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Continuously Questioning and Having Fun Using One’s Existence and Body as Social Sculpture

SUSUKI Masahito’s normal body and normal action painting

(About this story)

SUSUKI Masahito is an artist who creates paintings and music. Due to cerebral palsy, his speech and the function of his arms and legs are impaired. Based at the 〈Garden of Hope〉 in Mie Prefecture, Susuki continually reexamines what he can do and express with his body.

(Date updated)16 January, 2023

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 17 June, 2022.

CREDIT

[PHOTOGRAPH]  ASADA Masashi

[TEXT]  ONO Yoshimi

Content

Inventing an art style that works for his body

Susuki Masahito’s arms and legs move involuntarily. Because of this, he normally has them secured to his wheelchair. The only part of his body he can move voluntarily is from the neck up. Because of speech impairment, talking is difficult for him. He has no problems, however, hearing what people say to him. Susuki conveys words using a headband with a pointer attached and pointing at letters on a specially-created board.

This device, nicknamed the “anglerfish”, was custom-created by a mentor Susuki met while in junior high school.

The layout of the “anglerfish” has been updated every so often to make it easier to use. In addition to the Japanese syllabary, frequently-used words are printed on the board such as “yes,” “no,” “when,” “I made a mistake,” “tell me,” “toilet,” and “what do you think?” The device is stowed on one side of Susuki’s wheelchair so it can be brought out at any time.

Susuki’s usual spot at the〈Garden of Hope〉. Susuki’s normal style is to have his letterboard stowed on one side and his backpack in back of his wheelchair. He wears sneakers he painted himself on his feet.

When engaging in conversation, his conversation partner will adjust the angle, distance, and position of the pointer and letterboard, intuiting what works for Susuki. I wonder what the meaning of the “secret phrase” square is?

Susuki has been painting since his school days by holding a brush in his mouth. After graduating high school, Susuki began utilizing the 〈Garden of Hope〉, and it is there he came up with new ways of making art.

First, he began covering the wheels of his electric wheelchair with paint to drive over a canvas.

Susuki painted this by covering the wheels of his electric wheelchair with acrylic paint and driving over drawing paper. 《Tires》 / Acrylic paint, drawing paper / Circa 2008. Photo by: Garden of Hope

《Tires》 / Acrylic paint, drawing paper / Circa 2008. Photo by: Garden of Hope

Next, he came up with a dynamic style by covering his whole body with paint and lying on a canvas to allow his involuntary movements to create a picture.

An account of a summer day when Susuki engaged in action painting together with〈Garden of Hope〉staff. Using the energetic motions of Susuki’s whole body, a snapshot of a moment in the artist’s life is captured and imprinted on the medium. Photo by: Garden of Hope

Susuki lies down on the canvas and staff squirt paints over his body using bottles with holes in the caps. Photo by: Garden of Hope

Susuki’s arms and legs flutter about with great energy. As staff continue to cover him with paints, the motion of his arms and legs makes the paints into a kind of lubricant, and his body circles around. The motions of his body, arms, and legs spread the paints over the canvas and mixes them. The specific process is determined in advance through discussion based on Susuki’s ideas and is even storyboarded. Photo by: Garden of Hope

作品制作のあと、水で身体を洗ってもらっているすすきさんの笑顔。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

作品制作のあと、マットのうえで身体を洗ってもらっているすすきさん。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

Pieces created that day. Photo by: Garden of Hope

スタッフと

Photo by: Garden of Hope

アクションペインティングの

Photo by: Garden of Hope

Currently, Susuki uses beverage bottles filled with paints to create his works.

These bottles are hung together over a canvas and tied to Susuki’s wrists with string. When Susuki’s involuntary movements cause the strings to be pulled on, the bottles shake and drip paint from holes in their caps. Everything is Susuki’s own idea and is implemented through discussion with staff members.

Staff members Nakamura and Mikami put paints into beverage bottles to prepare for Susuki’s art-making process.

Through his letterboard, expressions, and head nods, Garden of Hope staff communicate with Susuki and identify his intentions down to the last detail, supporting his artistic activities.

On the day I visited, Susuki demonstrated how he is using beverage bottles to create his works. Using the anglerfish, Susuki tells staff he wants to start with the light colors. His arms move, abruptly pulling on the strings again and again, causing a rain of paint to splash down from above.

The paints have a high moisture content, and their brilliant colors collide with each other, mix, and flow. During the session, one of the bottles accidentally falls onto the canvas, and the entire process, including this event, is recorded on the medium’s surface.

With his arms moving in great sweeps, the suspended beverage bottles shake and rain paints below. Susuki invented this style of painting.

After he is finished painting, I ask Susuki what he is thinking when he makes his art. After a small silence, he points at characters on his letterboard one by one, answering my question.

“B-E-C-A-U-S-E I-T M-O-V-E-S O-N I-T-S O-W-N.” “Ah, because your body moves of its own accord,” I confirm, and Susuki nods yes.

“I-M N-O-T T-H-I-N-K-I-N-G A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G.” “Because my body moves on its own, I’m not thinking anything.”

A work in progress. Director at the〈Garden of Hope〉, MURABAYSHI Shinya, talked with me about Susuki’s works, including this entire process.

Next, I asked Susuki how he felt when he saw the completed piece. Susuki points at characters spelling out “I see.”

MIKAMI Masashi, one of the staff members who help Susuki in his creative activities, clarifies for me. “I believe what he means is that Susuki himself doesn’t even know what he will make. Seeing the resulting phenomenon, he thinks to himself, ‘so this is what came out of that.’”

Susuki in the middle of painting a piece. Paints rain down on the canvas with splashing sounds.

Director at the〈Garden of Hope〉, MURABAYASHI Shinya mentions the composers John Cage and Erik Satie. As if creating a musical score through painting, the spontaneous movements of his body result in the creation of works of art using the tools of canvas and paint.

A completed piece. Susuki’s paints, containing a high moisture content, continuously sway, shake, and change form across the canvas.

Expanding what is possible

In addition to painting, Susuki also creates music. Susuki uses his anglerfish to operate buttons on a sequencer, producing ambient songs. When performing on stage, Susuki has paintings he has created projected on a screen, filling the space with a world of his own creations.

Susuki using his anglerfish to operate a sequencer. The pointer was originally straight, but this made it difficult for Susuki to focus on, giving him headaches. Repeated small improvements eventually resulted in the current shape.

Staff member NAKAMURA Akimasa introduced the sequencer to Susuki, thinking it would work well for him.

Susuki began making music around 2003. To start, Susuki formed a band with Murabayashi, other Garden of Hope members, and another staff member, and was in charge of the drum machine. When they played, there would be times where a specific phrase needed to be played. Susuki, however, was sometimes too late or early, or played the wrong sounds.

Murabayashi told me, “There were just some times when Susuki couldn’t play on que. It caused him a lot of conflict. So he thought about what to do. He couldn’t do this, that, or this, but he could do this. So he thought about how he could use that and build on and develop it. He truly is an artist to the core.”

Susuki and Murabayashi playing on stage together at the〈Garden of Hope〉. The event was aired in November 2011 on the Garden of Hope’s live YouTube program, “Mie Prefecture Art Brut & Music Brut.” Photo by: Garden of Hope

This in turn resulted in the creation of Susuki’s solo unit “Fukuro.” This is the Japanese word for “bag” and I was told it expresses Susuki’s powerful will that if he “really wanted to, he could envelope the world whole.”

When I asked him about his music, Susuki told me, “T-H-E S-O-N-G-S A-R-E M-Y C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N.” In place of the artist himself, his songs are introducing more and more people to his world.

車椅子のすすきさんの横でヘッドフォンで音を確認する三上さん

Staff member Mikami checking the music with Susuki.

When Susuki visits a new place, he requires a family member, helper, or Garden of Hope staff member to go along with him. He then builds relationships with the people who work at the banks and stores there, eventually enabling him to go there alone. Expressing his intent via his letterboard, Susuki works with employees at these locations to accomplish what he needs to do.

For example, he has become close with two employees at a Mister Donut location. They take Susuki’s order using his letterboard and take his wallet out of his bag for him to pay for his purchase. They have even come to help him eat and use the bathroom.

2列にわたり色の玉が描かれ、絵の具が下に流れ落ちる。

“This is a piece I’ve been working on since September 2020. I directed acrylics in specific colors to be dripped onto specific locations on a wooden board lying on the ground, then had the board stood up so they could run. This was repeated over several days. As I am still working on it, I haven’t decided on a title yet. (Susuki generally does not add titles to his pieces.)” (SUSUKI Masahito) Photo by: Garden of Hope

さらに書き込みが多くなる。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

もっと色の玉が多くなり、下に流れ落ちる。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

特に上段がミツになっていく。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

さらにさらにみつになっていく

Photo by: Garden of Hope

さらにみつになって、カラフルになる。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

さらにさらにみつになって完成。浮かび上がる風船のようにも見える。

Photo by: Garden of Hope

One day, Susuki went to Mister Donut, but it had closed down. However, Susuki had the opportunity to learn what happened to the two employees he had befriended. Both of them have decided to work in social welfare because of their contact with Susuki.

Susuki is an activist who changes people’s lives and society. When a new park was built in the area, Susuki joined the local citizens’ council, and when city hall was being rebuilt, the city asked him about their plans to employ universal design principles. Susuki has continuously thought about the role he can play, having been born with the body he has. From love to boat racing, he also doesn’t neglect the things he likes.

“Because of his body, he requires people to help him. He doesn’t want to be discriminated against. He also doesn’t want people to pity him. He wants to establish himself as-is, as he is, in society. That’s what he’s always done,” says Murabayashi.

Susuki introduces his life and the nature of his body to people. Fully utilizing who he is now, he is making waves as an artist and as a social activist. Susuki’s way of life itself is social sculpture. Today, Susuki continues to expand the scope in which he and the people he knows live in.

“Won’t you look at my life and smile?”

When we talked about things Susuki liked, he showed me an especially big smile.