by Sally Kawamura
Mieko Shiomi points our attention towards eternity. The temporal concept of endlessness, in the form of her Endless Box (1963), Endless Music (1997), outer space and fractals, features frequently in her work. Referring to Endless Box (1963), Shiomi has written: “I was thinking about transparent music, music in which nothing could be heard but the ceaseless passage of time.” (Fujii, 2013).
As is well documented, Shiomi is a musician, and began her career during her student days as a pioneering free-improvisor who co-founded the Tokyo-based Group Ongaku which was active during the early 1960s. This was a formative period, in which she distilled her concept of music to mean, “a concentrated duration of activity involving the occurrence of sounds and silence” (Shiomi, 1973, p.42). This idea was also a development from her graduation thesis on twelve-tone composer Anton Webern (1883-1945). As Joan Peyser notes, he had started to “organize the duration of notes as composers had been organizing the pitch of notes” (Peyser, 1995, p.19). Shiomi’s practice evolved from improvisational performance to using action and objects as music. Many of her works involve a temporal, performative and interactive element which, like much other Fluxus output, can be challenging to display in a museum environment.
Anna Dezeuze also recognises this element of many Fluxus pieces, whereby potentially fragile objects requiring interaction require thoughtful approaches to exhibit. She writes of how viewing documentation alone is inadequate since it encourages viewers to imitate what they see in photographs of others engaging with artworks, rather than respond to the object themselves (Dezeuze, 2007).
The inadequacy of documentation can also be experienced in relation to performance as photographs or written material may not convey aspects of the piece that might have been apparent at the time. For example, Shiomi’s performance of her Event for the Late Afternoon (1963) which instructs, “Hang down a violin with a long rope till nearly the ground from the roof of a building” was performed from the roof of Okayama Cultural Centre, Japan, in 1964, and photographed by Minoru Hirata. The striking photograph, powerful in black and white, conveys an immediate awareness of height and sense of the violin floating in space. Looking at it, we can imagine the tentative manner in which the violin would have to be lowered so as not to damage it against the side of a building, and how the wind might create sound against the wood or the strings. However, this does not explain why the piece is called, Event for the Late Afternoon. Shiomi has confirmed that the title was given because she was thinking of the pleasing way in which the afternoon light would match the orange tone of the violin (Shiomi, May 7, 2022).
She has commented that though it wasn’t a conscious thought at the time she composed the piece, she wonders whether the teaching she received from the eminent ethnomusicologist, Fumio Koizumi, at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, may have been influential. She learnt from him that a Raga is specific to the mood at a particular time of day. A morning Raga, for example, may not be performed at a different time (Shiomi, May 7, 2022). Hence, her desire to produce a piece specific to the light qualities of the afternoon. Since the experience of the afternoon light may not be realised through looking at a black and white photograph, how, then, should the piece be presented to new audiences? A performance of the piece is an obvious choice, but given that there is a limited time-frame in which a single performance may be shown, and, depending on the geographical location and season, the light quality may not produce the desired effect, what else is possible?
Shiomi’s Endless Box (1963), also poses a conundrum regarding display. When a viewer sees the fragile set of paper boxes, usually under glass in a museum, it is still, and cannot be touched. If it were possible to interact with Endless Box, the visitor to the museum might begin to separate one box from another, experiencing each one becoming smaller and smaller, realising the passage of time that is central to Shiomi’s conception of the piece. Viewing an immobile set of boxes cannot communicate this as effectively. The viewer’s eye might move straight from the outer edge, quickly along the ripples of the inner boxes, straight to a focal point in the centre without experiencing the quality of time passing. Curator Aki Fujii from the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, describes the problem of exhibiting Endless Box as a static object:
The beauty of the white boxes of extremely simple construction comes across, but the visual diminuendo ringing out amid the silence of time’s relentless passage is frozen in the imagination, as if we are seeing the fossilized imprint left behind after an action (music) has ended.
Due to this issue, when exhibiting Shiomi’s work in 2012 as part of the exhibition MOT Collection Chronicle 1964-: Off Museum at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (Feb. 4 – May 6, 2012), Fujii discussed with Shiomi an idea for solution. A decision was made to produce a film of Endless Box, as in doing so, the viewer would be able to witness the passage of time being performed in front of them (Fujii, 2013).
Shiomi suggested various approaches to the film, emphasising that a creative approach should be taken in order to make a new work. One of these ideas was to pile up the boxes after being opened, so that they resembled islands in the Seto Inland Sea next to whose beauty Shiomi was raised (Fujii, 2013). This would emphasise the idea of natural beauty in Endless Box, also suggested by the slight purple hue in the paper, chosen on purpose to evoke the tone of lavender mist and calabash flowers (Fujii, 2013).
Producing a creative response and making a new work from an existing piece or concept, is what Shiomi refers to as her concept of “Transmedia” which she coined in 2012 (Shiomi, 2012). Although Shiomi named the concept, building on another artists’ work to create a different piece is not new, and was used extensively in Fluxus. Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face, which instructs: “Smile———-stop to smile.” is one example of this. George Macuinas produced a film using images of Yoko Ono’s mouth, and a flipbook, using the same material (1966/late 1960s). Shiomi comments that this was the beginning of Transmedia in her work (Shiomi, 2012). Maciunas sent her a letter asking for her permission to make a film in advance (Kakinuma, 2014), and Shiomi comments that if someone who is not the original artist wishes to make a transmedia piece, the artist should be consulted (Shiomi, April 13, 2023).
Eventually, it was decided that Aki Fujii, with only her hands visible against a black background, would lift the lid of each white box and remove it from the frame. She would finally place the smallest box in the palm of her hand and then display it on the table (Fujii, 2013). This solution, in its simplicity and elimination of distraction, creates a mesmerising effect which powerfully emphasises duration and the diminuendo.
However, in the intention to communicate duration, it does mean that other ways in which a person or the artist might interact with the piece, such as Shiomi’s own idea of piling up the boxes to represent islands, may be excluded. This could be represented in other ways, using a separate realisation (Fuji, 2013).
It is necessary to remember that what is created in using Transmedia is a unique work in itself. The idea of it being a new, creative response is important, especially considering Dezeuze’s reservations about documentation. If the viewer recognises that they are encountering a distinct artwork based on a previous concept, it may encourage them to consider the creative possibilities of the original piece more thoroughly rather than wishing to emulate another artist or performer.
A new, creative work drawing out a particular way of experiencing a piece such as, for example, Event for the Late Afternoon, could be useful in a museum context to communicate some aspects of a piece that may not be transmitted through documentation. However, we might also recognise that the way an artist uses Transmedia may be different from the way that a museum might make use of it. Shiomi has produced several new works based on some of her original concepts, and her Transmedial creative response, in 2020, to Dick Higgins’ 1995 intermedia chart, held at the Fondazione Bonotto in Molvena, Italy, documents this. She has drawn arrows between the circles of different media, each showing how pieces of her own have been developed into something else. The 2012 film of Endless Box, discussed above, is included with an arrow from “Object Music” to “Moving Images.” On the same chart, she refers to many other works including her 1974 Wind Event, which instructs, “make wind or disturb the movement of the natural wind by using some apparatus.” In 2006, it was produced as a Transmedia piece for harpist Rhodri Davies as, Wind Music for a Harp. The instructions in this new piece, though based on wind and its movement, focus on closely observing the patterns of the wind and performing ‘as though your improvised music was a natural phenomenon.’ This does not centre on emphasising a particular aspect of the original work, but rather, the original concept is concentrated and expanded to produce an entirely different piece.
The life of Shiomi’s works and concepts are perpetuated through countless possible realisations. Hers is a dynamic eternity, allowing for possibilities, through Transmedia, of change and growth. To answer the question posed in her 1965 Direction Event, itself the subject of many Transmedia realisations, and referred to at the end of her own discourse on Transmedia (Shiomi, 2013), “..what kind of direction were you facing or moving towards?” perhaps the answer will be, “infinity.”
Dezeuze, Anna (2007). ‘Blurring the Boundaries between Art and Life (in the museum?)’. Tate Papers no. 8, Autumn 2007. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/08/blurring-boundaries-between-art-and-life-in-the-museum [Accessed 15 April 2023].
Fujii, Aki (2013). ‘To the People of the 30th Century: The Lives of Shiomi Mieko’s “Endless Box.”’ Available at: https://post.moma.org/to-the-people-of-the-30th-century-the-lives-of-shiomi-miekos-endless-box/ [accessed 15 April 2023].
Kakinuma Toshie, Takeuchi Nao, Mieko Shiomi (2014). “Oral History Interview with Shiomi Mieko”, Kyoto City University of Arts (Japanese/English). Available at: https://www.kcua.ac.jp/arc/ar/shiomi_eg_1/, (translated by Reiko Tomii).
Peyser, Joan (1995). The Music of My Time (New York: Pro/Am Music)
Shiomi, Mieko (1973). ‘Mieko Shiomi’ in Art and Artists, October 1973 pp. 42-45.
Shiomi, Mieko, email to the author. May 7, 2022.
Shiomi, Mieko, email to the author. April 13, 2023.
Shiomi, Mieko (2013) ‘Intermedia/Transmedia.’ Talk presented by Shiomi at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, April 29, 2012. Translated and edited by Midori Yoshimoto. Available at: https://post.moma.org/intermedia-transmedia/ [accessed 15 April 2023].
Shiomi, Mieko (1976). Spatial Poem (Osaka: [n.pub.]).
Yoshimoto, Midori, email to the author. April 25, 2023.
Yoshimoto, Midori, (2005). Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press).
 Although Shiomi received a letter asking for permission to make a film, the precise details of the performance were not discussed at the time. I am thankful to Midori Yoshimoto for confirming this (Yoshimoto, 25 April 2023). This resulted in surprise from Shiomi that only Ono’s mouth was filmed (Yoshimoto, 2005, p229 n.51).
 Shiomi’s installation of ‘Event for the Late Afternoon,’ shown at Kioi Hall, Tokyo, from around 3pm-10pm on 13 October 2001 as part of the series, ‘Concert 20-21. Nihon no sakkyoku. 21 seiki he no ayumi’ [Concert 20-21. Japanese Compositions. Tracing steps toward the 21st Century], expands the piece by creating an indoor version. Three violins of different sizes were hung from the ceiling and situated by music stands, which also decreased in height, displaying <Falling Event> – 5 from her Spatial Poem (1976, pp 22-23) and information about the installation. As well as the surreal sense of the instruments dangling from the ceiling, the idea of falling or diminuendo may be activated by the diminishing sizes of the violins and stands and their positions, drawing viewers’ eyes towards the ground.
 This 1974 piece, included as a ‘Spatial Poem’ in Shiomi, 1976, is resonant of Shiomi’s Wind Music (1963), which instructs:
‘I Raise Wind
II Be blown by wind
Let something be blown by wind
III Wind at the beach
Wind in the street
Wind passing by the car