Read an Excerpt
Interview with Joseph Giovannini
GIOVANNINI: Id like to start at the very beginning with your student background. What did you study and when did you study? You were a painter originally?
SHINGU: Yes. From childhood, I always loved to paint, and wanted to be a painter. So I studied oil painting in Japan, and when I finished school I wanted to study outside of Japan. That was 1960, and I was twenty-three.
GIOVANNINI: So your undergraduate education was in painting?
SHINGU: Yes, and some art history. I loved early Italian Renaissance painting, especially frescos and mosaics made directly on the wall of the building itself. They're different from framed paintings, which are easy to hang, you can move them. So I went to Italy to study painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma. I finished in two years. I also studied anatomy and the history of Italian art, which were very useful later. But I started to lose the ambition to become a painter. Seeing all these masterpieces in Italy, I began to feel that perfection had already been achieved four hundred, five hundred years ago. What contemporary artists were showing in museums and galleries was not so interesting to me. I started to get very doubtful of my future as a painter.
GIOVANNINI: What effect did this have on your work?
SHINGU: First of all, even though I didn't understand a lot of contemporary painting, I was doing some very abstract painting, and the shape in the frame became more and more interesting to me. But I started to wonder why I had to confine these shapes to square or rectangular canvases. So I cut out a shape from the canvas and made a special frame, which was a little bit like a relief, sticking out from the wall. I wanted to show distance in space, so I made more three-dimensional objects.
GIOVANNINI: So you cut out the shapes, you eliminated the frame, you took it off the wall somewhat, and then you gave it contours so that it became a relief of some sort?
SHINGU: That's right. This was 1965. One day I took some pieces outside to photograph, and I hung them from a tree branch. They started to move. It bothered me at first because I wanted to take a picture, but watching them move I saw that if I used certain shapes or mechanisms more suitable to wind, their motions have a more interesting feel of motion.
GIOVANNINI: So it started with an accident; it started just because you were taking a photograph outside.
SHINGU: That's right, exactly. And, of course, in the beginning, I was using very weak material, completely unsuitable for the outdoors. But then I met the president of a Japanese shipbuilding company. I was a kind of tour-guide for him while he was in Rome. He had a rich knowledge of art, so he liked that I took him to the museums and explained all the artwork. He was interested in what I was doing, and he came to my studio and home. He saw my three-dimensional works and he said, "Its interesting that you make these alone, welding steel frames, sewing canvas onto the frame, and making sort of folk art objects." Already, probably as a businessman, he imagined a future for my work and said that if I wanted to make them a more industrial way, he could help. That was 1966, and preparations for Expo 70 in Osaka were beginning.
GIOVANNINI: Could you tell me about the transition from painting to sculpture?
SHINGU: I'd done a group of these painting-sculptures, but very quickly, probably over two or three months. So there was really no transition between paintings and moving sculptures. I followed the shipbuilders advice. At the end of 1966, I went back to Japan, to Osaka. He prepared a studio for me in the middle of the shipyard. It was a revolution for me. I was able to work with the engineer, who would tell me if my ideas were structurally sound, and how to make mechanical drawings. I worked with materials I'd never used before. All of these processes exist outside of art, but became part of how I worked.
GIOVANNINI: So this was the time in which design became an integral part of your process of making sculpture, because you begin with drawings.
SHINGU: Yes, that's right. Before, for instance, if someone asked me the size of the sculpture, I had to measure my sculpture [LAUGHS] because I didn't have a drawing. Also, it was still unusual then to make sculpture specifically for outdoor exhibition. Architects became interested in my work and chose me as the artist to design the plaza of the site of Expo 70.
GIOVANNINI: Did you collaborate with an architect?
SHINGU: No, not yet. I made a floating sculpture, Floating Sound. Each of the six buoys has a giant spoon that tilts as it fills and empties with water. Then a cone-shaped counterweight suspended from the handle of the spoon drops, making a splashing sound.
GIOVANNINI: What happened after Expo 70?
SHINGU: I went to teach at Harvard after that, in 1971. On my first trip to the United States, in 1969, I met Harry Abrams, who published my first book. I also met José Luis Sert, who was then dean of architecture at Harvard. He introduced me to Mirko Basaldella, a sculptor who was director of the Carpenter Center. Mirko didn't like to speak English and was so happy to talk to me in Italian. He said, "Why don't you come to help me teach the students at Harvard?" He died soon after, the same fall I think. But he left kind of a will and compliment: I was invited to be a lecturer in Carpenter Center.
GIOVANNINI: Did you do your own work there as well? You did that wonderful water sculpture in the Carpenter Center. You also did a sound sculpture, as you call it, with students.
SHINGU: Yes, I did a collaboration with students and had a wonderful time. That's my only experience with teaching. I have never taught anywhere since then.
GIOVANNINI: Your early sculpture was very colorful, very shaped, and it seemed, unlike the later sculpture, to have a formal presence without movement, even in photographs. But in your later pieces, is it true that they're more dependent on movement and wind and power?
SHINGU: Yes. At the beginning, shape and color were still very important, but then I became more interested in motion than shape. And now I'm not exactly coming back, but I think my sculpture is becoming more sculptural so that even without motion it has some beauty. But still in all, I'm very flexible. I make sculpture to serve the site, not to serve my style. Or maybe my own style is flexibility.
GIOVANNINI: You have been making sculpture that moves by natural energy for more than thirty years. What fascinates you so much about the movement?
SHINGU: The first time I saw my sculpture moving in the wind a little bit as I intended, it was an incredible joy. It seemed like my sculpture was joined with nature directly. I thought I understood the mystery of the wind. That was a big mistake. I know, because I'm still learning today. But that starting point . . . I cant avoid that excitement of working with powers that don't belong to me, invisible powers that I somehow manage to catch. That's the character of my sculpture; there's always a power outside of my sculpture. The object itself without that power has no meaning. When connected with that power, the sculpture will become alive.
GIOVANNINI: What were the stages of evolution of your work? You were talking about your painting becoming more three-dimensional and the three-dimensional becoming sculptural, and sculpture becoming kinetic.
SHINGU: I'm not interested in calling my work kinetic or sculpture or anything else. I don't even care if people think its art or not. [LAUGHS] Its not that important. When I was studying in Rome, I'd sit on a bench by a fountain, and everything around me had been designed in one period. Artists then worked as painters, sculptors, architects. They designed gardens, they did everything. I think in Rome I found my metier, or, at least, something to work towards.
Preparing this book was the first time I recognized how many sculptures I'd made. It's a very rare and important opportunity to see an overview of my work almost as an outsider, and to see how I changed, but also how sometimes the materials and technology influenced me just by allowing to do something new. But most important is the feeling between the environment and objects. Even though I use some contemporary technology, my sculpture exists in nature, is part of it.
GIOVANNINI: How would you describe the artistic interests and ambition of your pieces as form? Is it abstract, modernist, are there implicit associations or memories in them? For example, do pieces remind you of a weathervane or a bird? I assume that you don't mind when people make those associations. But when you're working, do they occur to you?
SHINGU: No. Basically, I don't have any associations like that in my work. My sculpture is totally abstract, it almost never comes from any image of realistic things. When I think of the people watching my sculptures move, I don't want to limit their experience by using something specific, an animal or a bird. People who watch my sculpture should have individual images supported by their own experience. Its fine if people look at it and recognize something.
GIOVANNINI: What are your opinions about the symmetry or asymmetry in your sculpture? What bearing do those notions have on your form?
SHINGU: Formally, I'm not interested in symmetry or asymmetry. But they are important to natural movement.
GIOVANNINI: Is that part of the physics of the piece? Does the engineering start to determine the form?
SHINGU: Of course I'm interested in form itself, but form in motion has to be natural. So form and motion are balanced, or interdependent. But then in some sculptures, with two moving pieces close together, one piece spins one way and the other spins the other; and that's because of the wind, not the design. So its kind of a simulation of the universe, of our planet; our planet spins around, and I make something spin around on the surface of our planet.
GIOVANNINI: You've talked about the sculpture existing in an environment in which you exist, and that you make sculpture partially to understand the way you live. Can you explain that a little more fully?
SHINGU: Personally, I want to try to understand how we are part of nature through making my sculpture. So in making sculpture I'm making a machine to help me observe nature in a personal way. Also, its important to understand that this is a shared observation.
GIOVANNINI: You mean what you have in common with the people looking at your work is the environment in which you live?
SHINGU: That's right. I don't think everybody is conscious of that, but everybody has the same curiosity about our environment. And since the subject is universal, and my way of expressing myself is international, my sculpture relates to people of different cultures.
GIOVANNINI: When you go to a site do your responses depend on your analysis of the site or the building?
SHINGU: That's right. The first time I go to a site I don't really prepare anything. I wait patiently to see what that space needs. I even have to be able to not make a sculpture, if its unnecessary at a site. My work should have a function beyond decoration.
GIOVANNINI: When you're at a site, what do you look for? How do you respond to a site outside? Are you looking for prevailing winds or views? Do you try to make the environment more intense through your sculpture?
SHINGU: Yes. It all depends on the character of the space, of course, but I try to understand what's missing from the space, what I can add. And that's the beginning of the concept. I also consider the daily life of the people who use that space, which is part of the particular character or nature of the site. Everything is related. The sculpture has to bond in that space.
GIOVANNINI: When you're doing a piece in a building, how does your approach differ from your approach to a natural site? Or does it differ?
SHINGU: First of all, even a man-made space has principles of nature, gravity, and so on. And the air is the same as the air outside; there's circulation of air, like that of the atmosphere. The difference is that I'm working with these elements inside a box to make a more intense environment for people who use it. I don't want to add too much, just what is necessary. The man-made part is a limited medium. It serves to express the richness of nature, to make it visible.
GIOVANNINI: Can you describe the process you go through after you've seen the site? Do you do a sketch, a model, a full-scale mock-up?
SHINGU: I start with sketches, which comes naturally to me because I started out as a painter, but my sketches show motion, too. Then I make rough maquettes and test them in the wind, and change them, and test them some more. Some people think I must have a sophisticated wind tunnel, but wind tunnels are nothing like real wind, they don't have the turbulence or complexity, so I have to work the primitive way.
GIOVANNINI: When you're designing to capture this movement, what do you try to capture in the mechanism itself? Agility? You said sensitivity. Are your pieces able to reverse very quickly?
SHINGU: That's the most tricky part of working with wind. Even if the pieces react well in small scale, you never know how they will react in full size. At full size the materials are heavier, so they react differently and have greater momentum. I often go to the factory to test the full-size work while its being built.
GIOVANNINI: How do you engineer the pieces? When do you get the engineer in on the project? In the very beginning or at the end?
SHINGU: Not at the beginning, but at some point I discuss the project with an engineer, change the design, test it, and try again. There really isn't a specialist for this field.
GIOVANNINI: What materials are you using increasingly to assure the longevity of the working parts? Like your ball bearings, are they stainless steel or titanium?
SHINGU: The rotation parts are the life of my sculptures. I always seek the best solution with the best material. I often use stainless steel or ceramic bearings. For other parts I use titanium, carbon fiber, and Teflon cloth. These new materials make the pieces stronger and lighter, and a lot of what I know about using them comes from studying the production of new racing cars and airplanes. On the other hand, I learn a lot from nature, too, from the construction of leaves, trees, how strong the branches are, how they move in the wind.
GIOVANNINI: Besides sculpture, you've also written and illustrated books and done some work in theater. Would you discuss that?
SHINGU: I know they seem like very different fields, but they come out of the same philosophy. In my picture books, I can express my pure curiosity about the wonders of nature. The beginning of my first theater piece was that I made a water sculpture for a park in Sanda, not far from my studio. There weren't so many people visiting that place, so I created a show to introduce my sculpture. It was a very egoistic idea. [LAUGHS] The story was about extraterrestrial visitors impressions of Earth. They ask some simple questions that are difficult for humans to answer, about the environment, the meaning of money, why humans dominate nature. I wrote the story, designed the costumes, and made all the sets. The show was on television and generated a lot of interest, so now I'm preparing another show, which will be in a theater. This time, I don't have to worry about the weather or lighting. Whether I'm working in theater or making books or sculpture, my message remains the importance and richness of nature.