Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 54

Daisuke Shimizu’s illustrations of caterpillar fungi (1)

Left: Torrubiella aranicida, right: Cordyceps macularis, ink and color on paper.
All images: courtesy and collection of the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum.

I became familiar with Daisuke Shimizu’s name around the time I was regularly visiting Iwaki Yumoto in Fukushima prefecture the year after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In a house that stood all by itself in the middle of a rice field, where someone had taken me because there was an interesting person living there, I met a certain caterpillar fungi researcher with no formal institutional affiliation. At the time he was in the middle of preparing a definitive illustrated guide to caterpillar fungi, and he brought out and showed me some of the few illustrated guides to caterpillar fungi that had been published in the past, all of which mentioned Daisuke’s name and included expressions of appreciation to him as someone who had made a great contribution to this field.

At the time I had no idea this individual and I shared the same hometown, and I was surprised when I recently heard this from the musician and leader of Chichibu Avantist, Shin Sasakubo. Sasakubo also informed me that Daisuke was the younger brother of Buko Shimizu, one of Chichibu’s leading photographers and a well-known alpinist. I had been invited to give a special lecture at Tohoku University of Art and Design, and learned that the collection left behind by Daisuke was held at the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum near the border between Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures. Following my request to Natsunosuke Mise, who made all the necessary arrangements, the day after the lecture, during a heavy snowfall that was unseasonal, given it was already the second half of January, and unusual even for Yamagata, I headed to Yonezawa with members of Mise’s reading group, which had met that morning. I was counting on some kind of connection also emerging with the “Is Tohoku-ga possible?” project with which they were involved.

In fact, almost exactly a year ago at the same museum there was a substantial retrospective, entitled “Botanist Daisuke Shimizu: The World of Caterpillar Fungi Illustrations.” Last year was the centenary of Daisuke’s birth. To mark the occasion, as many as 170 original illustrations were exhibited, along with art supplies and a selection of items he used during his investigative activities including bags, canteens, spatulas and other collection gear, while the study he used before his death was recreated. Unfortunately I was unable to make it to this exhibition, but this time, thanks to the efforts of the curator who made special arrangements for me, I was able to view in the museum’s collection room quite a few of the hand-painted illustrations of caterpillar fungi that Daisuke left behind. However, this was no more than a fraction of the total number of illustrations produced by Daisuke. The collection held at the Uesugi Museum is based on the 310 original illustrations gathered together in Shimizu Daisuke: Tochukaso genzu fukusei (Daisuke Shimizu: Reproductions of original caterpillar fungi illustrations) (Japanese Society for Cordyceps Research, 2000), which was published after Daisuke’s death. However, including other work by Daisuke – whose field of research also extended to pit vipers and other snakes; who was an expert not only in mushrooms, but also liverworts, edible wild plants and fruits, and minerals and medicinal herbs; and who was skilled in the cultivation of hothouse plants and orchids – it is thought that even counting only the work that has so far been identified, over 2000 illustrations were left behind. It will be some time before the full picture becomes clear.

Daisuke Shimizu’s collection gear.

Though they represent just a small sample of his work, the original illustrations we were able to come in contact with were all of superb craftsmanship. Aided only by a magnifying lens, Daisuke sketched specimens collected not only from Honshu, but from the islands to the south of Japan including Amami and Iriomote and even from other countries such as Taiwan, greatly expanding the known habitat of caterpillar fungi, scrupulously recording everything down to astonishingly minute details. But it is not only their meticulousness. What about the fineness of their coloring? The colors contained in the natural world make no allowances for human convenience. Moreover, from the moment they are collected, the colors of caterpillar fungi begin to change. In order to capture them, Daisuke rapidly produced sketches and notes on site, and after returning home he went to the trouble of faithfully creating colors from mineral pigments, relying on these along with his memory. Using these colors in combination with watercolor paints, he depicted the subjects in hues so incredibly subtle one cannot define “what color” they are. How, then, did Daisuke prevail in this fight against time?

According to the curator at the Uesugi Museum, since Daisuke did not allow his family to come near him when he was working on an illustration, nor did his family try to approach him, out of fear, in spite of the fact that he left behind painting materials and tools and other equipment, there are still many things that are unknown about how he actually produced these illustrations. However, the thoroughness of his approach apparently extended to collecting the whiskers of one particular species of rat and using them to make his own brushes for the purposes of producing fine yet strong lines, so it somewhat defies the imagination. In the latest edition of An illustrated guide to ecology of Japanese Cordyceps (Japanese Society for Cordyceps Research, Seibundo Shinkosha), published in 2014, in most cases photographs showing individuals as they appear buried in the ground immediately after discovery are used instead of illustrations. However, based on looking at these photos, though there may have been progress from a scientific/empirical perspective, they cannot possibly have appeal as pictures. At the same time, if Daisuke’s illustrations of caterpillar fungi were used only as research materials, then they would have been retired from use long ago. The truth, however, is the complete opposite. Only after objective recording via photography became possible did it become clear that Daisuke’s illustrations of caterpillar fungi were not the results of observation alone. In fact they surpassed even the aims of Daisuke himself in clearly entering the realm of art.

Left: Cordyceps sphecocephala, ink and color on paper; right: Cordyceps geniculata, ink on paper.

Just now I went as far as using terms like “art,” but this may have been rash. Because there is only one reason why I want to deal with this expert on caterpillar fungi with no formal institutional affiliation. And that is that for a long time now one of my main concerns as an art critic has been the question, “Who is an outsider artist?” Some of the results of this are as revealed in Autosaida ato nyumon (An introduction to outsider art) (Gentosha Shinsho), published last year, but I sense intuitively that Daisuke Shimizu also belongs to this tradition. The impression I got when I learned about Daisuke was identical to the experience I got when I first saw the numerous volcano drawings produced by Masao Mimatsu at the Mimatsu Masao Memorial Hall near the foot of Mount Showashinzan, which I also dealt with in the book. If I were writing it now, I would undoubtedly add something on Daisuke. But that is not all. The very name of the caterpillar fungi Daisuke painted (in Japanese tochukaso, literally “winter worm, summer grass”) has a “post-art”-like forcefulness that breaks through existing disciplines.

The Japanese name derives from the fact that caterpillar fungi grow by parasitizing “worms,” including arachnids as well as cicadas, wasps and other arthropods, eventually changing into a truly mysterious form that is part-insect, part-mushroom. It can be traced back to the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, which taught, “winter moves around with worms [=yang], which in summer turn into plants [=yin].” According to this teaching, one could also probably say that winter is the time for entomology, while summer is the time for mycology, in which sense it is something that truly violates established academic fields. To put it another way, one could probably say that it is for this very reason that it has fallen into the gaps between areas of academic research, enabling “uneducated” students like Daisuke who have received no specialist training at university to achieve results that are recognized internationally. And yet, despite this, of the approximately 500 species of caterpillar fungus currently known, those reported in Japan alone make up some 400, most of which were discovered single-handedly by Daisuke, in which sense his efforts were indeed extraordinary. Moreover, among the specimens he left behind there are apparently some that have not been able to be identified as species (a specimen can only be recognized as a species if at least one other identical specimen is discovered, which is similar to the principle behind copyright, where uniqueness cannot be asserted without evidence of reproduction), meaning among Daisuke’s specimens there are several caterpillar fungi that are the only ones of their kind to be collected anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, at present the problem of biological radiation exposure caused by radioactive material spread as a result of the nuclear fuel meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is also entering the frame. After the Tohoku disaster, it became widely known that one of the properties of mushrooms is that they accumulate radioactive material in high concentrations. In addition, because the alternation of generations is fast among insects, attention is focusing on them as subjects in which the genetic effects of radiation exposure can be most rapidly observed. Considering these facts, it struck me that the illustrations of caterpillar fungi that Daisuke left behind might also be fitting examples of “the art of ground zero,” a term used in the subtitle of this column from time to time.

Since “March 11,” this “ground” on which we live has become a world in which insects and fungi and radiation and art are complicatedly involved. Come to think of it, it was also in 2011, the year that the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami occurred, that these precious illustrations entered the collection of the Uesugi Museum. To begin with, the Uesugi Museum is not a natural history museum but a distinguished history museum whose collection includes such national treasures as Kano Eitoku’s Scenes in and Around the Capital. To put it metaphorically, it is a place where “insects and fungi” are mortal natural enemies that need to be repelled at all costs – yet caterpillar fungi are a combination of the two. Now more than ever, however, perhaps such “parasites” provide room for opening up new possibilities that have been swept under the carpet by existing institutions. It is precisely such hybrid products in terms of both biology and natural history that this art critic who shares the same hometown as Daisuke is seeking to discuss. If Daisuke, who passed away in 1998 at the age of 82, had known this, I wonder what he would have felt. (To be continued)

Postscript: In writing this column, I received valuable assistance particularly in terms of accessing materials from Miho Hanada, Chief Curator of the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum. In addition, I received all manner of assistance from Professor Mise’s office at Tohoku University of Art and Design. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to them.

Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 1-6

Copyrighted Image