance.


Benedetto Croce (1866 – 1952) forged a path that avoids the error of abstracting from ordinary experience: ‘…only lived human experience, taking place concretely and without reduction, is real.’ For Croce, intuition is an organic whole – almost as if he were quoting Frege who states: ‘only in the context of a sentence does a word have a meaning’ *4


Croce in contrast to Immanuel Kant thinks that art is everywhere. The difference between an ordinary intuition and art intuition, he sees as only a quantitative difference where aesthetics then is not a special function.

Among the principal reasons, which have prevented Aesthetic, the science of art, from revealing the true nature of art, its real roots in human nature, has been its separation from the general spiritual life, the having made of it a sort of special function or aristocratic club…. There is not … a special chemical theory of stones as distinct from mountains. In the same way, there is not a science of lesser intuition as distinct from a science of greater intuition, nor one of ordinary intuition as distinct from artistic intuition. *5


Croce points out that every intuition has to some degree the qualities of the intuition of a work of art; it’s just that the intuition of a work of art has them in much greater degree.


The most famous and notorious Crocean doctrine concerning art does away with beauty: ‘To intuit’, he writes, ‘is to express’ *6


  1. Intuiting


Masuyama intuits where to go, what animal to select for his project in his search to develop the care for animals as a substantial metaphor for desirable changes in the developed world.


He connects ‘personal identification’ back to nature, to living animals, while applying two paradoxes:

1/ A paradox rooted in feeling and need:  a feeling of care is predetermined by a need for dominant exploitation, manipulation, by using animals as a source of food and materials.

2/ A paradox of dominant growth in developed cultures unable to compete with traditional skills when the contemporary modern complex and sophisticated infrastructure fails. Traditional skills survive in less developed parts of the world, and paradoxically they, not the industrial growth, offer a way of restarting a civilisation.


Masuyama whimsically removes some of the coat of the selected animal and makes a manmade cover which he gives back to that animal. And yes, it appears sentimental and unnecessary.


In echoing Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe – it is not a pipe but a painting. The knitted jumper, or woven scarf are the embodiment of the art concept – not the original natural function.


It is necessary to provide a mismatch between an intention and the result, to insist that there is a moral difference between a need and a want, and that people often mix up the two.


If the shift from high art / beaux art involved only the introduction of a living animal and traditional craft skills it would not be enough to provide the intrinsic value of the art, necessary for the “personal identification”. Croce’s premise that art is everywhere or Beuys’s statement that everyone is an artist do not guarantee the viewer’s positive response. The artist’s intention to make good art needs to be supported by an aesthetic force of the work – tacit and often immediate. That is mitigated against in time based art – the viewer often postpones the decisive identification with its values.


Matsuyama’s intuition opens up the art system to the unexpected.  His object is not ‘anxious,’ on the contrary it is confident and assured, if vulnerable to anthropocentric extremes. I almost added that it is useful. However, vis-à-vis Kant I need to elaborate: Art is useful for humanity because it is at its core disinterested; whenever it breaks that boundary, it loses its own intrinsic value and turns into propaganda – illustration of the perceived view of the world. If, however, a work of art connects with different contexts, with life, politics, religion etc. but still remains outside of them it can do both, promoting an idea and staying critical of it.


By shaving the coat made by nature, Masuyama identifies the mindless exploratory attitude to nature over and above genuine need. By using the wool for knitting man-made protective clothing, he puts value on knitting as skill (art as techne) and promotes the self- supporting life.


The emphasis on nature of a craft is documented in classical Greek culture: painting ranked higher than the writing of plays. Weaving and ceramics were more highly honoured than painting, theatre, dance and music. Crafts were not limited to useful objects per se.  Ancient Greeks included crafts in religious worship, celebrations and instruction marking the rites of passage.


Beauty was connected to ordinary use throughout Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas gives an example of a glass saw which could not be beautiful because it is useless.*7


The Beaux Arts tradition relegated weaving, textile, knotting etc. to lesser arts, or as not art at all.


Modernism both continued and subverted that. It divided art from crafts and learned skills, and at times embraced them (for example Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party), more often than not denying ‘lesser arts’ a place in visual culture.


Beauty connects with ordinary work as our aesthetic values do not depend on art alone, they develop from our being in the world, nature being the determining factor. I should say life is the determining factor.


Masuyama wrote me:

I have studied architecture until master degree level and my art projects therefore have been influenced by this and mainly manifest as site-specific interventions like architecture. Through my work I identified artistic struggle and hurdles in order to communicate with people. I found that these struggles were actually an interface into developing interaction with various people that had unexpected results. I view interaction with people as one of the most important parts of my artistic process and it is a major component in completing an artwork.


I am influenced by cultural nomadism as an artist and how these patterns of movement can broaden my perception of the world, influencing my artistic sensibilities. My art practice has primarily developed through international artist in residence opportunities over the last 13 years. After I settled in Belfast, Northern Ireland my practice has become far more exposed to Irish / British (Northern Irish) culture and society day by day, in that of a stranger to a new land and a foreigner far away from Japan. As a result, my questions of practice have become more performative in their responses due to my need to understand my physical living environment.


I have introduced Croce, as a European link to Masuyama’s concept of art. However, these videos have perceivable connections to oriental aesthetics too. In Japanese Buddhist tradition awareness of existential uncertainty is not a reason for nihilism but a call to vital activity and to gratitude for another chance granted to us. Masuyama identifies the craft skills born by agricultural societies as they supplanted nomadic hunter-gatherers, as those vital activities


Observing skills of others and learning, as he does in all the videos, is reminiscent of the Confucian practice of self-cultivation. And, the process of removing and replacing echoes the concept of celebrating impermanence.  Cherry blossoms are more valued because of their transience.


However, the strongest echo of Japanese aesthetics I note in Masuyama’s work is the moderation of means, in keeping the finish less than perfect, not spectacular. Watch for the alpaca tripping over the scarf when trying to feed. The subdued rustic beauty of things is known as wabi-sabi.


The artist is a conspicuous person, but so are the collaborating skilled workers who keep the knowledge of crafts, of the lesser arts, as William Morris called them, available.


*1 :

*2 :

*3 :

*4 : Gottlob Frege, 1884

*5 : Benedetto Croce (1909 [1922]), Aesthetic: As Science of Expression and General Linguistic. New York, Noonday, p14

*6 : Ibid, p11

*7 : Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 57 3c

Images courtesy of the artist.


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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