Reiko Tomii, Challenging Mud, 2011. ©Ming Tiampo


I challenged mud, after...

July 20, 2011 – August 1, 2011
Museum of Modern Art

11 W 53rd St
New York, NY

Reiko Tomii

I challenged mud.
After Shiraga Kazuo.

After his performance-painting, Challenging Mud.

Shiraga executed Challenging Mud on October 19, 1955, for the opening of 1st Gutai Art Exhibition, in the front yard of the Ohara Kaikan in Tokyo.

I challenged mud.
After a series of e-mail exchanges with Ei Arakawa,
who told me, on July 15, 2011, that he would soon present a 13-day performance with his group, Grand Openings, with daily changing programs.
Titled Grand Openings Return of the Blogs, it was scheduled for July 20–August 1, 2011, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.[i]

I challenged mud.
After I confessed to him that I didn’t have a formal dress to wear for Grand Openings’ “Formal Dress Day” (7/27).
He wrote, “then please come also 23rd when sen is doing a challenging mud. you could bring a change of clothes. only historians and archivists will be allowed to challenge mud.”
To this, I innocently responded: “that sounds cool.”

I challenged mud.
After I finally understood that he and Sen Uesaki intended to create a “metaphor” of archiving using Challenging Mud.
That Sen would play a metaphorical role of “gravedigger” (!?).
What’s a historian have to do with “metaphor”?
This historian is all about facts, if not just facts. But metaphor is not her forte.

I challenged mud.
After the artist finally figured out that the historian got to do what she got to do.
A wise move.
Only an artist would think of putting a historian in the mud pit.
A historian would put an artist in the mud pit.

I challenged mud.
After we decided to base our attempt on Shiraga’s 1st set, out of three sets he executed that day.
The 1st set was least challenging, it was a “fake.”[ii]
Because the mud was hardening and became slippery, as the artist waited around for a press person to arrive. It rained, it got colder, and journalist Jean Launois came late.
So, the artist had to “fake.”
He “dug it up with my knees, punched it with fists, and grasped it by fingers.”

I challenged mud.
After Ming Tiampo decided to join our attempt by playing the role of photographer.
She is another historian. She happened to be in town to work on a forthcoming Gutai show at the Guggenheim.
Without the presence of the press, our attempt would have been incomplete.
Gutai’s performative works were either press events or onstage presentations.
Without the effort of self-documentation, we would have been disloyal to Gutai’s tradition.
So, Ming would play the double role of a press photographer and a documenting member.
She requested the use of a ladder. A wise move.

I challenged mud.
After I decided my outfit.
Shiraga wore only a pair of white shorts. Otherwise, he was bare.
Because of the impurity of his mud, his body was heavily cut and bruised.
In the 2nd and 3rd sets, he “pushed it with my shoulder, rather than using my hands; I gave a final flourish to it, by twisting my body.”
No wonder, he got cuts and bruises.
Safety was a big concern for me, even if I would follow the tamest 1st set.
Ei agreed: “We don’t have to hurt ourselves in [our] version.”
To protect my body, I acquired a pair of gray yoga pants, a half-sleeved black T-shirt, and a box of latex gloves. I would be well protected.

I challenged mud.
After I got my historical facts straight.
To the best of my knowledge, it would be the first ever serious attempt, whether by the artist himself or somebody else, since Shiraga executed three sets in 1955.[iii]
There was no instruction left, no recipe made for doing it again. Only his recollections and documentary photographs.
Looking at a photo of his 1st set, I visualized myself getting down on my knees, supporting my body with two hands also stuck in the mud, and shifting the mud with one of my knees.

I challenged mud.
After I arrived at MoMA at the appointed time, feeling somewhat scared. Trepidation or anxiety may be a more dignified word, but “scared” honestly expresses what I felt.
A shallow wood box was already there, at the end of the Sculpture Garden, just outside the glass partition. Chairs for the panel discussion (to follow my act) were arranged next to it. That was my stage.
The 8-foot square box looked smallish. Back then, one critic described the mud work he saw outside the Ohara Kaikan to be as large as three tatami-mats.
Bags of cement piled on one side, bags of garden soil piled on the other side of the box.

I challenged mud.
After Ei told me “Cement is toxic. Would you like to have vinegar for cleaning afterward?”
His words amplified my apprehension, also reminding me that I forgot to bring a pair of socks with me. We sent a member (or an associate or a volunteer?) of the group to get a pair, along with vinegar.

I challenged mud.
After we mixed soil and cement.
But, why cement?
Because Shiraga was not simply demonstrating an act of challenging mud,
he was creating a “painting” with mud.
That is to say, he painted with mud.
And he wanted his mud painting to last for 10 days, remain on view for the duration of the exhibition.
The mud, or kabetsuchi (wall mud), alone would have cracked.
Indeed, the second “painting,” made without cement cracked after a few days.
(Certainly, he was experimenting on that day; after the hardened mud for the 1st set, he apparently did the 2nd set without cement.)

I challenged mud.
After Ei and Jay spent more than half an hour creating the mud in the sweltering summer heat.
Shiraga brought in a small truck load of wall mud, about one ton (1000 kg) or so.
He mixed some 10 bags of cement in, the ratio being 3 parts mud and 1 part cement.
It took Shiraga (and his helpers, I imagine) a great deal of time to manually mix it.
We began by dry-mixing 3 bags of soil and 1 bag of cement, added more bags of soil, perhaps another 3 or 4, then poured in water bit by bit.
The sight of twigs and pebbles in “garden soil” horrified me, making me think of cuts and bruises I might get.

I challenged mud.
After we got what I thought would be an ideal consistency of mud.
We looked at the documentary photographs to get a sense of Shiraga’s mud.
I made a test-mixture in a cup.
Perhaps much thicker than pancake dough, a tad heavier than muffin dough, but not as dense as bread dough.

I challenged mud.
After the audience gathered around the box and Ei began the proceedings, introducing me to them.
I began by giving a talk. It’s a hands-on “demonstration lecture,” rather than “slide lecture.”
I explained the basics of Shiraga, a Gutai member who painted with his feet.
His foot painting embodied his concept that his “act” made his painting.
Challenging Mud extended his act/concept of painting from his feet to his whole body.
In 1955, the 2nd and 3rd sets he executed were more violent than the 1st “fake” set.
He dived into the mud, twisting in the mud and using his whole body to move the mud, to create his mud painting.
He struggled with mud until he was completely exhausted.

I challenged mud.
After clarifying that I was neither “re-staging” nor “re-enacting” Shiraga’s painting act.
I was merely making a “historical investigation” of Shiraga’s painting act.
Shiraga was a man’s man. He was a jock, practicing jūdō and sumō at school.
Back then, he was in his early thirties, he was an athletic, energetic male.
I am a middle-aged art historian, a female of delicate constitution.

I challenged mud.
After I first tested the mud’s consistency, explaining how he mixed his mud.
I poke my feet into the mud.
It felt wet.
More talk.
And I finally got down on four in the mud.
I punched the mud, moved it with my knees, grasped it and pushed it with both my hands, just as I imagined he had done.
I kept talking, as Ei stuck the microphone at me.
I kept my eye on the composition, spreading the mud like Shiraga had done in different directions to make a polygon shape.

I challenged mud.
After a while, I stopped, asking how much time had elapsed.
I was told: Only 3 minutes!
Shiraga continued 15 to 20 minutes before he was done.
Who could possibly compete with him?
Not me.
Ming urged me to continue, now perching atop the ladder.
With a change of her camera angle, I gave another round of punching, kneeing, pushing . . . playing for the camera.

I challenged mud.
Afterward, as Ming pointed out the historical accuracy would have demanded that I change into regular clothes and have myself photographed next to my “mud painting.”
That’s what Shiraga did, and the shot became a Gutai postcard.
But that was an afterthought for me. I hadn’t thought of afterward, except for how to clean myself.

I challenged mud.
Afterward, Shiraga put a sign next to it, so that people would know the mud was his work.
There exist at least two shots of his “mud paintings.”
They taught me how to “compose” my mud painting.
Shiraga’s mud paintings remained on view for ten days.
My mud painting was immediately placed under the care of two archivists, Sen and Mori, both from Tokyo.

I challenged mud.
Afterward, the program continued: MoMA’s archivist gave a talk and dialogued with panelists and the Tokyo archivists began tidying up the mud. Ming continued the role of photographer, snapping away at whatever happened on stage.
I had no idea what the MoMA archivist was saying.
I was busy cleaning myself, on stage with all other activities going on.
I took off my socks and rinsed my legs with a bucket of water, with the yoga pants still on.
Unable to completely clean my pants, I noticed a pair of scissors and decided to cut off the soiled parts of my pants.
I sat down on my chair, on the left end of the panelist’s chairs, as the MoMA archivist continued talking with Grand Openings members.
I cut my pants at mid thigh, removing the bottom parts.
In retrospect, that was my inaccurate version of Cut Piece.
I could not take my eyes off the Tokyo archivists who were “destroying” my mud painting.

I challenged mud.
Afterward, when the MoMA archivist finished talking, the Tokyo archivists were midway through with their task.
“After an art historian made a mess, an archivist cleaned it up.”
They smoothed the mud into a nice square.
They neatly “fragmented” the mud into 16 squares and put each part into a black plastic bag.
As they went about their work, all of us sang a song by Becket about a poor doggie killed by a cook, again and again, again and again, again and again . . . until they finally finished their extremely meticulous and numbingly slow archival cleaning.

I challenged mud.
Afterward, my masterpiece mud painting was completely gone.


[i] For Grand Openings’ MoMA program, see August 21, 2011).

[ii] For Shiraga’s Challenging Mud, see Reiko Tomii, Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decade (New York: McCaffrey Fine Art, 2009), 19–20.

[iii] On You Tube, there is one attempt, “Klaus Challenging Mud” (No longer available on youtube- last accessed august 2011)  Which records the act of Senior Klaus Yoder, uploaded by jateed on Sep 4, 2006. Unfortunately, this supposed reenactment was historically and crucially inaccurate. Above all, the mud was not wet but dry, and the performer struggled with the soil without knowing Shiraga’s goal: to create a mud painting.