On a single white sheet, the kanji for “snow” — yuki — printed in black, is repeated exactly 1,352 times in a symmetrical grid formation. A 1970 work by Niikuni Seiichi, “flowery snow” (1970) is at once calligraphy, poem and picture. In the Chinese literati tradition — which was influential on Edo Period artists in Japan — having the ability to create these meant one had attained the “three perfections” of the educated classes.
In Seiichi’s work, however, the calligraphy is mechanically printed and the composition is hard regularity. The poetry, pointedly, is frozen out: It emerges, almost imperceptibly, at dead center in the form of a single kanji for “flower” — hana.
The poetic reference could be to a hardy bloom such as the plum, considered one of the “three friends of winter” in East Asia (along with bamboo and pine), and suggesting gentlemanly ideals of strength and resilience in adversity; or the first bud emerging from the spring thaw, symbolizing new beginnings.
Whatever the reading, what the viewer is presented with is an example of gutai-shi — “concrete poetry” — which first appeared in the 1950s and ’60s. Concrete poetry was an offshoot of the “shaped poetry” of the early 20th century that sought to amplify the meaning of a text by using the layout of the words to add to the meaning, as in “Calligrammes,” by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). This offshoot largely dispensed with standard grammar in favor of typography and composition, forcing the reader further into the interaction between the visual and the verbal.
From the 1930s, there were already exponents of avant-garde poetry in Japan, such as Katue Kitasono (1902-1978), who independently had arrived at some of the precepts of what would come to be known as concrete poetry. Wider attention came to the movement when Kitasono assisted the Brazilian composer and poet L.C. Vinholes in staging an exhibition of Brazilian concrete poetry at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1960. In 1964 in Tokyo, Seiichi (1925-77) also became acquainted with Vinholes — and through him the international movement — but Seiichi’s initial efforts in the genre predate the Japanese-Brazilian collaboration too.
An exhibition at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, “The Concrete Poetry of Niikuni Seiichi: Between Poetry and Art,” follows the story of his work. The artist’s first collection of “Poems for Watching” appeared in 1955, which was followed in 1963 with “Zero-on,” long considered the best individual collection of concrete poetry by a Japanese poet. Seiichi founded the The Association for the Study of the Arts (ASA) the following year and set himself the task of developing a Japanese version of concrete poetry, the tenets of which were set down in a series of manifestos.
The “Tokyo Manifesto for Spatialism” (1968) was overwrought, shifting from humdrum statements such as, “a word has semantic and aesthetic information” to far out goals such as “to liberate the energy of words from the origin of language to a cosmic philosophy.” The ASA Manifesto of 1973 was more measured. Seiichi argued for a supranational poetry and a way of communicating instantaneous understanding. More specifically, this meant that “a poem should have the nature of an ideograph or hieroglyph.”
The three Japanese scripts — kanji and the simplified, phonetic hiragana and katakana — lent themselves well to the basic premises of concrete poetry as they are readable from right to left or in reverse, up and down or otherwise scattered over a page as in the chirashigaki calligraphic script popular since the 11th century. The scattered script style can be found in the constellationlike groupings of Seiichi’s early work, such as “Onna (Woman)” (1963), which collates various kanji for the words “legs,” “fire,” “hips,” “eyes,” “ass” and others.
While the focus on the visual and the verbal was paramount, Seiichi did not neglect the aural component, born witness by the CD that accompanies the exhibition catalog. These “listening poems,” comprised of sounds from the Japanese alphabet of hiragana as well as roman numerals, share the repetitive characteristics of the more mature visual works, but ultimately fail in drawing wider audience appreciation because they are really just a babble of syllables, verbally stretched and kneaded: more baby talk than compelling poetry.
Internationally, concrete poetry peaked around 1965 and was over by 1970. Seiichi’s renown was similarly eclipsed, and the present exhibition is more of a commemoration than a rehabilitation of the genre and the artist. Ultimately, the artistic work was of a time and a few scattered places, and was played out by international correspondence between individuals without deeper connections to wider artistic developments.
And yet there is enough quirky word play here to pull a sensitive viewer back in. “Sea has already been reduced to pus” (1971) is ostensibly a warning against pollution. The character for “sea” at the center is crowded out by characters for “pus.” Both are pronounced “umi,” suggesting either a reciprocal contamination or a spurious connection. Without basic kanji knowledge, however, spectators will be lost at sea.
“The Concrete Poetry of Niikuni Seiichi: Between Poetry and Art” is at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, till March 22; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7 p.m. on Fri.); admission ¥420. For more information, call (06) 6447-4680 or visit www.nmao.go.jp