et al. vol. 2 (2021) | P. Staff on Toshio Matsumoto

Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

 

Body is nothing more than emptiness,
emptiness is nothing more than body.
The body is exactly empty,
and emptiness is exactly body.

 

Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.

 

There’s a handful of Toshio Matsumoto films on YouTube that I return to frequently: For the Damaged Right Eye(つぶれかかった右眼のために), 1968; White Hole(ホワイトホール), 1979; Sway(スウェイ=ゆらぎ), 1985. Every so often the username of the uploader changes[1], some videos come and go, sometimes one I’ve never seen before will appear out of nowhere. According to what I can find online, Matsumoto produced four feature films, around 40 experimental shorts and video art pieces, as well as numerous radio plays, theatre and inter-media pieces. I have only seen a fraction of these works. I sometimes think about downloading the ones that crop up online to my hard drive, a rip of a rip, as an archive for one. But to me, there’s something sweet about digging a little for them, to let them pass through, come and go, uploaded and deleted in waves.

There is one that I keep under a “favourite” tab on my browser, and it is the one that I always hope is there when I go looking for it, called Everything Visible is Empty(色即是空), 1975. The eight-minute long video is a fluorescent depiction of the Buddhist Heart Sutra in pulsing alternation between the kanji characters of the sutra and cropped images from Hindu iconography and mandalas. The sutra is repeated five times with increasing frenzy, the colours burn and give way to white hot flashes of light, riffing on a neoteric-for-its-time digital/ancient trip. The soundtrack by Toshi Ichiyanagi[2] skitters and drags, forcing synthesisers and nascent computer music through a distortion of traditional sitar and chanting. Even in lowly 480p, the video feels like drugs in the way that drugs can be transcendent and so can pain, and pain can obliterate narrative, as does suffering.

Body is nothing more than emptiness,
emptiness is nothing more than body.
The body is exactly empty,
and emptiness is exactly body.

I call my mum, who has been a devoted follower of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso for most of my life, to ask about the Heart Sutra. There is so much that could be said about the translations, limits, and mis/understandings of Buddhist teaching in the West, but either way I have been thinking about the nature of emptiness since I was a kid. I am not a scholar of Matsumoto’s work, and despite accepting the invitation to write about him, I resolutely maintain the position of a fan. A fan can find many things in a work.

 

Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.

 

After his death in 2017, Empty Gallery in Hong Kong and Nonaka-Hill in Los Angeles (who represent Matsumoto’s work in North America) both mounted semi-comprehensive exhibitions of his video works and installations. In reviews of these shows, I’m perplexed, though not entirely surprised, that his critics struggle to historically situate the work of Matsumoto’s that engage inquiries into the nature of consciousness, perception and the spiritual. The criticality and psychoanalysis of his earlier films are described as seemingly “giving way” to the ecstatic and psychedelic, an “inward retreat” that is posited as a move away from realpolitik. I could not disagree more. In an interview posted online, of indeterminate date, Matsumoto says that by the time he made these works he had shifted his focus “to experiments in context, experiments in deconstructing the contextual system through which people give meaning to or interpret the world.”[3] This is, of course, a political act.

We live now, not so long after Matsumoto’s death, in a reality where survival, illness, ecological cost and suffering are intensely meditated, through both digital screens and numerous for-profit necropolitical industries. The inward retreat is made to the space where realpolitik manifests first, where disciplinary regimes are made and remade in the literal material of the body. Meaning is made in this material, and it is here where we must contend with that which seeks not only to destroy us, but to regulate and exploit all possibilities for our being together-ness. Although this probably isn’t what Matsumoto was trying to explore.

There are no eyes, no ears,
no nose, no tongue,
no body, no mind.
There is no seeing, no hearing,
no smelling, no tasting,
no touching, no imagining.
There is nothing seen, nor heard,
nor smelled, nor tasted,
nor touched, nor imagined.

Recently, in my free time, I have been studying palliative and hospice care, and the work that can be done to support those at the end of life. One of the most repeated phrases in our seminars and readings is that anyone who wants to do death work, can; it is community work that we do together, to learn to live with and through an inevitable nothingness. I think about Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto and although I can’t imagine she was thinking about the sutras, her “no”, her negations, give way to a thinking and feeling in time and space. A revolutionary continuum.

 

Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.
Installation view of “Toshio Matsumoto” at Nonaka-Hill, 2018. Estate of Toshio Matsumoto. Image courtesy Nonaka-Hill.

 

One translation of 色即是空 is colour is emptiness. When my friend Ian was dying, he wrote on his blog “leaf—life ≠ colour (leaf minus life is not a colour)”. He says, “Look at the leaf. It is not dead as in nothing. It is yellow. Or red. Or even if it is brown it is still not no-colour. Look at the colour. The colour is real, it is something to do and it can be done.”[4] I remember Anne Boyer’s words, that “suffering is a fluorescent feeling, and having a body in the world is not to have a body in truth, it is to have a body in history”[5] and I feel so keenly about suffering that the word is tattooed on my thigh, black ink on pale skin, and tattoos have always struck me as the keenest way to channel the feeling that our embodiment is not rooted in truth but rather to have a body is to have a body in history, and remember that it will soon be not a body at all.

 

Toshio Matsumoto (b. 1932, Japan; d. 2017, Japan) was a Japanese film director and video artist who was considered a pioneer of 1960s Japanese experimental cinema.

 

[1] Youtube.com/user/ABCDJLG
YouTube.com/user/pavelkoshukov
YouTube.com/user/pushihunta

[2] Toshi Ichiyanagi ( 一柳柳 慧, Ichiyanagi Toshi, b. 4 February 1933) is a Japanese composer and pianist. Alongside many operas and orchestral works, he soundtracked Matsumoto’s films Everything Visible is Empty, as well as Atman.

[3]  http://www.yidff.jp/docbox/9/box9-2-e.html

[4] Ian White, https://livesofperformers.wordpress.com/

[5] Boyer, A. (2020). The Undying (Illustrated ed.). Picador Paper.

 

 

 
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