BY Sayuri Okamoto in Opinion | 06 JUN 23
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Issue 235

Yoshimasu Gozo Navigates the Liminal Zone of Poetry

The poet and artist creates works that occupy a transitional state between life and death

BY Sayuri Okamoto in Opinion | 06 JUN 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 235, based on the theme 'Time Warp'

Yoshimasu Gozo opens his little-known but noteworthy essay, ‘Araki, Set Up at a Temple Gate’ (2016), as follows: ‘Adjusting my eyes, I tried to set up these pages in a hazy, liminal zone, where they might have been copied, transferred, projected, moved (utsusu)1 from the other side (ura), or projected, cast, copied, moved (utsusu)2 from the front side (omote).’ Throughout his artistic career, Gozo has kept his eyes on ura, ‘the further shore behind the page (the other world)’ as he describes in the essay, and has sought to get and maintain a view from the other side while his physical writing-self remains on this shore. He attempts the impossible: observing himself as both subject and object, sending his alter ego to the unreachable shore, gesturing towards a reversed way of seeing in intrinsically limited language.

Yoshimasu Gozo, ’room KINKAZAN’, 2019, installation view at Reborn-Art Festival. Courtesy: Take Ninagawa; photograph: Takehiro Goto

The essay was accompanied by a slightly blurred image of the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, Gozo’s close friend. In the image, Araki stands candidly at a temple gate holding a Leica 7. The date stamp reads 26 Aug 2004, the day of the Buddhist ceremony commemorating the ‘seventh anniversary of the death’ of the Japanese poet Ryuichi Tamura. ‘I was sitting at the reception when Araki set up at the gate,’ Gozo recalls in the essay. ‘I know “set up” is the wrong phrase, but it’s somehow true to my feeling.’ Gozo photographed Araki from inside the gate – the otherworldly sphere of the temple – while Araki stood on the other side, where Gozo himself had been until half an hour earlier. It was a moment of reversal, as Gozo puts it, when ‘somebody suddenly stood in the doorway amid “the taking of a photograph” and the “photographing of a photographer”’.

In the summer of 2019, Gozo stayed for two months in Ishinomaki, a city devastated by the 2011 tsunami, for the Reborn Art Festival. The window of his hotel room, a transparent partition both dividing him from and connecting him to the sea that had engulfed so many lives, looked out onto an inlet of the Pacific and the sacred island-mountain Kinkasan. Gozo wrote poetry every day for the tsunami victims and anthropomorphized the mountain (‘mademoiselle Kinka’) on his handmade drafting paper, the mirror and the window. He also kept a video diary, to document the making of his daily notes and poems. These meticulous records serve as a testament not only to his mourning but to the birth of his poetry as well. On his diaristic approach to poetry, which has been central to Gozo’s creative practice for decades, he commented in the 2022 film Vertigo: ‘Day by day, I write about the odd details of life with a sense of wonder and, someday, a poem is born.’ The poetry he produced in Ishinomaki, especially the lines written on the window, became representative of his post-2011 work. The room, to which Gozo still regularly returns, has been preserved as an art installation, while the poetry was collectively published as Voix in 2021.

Yoshimasu Gozo, ’room KINKAZAN’, 2019, installation view at Reborn-Art Festival. Courtesy: Take Ninagawa; photograph: Takehiro Goto

In November 2019, Gozo gave a performance, titled (Se), with the instrumental band Kukangendai. Se primarily means a person’s back or rear but, in Gozo’s poetry, the word appears as frequently as ura and implies the other side or parallel universe that is central to his poetics. The event took place at a venue called Soto (Outside). In the middle of the space was a thick 1.25m2 glass panel, next to which sat Gozo, while the band members, Keisuke Koyano, Junya Noguchi and Hideaki Yamada, stood at three remote corners of the room. The performance can be seen as an ambitious experiment in relocating/reproducing/re-creating (utsusu) Gozo’s iconic window poetry in a live-music venue. Through the glass panel, the audience could witness the birth of his poetry, hear his voice chanting and howling, and observe what was happening from both sides with their own eyes.

Gozo’s poetry is in a liminal zone akin to the Buddhist concept of bardo, an intermediary state between death and life. Keeping the unreachable shore in view, he writes and performs in and of a transitional state – a poetic bardo – with little use for ordinary notions of time and space.

This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline ‘Poetic Bardo’

Read more thematic columns here

Main Image: Yoshimasu Gozo, ’room KINKAZAN’, 2019, installation view at Reborn-Art Festival. Courtesy: Take Ninagawa; photograph: Takehiro Goto

1. In Japanese, the verb utsusu can be written using several kanji that express different meanings, such as 写 (to sketch, mirror, photograph, copy), 移 (to move, transfer, shift), 映 (to reflect, project, reproduce) and 遷 (to relocate, move).

2. The four English words – project, cast, copy, move – appear in Gozo’s original text

Sayuri Okamoto is a translator and founder of Alba, a studio and gallery space in Kyoto. She has been translating the poetry and writings of Japanese poet and artist Yoshimasu Gozo for more than a decade.