August 1st, 2008

operesque

Fluxus on a tourist visa

Showing Joe and Emma around Pro-QM, I started browsing the enormous Fluxus Codex, a sort of encyclopedia of the movement compiled in 1988 by Jon Hendricks. At €100 it was way too expensive to buy, but I did what I usually do at Pro-QM, scribbled down names to google when I got home. These mostly involved the names of the many Japanese women in Fluxus who weren't Yoko Ono.

Back home, I got very interested in the experience of one of these artists, Chieko (Mieko) Shiomi, related at length in Into Performance: Japanese women artists in New York, a 2005 book by Midori Yoshimoto, large chunks of which are available to read online thanks to Google Book Search. Shiomi's 1960s experience not only points up the contribution of Japanese women (other than Yoko Ono) to Fluxus, it's emblematic of the way Japan and New York tend to energize each other artistically.

As Midori Yoshimoto narrates, Chieko Shiomi was born in 1938 into a well-to-do family in Tamashima, a small town near Okayama. After a BA thesis on Webern at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, she joined improvisation group Ongaku alongside the young Yasunao Tone (I documented my own meeting with "cute, compact, beamy" Tone here).

At a 1961 concert Shiomi interpreted an IBM punch card by playing theremin and blowing bubbles while Tone smashed pottery and other members of the group "played" planks of wood with drills and saws. Throwing keys into the air at a Group Ongaku meeting made her realize that "time itself -- the duration of time that is not necessarily realized as sound, but can be just a physical sensation or an action" was as interesting as music.

Shiomi visited the Tokyo apartment Yoko Ono shared with then-husband Ichinagi in 1963 and saw event cards written by Fluxus artists, including George Brecht. She made Endless Box, a nested series of boxes. When she met Nam June Paik, he was impressed by the box and encouraged her to write to George Maciunas in New York. Maciunas liked the box idea and asked Shiomi to make reproductions, which he distributed with his Fluxkits. In 1964 Maciunas published Shiomi's Events and Games, 23 score cards in a small plastic box. He urged Shiomi to come to New York, providiing her with her air fare by buying ten sets of Endless Box for 20 dollars each. (Yoshimoto doesn't say whether any romance was involved.)

"Chieko Shiomi and Shigeko Kubota arrived here in New York, very nice girls," George Maciunas wrote to Ben Vautier in July 1964. "Brought many news from Japan activities. New compositions." These were often on score cards. A piece called Mirror instructed: "Stand on the sandy beach with your back to the sea. Hold a mirror in front of your face and look into it. Step back to the sea and enter into the water."



Shiomi was welcomed to New York by the Asian Fluxus coterie already installed there: Ay-O, his wife Ikuko Iijima, Nam June Paik and Takako Saito. They laid on an onigiri supper. She was chaperoned by Shigeko Kubota, a friend who had also contacted Maciunas. Shiomi had been uncertain whether Maciunas was "a trustworthy person", but he was generous and helpful, finding Kubota and Shiomi an air-conditioned apartment on Sullivan Street and helping them furnish it, carrying furniture up the road from his own place on his back.

Maciunas' loft on nearby Canal Street was "like a small publishing office or a family factory". Soon the girls were set to work cutting out paper and pasting labels. They were also, they discovered to their dismay, expected to cook for Fluxus dinners for large numbers of artists.

Shiomi continued making and performing actions at "happenings" in New York. In Disappearing Music for Face she "conducted faces", making smiles slowly vanish from the faces of people, replaced by more neutral expressions. Music for Two Performers involved introducing two strangers who shared a birthday, then asking them to stare into each other's eyes, pour water from one cup into another, and so on.



Shiomi fell out with Maciunas for a while over the format of Spatial Poem No. 1, a mail art project involving maps and flags. ("Write a word (or words) on the enclosed card and place it somewhere. Let me know your word and place so that I can make a distribution chart of them on a world map, which will be sent to every participant.") Although it was a trivial argument over whether to include newsprint in the map, Maciunas considered expelling Shiomi from Fluxus. The over-reaction suggests something more personal was involved. Shiomi's tourist visa also ran out after a year in New York. So she returned to Japan, and piano lessons in Okayama, with only her mail art projects to keep her in touch with the wider world.



But there were other Japanese Fluxus artists in the same boat, people who'd been to New York and wanted to continue their work in Japan. Flux Week at Gallery Crystal in Ginza in 1965 involved Shiomi and Tone and Takemitsu. In Water Music ("Let the water lose its still form", read the score) Shiomi played with water in a children's paddling pool covered with a white cloth. She anticipated Pole and Markus Popp by several decades when she played a waltz record covered with glue, then dropped water on it, allowing some bits of the grooves to play. Her Falling Event was perhaps the inspiration for Laurie Anderson's "Walking and Falling".

In 1970 Shiomi became a housewife and mother, and found it difficult to continue her artistic work -- something which doesn't seem to have stopped Yoko Ono, but vast wealth may have had something to do with that. In 1990 she broke her retirement to record and release a Requiem for George Maciunas on a C31 cassette, played mostly on synth and sampler. It formed part of a Fluxus retrospective at the Venice Biennale. When the 40th anniversary of Fluxus came up, Shiomi made a record called A Musical Dictionary of 80 People Around Fluxus, a series of 80 musical portraits. Here's the fourth:

Michael Berger (mp3 file, 45 seconds, stereo)