This essay was originally published in ‘New Japan Literature’ (Shin Nihon Bungaku), New Japan Literature Society, Japan, 1956

Preface. The following is an example of a simple note that records, step-by-step, the process of my creative practice, while revealing the various issues (questions, mistakes, accuracies) that sometimes arise during my creative process.

Currently (today is May 23rd) I am working on a “100-go canvas” [162.1 x 130.3 cm]. I am going to call it Black Machine; it is nearly completed, but, just like a public construction site that runs out of funds, it is now way behind the expected schedule.

Of course, it is not that there is an actual lack of funds, as I have to do small jobs on the side when I am painting, and sometimes these chores interrupt the process. In reality, I think there is a much bigger cause, arising externally. When you think about it, it seems that there is no consistent pattern in the production process. To be honest, it is true that preparations along the way are not always perfect. But there is secure motivation, correct intentions, an elaborate plan, a carefully calculated outcome, and a steady execution — when I write it like this, it seems that, at first glance, my creative activities are similar to those of an intelligent criminal, but [from the outside] it does not look like they are. I remember that once my works were described by someone as “Reportage Paintings.”


So, let’s leave unnecessary commentaries aside and start writing from the top. In other words, this is how it starts:

Every day, we are dealing with confusing things – uncertainty, desire, feelings of resentment and suppression, boredom and fatigue – which manifest inside the body, and gradually rise to the head and become an indistinct and vaguely shaped image that begins to hover. Of course, at first, these images do not have a clear shape. They are just like a chaotic collection of fragments, like a scattered alarm clock, lying there, broken into pieces. This chaos, as it is, remains persistent like a thick fog that never clears. However, at the bottom, or any other part, there is this realistic “thing” you need to find in order to transform [this idea] into a concrete image, as if a sperm cell clashes into an egg and they undergo vigorous fission. At least, that is how it goes in my case. And what triggers this [image] is, in most cases, just a tiny something.

For example, one winter day, I was working in a nice studio [with a stove] of an acquaintance’s (I neither have a studio for myself, nor a stove), and suddenly found a piece of coal on top of a box full of tangerines in the corner of the room. That piece of coal, which seems to have been overlooked the whole time, for some reason, came to my eyes as an awfully strange object in that moment. Just then, this kind of black mass was no longer “the coal for his stove,” but something else, causing a rapid chain reaction in my head.

Memories of past experiences and various ideas ran through my head in a big chaos—when I was a kid, I went to the nearby spoil tip to pick up coal on a Sunday holiday, and at that time, I was wondering if all of those stones were burnable stones. Or, when I was in the Air Corps, I saw coal piled up in an unexpected place in the barracks without any enclosure and I was concerned about what it would be used for. Or, in recent years, I visited a friend in a thermal power plant and saw coal powder burning intensely in a boiler (it looked more like a glowing and unwinding light, rather than a fire), and the tremendous power of this force that produces a voltage of 60,000 volts was breathtaking. Just like that, the black object in the tangerine box keeps appearing in my memories and experiences and taking shapes throughout reality. For developing an image, it is these moments that allow fertilization to take place. However, everything that is fertilized does not necessarily see the sun.

I then wanted to paint coal. But what would happen if I just depicted the tangerine box and the coal on top of it, just as it was? For a moment, if you are a sentimentalist of the realism [movement], it seems like a good idea to settle on a slightly soiled painting cloth and express common objects, or, if you are a Neo-plasticist, you might be inspired by the dark disorder and come up with a pre-meditated pattern for it afterwards. But from such a perspective, seeing it through those kinds of “eyes,” the coal will just be shown as it is and there is no   exploration of the “thing” that is burning in the stove; turning into electricity; producing your very socks; and, in some cases, interfering with the playtime of poor children, or crushing the lives of underground coal miners, whose job it is to obtain it. In order to find out more about its substance, it is at least necessary to leave the studio. All “things,” not just coal, are rolling around naked in front of us, which gives us the opportunity and ability to make direct contact with them; however, they may be covered [by something], making it difficult to come across them. Thus, there is no other way than to try and resolve [this cover].

Some clever people might label me as naive, but I wanted to know about coal, so I started by asking myself where it comes from.

Coal mines, so to speak, are places with humans and coal – or places where humans are fighting each other over coal.

Many new discoveries would be waiting for me in the coal mines; but my first image [of them] was harsh. There were black rocks illuminated by the light on my hard hat, glimmering from 24 feet and 5 inches, top to bottom. Amidst the heat and dust and the roar of a conveyor belt, which costs both money and life, the rocks glowed eerily. Graphs showing fluctuations in miner wages, coal prices per ton, mine entry rate and output, etc. came to mind.

Then, I felt I had lost sight of the coal. Perhaps it was because I was surrounded by coal—possessed by it and having seen way too much of it. I had seen it way too much. Here again, I needed to look back on why I wanted to draw coal in the first place. The purpose of coming all the way to the mine was not to gain sociological knowledge of coal production. But rather, wasn’t it to explore this “thing”?—this object that triggered a small emotion in me when I’d first seen it in the studio where it stuck out as [raw] material, entangled and enchanted, bathing in light to reveal its true substance. And then there, in the middle of all this coal mine, I saw the powerful results of the digger, and the “thing” that was dug for emerged. The memories of picking up charcoal as a child came back like a tactile sensation; my eyes probably became those of the digger who went down into the mine for the very first time. However, the decisive difference is that the miner has already, objectively, become part of this coal-producing machinery, losing the ability to look at the production from an outsider’s perspective; I could see both objectively, the digger and the coal, together from the outside. Nevertheless, at that time, I clearly felt and accepted that coal was hostile to me. I wonder if this raw coal was actually that “thing” I was looking for, and, if so, where did that coal from that tangerine box go?

I figured, [in the beginning] it must have been this kind of coal, a natural and wild one, that was artificially taken [from there] later on.

Seemingly, I was too close to the object of investigation, and too straightforward, rather than attacking it from the side, which would have been wiser. How did I miss the fact that coal does not exist on its own, and that there is a production mechanism, which is basically the one that consumes it and produces a new product?

My “coal” suddenly transformed into another “thing” there. ——

Machines—in other words, tools that produce all kinds of goods while being produced goods themselves—are weapons that can be both human allies and human enemies, at the same time. It is about the true nature of this mechanism. Dealing with “threatening monsters” and working on locating all of them as they nest around me, I find myself in severe conflict with the contradiction of machines, which challenges me to hold on to my intention to give a shape to their complex structure, function, and, even, negative sides.

Now, it is safe to say that former [intentions] have been met. But the procedure that follows is actually quite difficult. The former humorous image has completely altered and grown into something so big that it is out of control. Even if I now tried turning to the canvas to paint, it would not make much sense. Before I can do that, a selection, exaggeration, abbreviation, or transformation of the initial image to a completely new form must be made.

In general, “things” (objects) are raw in the beginning and instinctively and sensuously accepted as such, but once they are analyzed, abstracted, and recognized, they end up losing their initial vividness.

Moreover, if I simply translated color and shape on the screen in an explanatory manner, I might be able to create a “picture,” but I would never create a “work of art.” In other words, there is an inescapable friction between the object and the image, and the image and the figurative work. The white canvas always seems waiting to be filled, but in fact, it despitefully refuses to be drawn on.

Yet, nothing starts if one is afraid of the canvas. First of all, I explore various machine forms by drawing on a few sheets of paper. Of course, it is not just a copy or arrangement of its real form, yet it should not be anything other than reality. In a hurry to realize this project, I also have to avoid falling into a pattern.

A combination of balance and imbalance, and numerical and psychological calculations. While carefully making the blueprint and roughly drawing lines on the canvas—similar to chopping firewood—forms and shapes become something like symbols, like “things” from a new world with real persuasive power.

I managed to finish the final sketch while concentrating on these points. From there, all I had to do was overcome the sticky resistance of the oil paint and apply it almost mechanically onto the canvas. As mentioned earlier, the work was almost finished rapidly — but as I gave it the final touch, annoyingly, it began to show a tendency as it gradually emerged reality. Where on earth was the miscalculation?

By changing my plan or by awkwardly drawing on the canvas with that line before or that line that came next or maybe there is a lack of skill to breath within the rhythm of that naturally connected, but also subtle space? I am currently holding the pallet, distressed while thinking about the reason behind [this issue].

After all, in painting, the only way to deal with this is to paint.

All text and artwork © Estate Tatsuo Ikeda

Tatsuo Ikeda, Black Machine, 1956. Oil on canvas, 162.1 x 130.3 cm. Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art