The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Japanese-American Shinkichi Tajiri turned 18. Suddenly considered a danger to the U.S., he and his family (along with 120,000 other Japanese residents and their American born children) were incarcerated in concentration camps until Tajiri found a way out: he volunteered for the army. While recuperating from a war injury sustained in Europe, Tajiri discovered the vocation that would change his life: his skilful drawings of fellow soldiers and war scenes ignited a fire.
“You need obsession to continue, to not give up…Thanks to the war I became an artist. I’m an artist out of necessity. My imagery is the crystallization of my experiences.”
Returning to the U.S., Tajiri worked in the New York studio of Isamu Noguchi, then from 1947 to 1948 studied art at the Art Institute in Chicago. Leaving for Paris, he continued his studies with the sculptor Zadkine and later with Fernand Léger - the post-war period witnessing a surge of artistic innovation.
Materials were scarce and Tajiri became known for his innovative ‘junk sculptures’, earning the admiration of the artists Constant, Karel Appel and Corneille, who resided in Paris. In 1949 they invited him to take part in the large CoBrA exhibition in Amsterdam, which caused a stir within the art world. The CoBrA movement was the European answer to American abstract-expressionism.
Tajiri sought his own path. He was soon admired for his incredible diversity as a sculptor, experimental filmmaker and photographer. His 9 minute, 1955 film, ‘The Vipers’, shot in Paris, was touted as “documenting the emergence of the counter culture”. He became a professor at the Hochschüle für Bildende Künst in Berlin and developed an offset-press, called the X-press, where he revived some nearly forgotten photographic methods.
In 2003 Tajiri was honoured by the Dutch art world with the opening of a large retrospective exhibition at the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The show encompassed over half a century of diverse works. Visitors were welcomed by the latest addition to the prolific artist’s oeuvre: a line-up of 47 Ronin – 8-9 feet tall warriors sculpted out of foam board, simultaneously monstrous and sensual. Two of these warrior sculptures, completed on a grand scale in wrought iron, found their way to guard a bridge in Venlo, Holland.
Before Shinkichi Tajiri died in March 2009, he published two books. One, a meticulous photographic record of the Berlin wall while it still stood and the other details the construction of his Warrior Guards. Tajiri is recognised as one of the most versatile, innovative and daring artists of our times.