A Commune in an imaginary Space - Nirvana and World Uprising

Matsuzawa Yutaka and International mail art projects in 1960s and 1970s


Yoshiko Shimada, Ph.D



The subject of my talk is mail art projects, Nirvana and World Uprisings, by the Japanese conceptual artist, Matsuzawa Yutaka, and how he imagined the creation of a  ‘free commune’ through these projects.



Let me first briefly talk about Matsuzawa himself.

(slide 2) He was born in Shimosuwa, Nagano prefecture on February 2, 1922, as the first son of one of the oldest families in Suwa. He died there in 2006.

Matsuzawa studied architecture at Waseda University from 1943 to 46, and as an engineer student, he was exempted from conscription during the Second World War. He was sent to work in a chemical factory, but ran away and returned to Suwa in July 1945. Much later in the 1980s, he told one of his students that this war-time experience had left him with feelings of anxiety about the state of the world, and that anxiety became the base of his art.


Upon his graduation in 1946, Matsuzawa declared that he didn’t believe in steel and concrete structures and that he wanted to make ‘immaterial architecture’. He worked briefly at an architecture firm but soon quit and returned to Suwa, thereafter making a living teaching mathematics at a local high school’s night classes, which gave him ample time for thinking, writing poetry and creating art works.


(slide 3) On June 1st 1964, he had a revelation to ‘eradicate the material object’ and after 3 days of contemplation, he decided to create only language-based work from then on.


(slide 4) Matsuzawa’s idea of immaterialization is based on his strong objection to materialism. He made this banner in 1966. It says ‘Human beings, let’s disappear, Gyatei Gyatei. Anti-civilization committee’. Gyatei is a Sanskrit term meaning to eradicate, or let go. He predicted that with the mistaken devotion to materials, human beings would disappear by 2222 and that as the world was already full of harmful materials, we should not produce any more objects, including art objects.


This may sound like a Zen monologue or an eschatological prophecy, and Matsuzawa was often criticized for being too religious, spiritual and guru-like. He did study Esoteric Buddhism of India and Nepal, and was much influenced by it, but he also studied mathematics and engineering and was well-versed in theoretical physics. An art critic, Yoshida Yoshie said that ‘Matsuzawa had nothing to do with any kind of religious fanaticism. He was always rational and scientific in his thoughts. He tried to approach the irrational with rational methodologies.’


(slides 5,6) In 1966, he started ‘postcard paintings’ - printed postcards as art work sent to his friends. This (11) says ‘a blank paper painting for all the living- and non-living things’. (12) This is another postcard art that states 8 conditions for world peace, and asked the recipients to write back their thoughts. The mailing address printed here is ‘kokuukan joukyo tanchi sentaa’ or ‘Center for monitoring the situation within imaginary space’. Matsuzawa’s objective was to research the imaginary (or parallel) universe through post card and other mail art. He said the space would be apparent through the action of exchanging of thoughts to and fro within it.


These 1966-69 postcards were sent only within Japan. Except for his stay in the US as a Fulbright scholar between 1955 and 57, Matsuzawa remained at his home in Suwa, Japan, and he had little interaction with artists outside Japan until 1970.


(slide 7) Art & Project published this Bulletin 21 on Matsuzawa in February 1970, so he was not totally unknown outside Japan.

 (slide 8)This is the earliest record of Matsuzawa’s interaction with an artist outside Japan. In March 1970, Stanley Brown placed an advert seeking to purchase 1square meter of land in a Japanese newspaper. Matsuzawa responded and through Art & Project sold Brown 1 square meter of his land in the mountain in Suwa. This is a record of the purchase.

(slide 9) The area of the purchased land became a gathering spot for Matsuzawa’s artists friends to stage concerts, performances and meditation. They built a tree house and named it a ‘meditation platform in Sensui-iri’.



(slide 10) In 1970, Matsuzawa organized an exhibition titled ‘Nirvana-toward the Final Art’ at Kyoto City Art Museum. The invitation card says ‘Abandon the whole hearted devotion to materilas… Imagine the final form of art. Exhibit the final art. Thenceforth, there is no art.’  The Final Art, Matsuzawa said, was to end all art, just like the final war that was to end all wars. 

(slide 11) The exhibition lasted only for 3 days from August 12 to 14th.  On the first day, the exhibition consisted of 13 rooms, on the second day, six rooms, and on the third day, the works were gathered in only in one room.(slide 12)


Eighty-five artists from Japan, the US, England, France, Canada and Holland participated. Art & Project introduced Matsuzawa to Jan Dibbets, Ger van elk, Stanley brown, Boezem, Laurence Weiner and Gilbert & George. And Laurence Weiner recommended Douglas Huebler, John Baldessari, Daniel Buren, Robert Barry,

Gerald Furguson,  and Martin Maloney.

Matsuzawa sent out a call for participation in Japan to his friends and it was spread by word of mouth. The exhibition was in Independent style, meaning without any jury. Any ideas and works were accepted, as long as they fit the following suggestions posted by Matsuzawa. (slide 14) They were:

1.     In order to advocate non-materialism, limit the material to the absolute minimal.

2.     Invisible or imaginary expression is desirable.

3.     Non-existent, non-empty, non-non-existent, non-non-empty expression

4.     Expression that may or may not exist.

5.     In a new and crazy enough method.

6.     In the final method.

7.     In the method that leads to the salvation of human beings.

8.     The method of Nil.

9.     The method

The works were expected to be in the forms of: photograph, plan, diagram, writing, sound tape, sketch, photocopy, concept, non-material, happening, etc. and they were to be sent by mail.


(slide 14) Previous to Nirvana, Matsuzawa wrote ‘Anticipation of Free Art’ on December 13th 1969 at 2:13. ‘Free Art’ according to Matsuzawa was:

1. Art without discrimination

2. Art that is infinitely free from any kind of regulations and prohibitions.

3. Art with ‘omnipotence of thought’ as one of its principles.

4. Art as ejaculation (or sudden vocalization) of spirit

5. Art without artists’ signatures.

6. Art that can be found in an exhibition (if such thing still exists) that has no title, no curator, no artists and no dates.

7. Art without the notions of good/bad, deep/shallow, long/short, male/female, to/fro, others/self, up/down, ocean/mountain, A/Un, that is, beginning/end

8. Art of a hallucinatory commune.

9. Art that already has an appearance of the Final Art.

0. We name it Free Art, in the end of 1969. Free Art for All!


(slide 15) Nirvana was to realize this idea of Free Art, and also the ‘Free Commune’. In this ‘Nirvana Commune Manifesto’, Matsuzawa said: ‘The collapse of humanity is close at hand. What if current false civilization cannot change its course rapidly enough?  Before the collapse of humanity, let us instead commnize minds that are truly worthy of human beings. Let us instead build so-called Nirvana commune. We appeal to all the Final artists of the world.’


In 1970, there was a strong sense of ‘shumatsu’ among intellectuals– a sense that something has come or is coming to an end. It was the post-1968, post-student movement period. The situation was one of stagnation and confusion, and many young people were searching for an alternative to the strict social structure. Desire for a new kind of community and communication was evident in an essay by one of the students of Matsuzawa’s Final Art Thought workshop. He wrote:


In 1968-69, I was in the middle of the student movement. Afterward, I only felt a sense of inevitability and apathy. What I learned was that our struggle failed not because of the police crackdown but because we could not connect to others through language. My construct was utterly shattered by the realization of this loss of communication. After a period of solitude, I still utter words, seeking for something. I still want to hang on to language. I chose the Final Art Thoughts class hoping it would be a site where I might find my new language.


(slide 16) Matsuzawa’s ‘free commune’ was a space where diverse individuals and modes of expressions could co-exist, communicate and intermingle without losing autonomy. Here he drew a model of ‘Nirvana United Cores’.  Each core has its own regulation and body, but as a whole, directed to Nirvana. Each is open to others with sympathy and warm hearts.


(slide 17) During 3 days of the exhibition, some of the participating artists stayed in the Hieizan temple retreat in Kyoto. There, they spent nights discussing various subjects. Some of them formed long lasting friendships through this experience.

(slide 18) Ironically, the exhibition was held at the same time as the World Exposition in Osaka, not very far from Kyoto. The theme of the Osaka Expo was ‘Progress and Harmony for Mankind’. It was a showcase of modern technology and material wealth in which many artists, including those ‘Anti-Art’ artists in the early 1960s were co-opted into participation.


Let me now show you some of the works presented at Nirvana exhibition.

(19) This is a postcard from Takiguchi Shuzo with an intentional misspelling of Nil.  

(20) On Kawara sent this ‘I am still alive’ telegram from New York.

(21) Jan Dibbets’ ‘gesture and location’ post card.

(22) Horikawa Norio, a member of an art group in Japan called GUN had 2 plans, One was sending a stone to the museum and the other was offering the audience 5 yen coins.


World Uprising

(slide 23) In 1971, Matsuzawa launched another international mail art project, World Uprising. The invitation said;

‘I wish you joy of the occasion that you are even more vanishing. I should be delighted if you could accept my cordial invitation to the ‘World Uprising’ that is to be realized as the last way of expression to coexist in this degenerate age and as the new way of expression to communize minds. This is the first one of the ‘World Uprisings’ which will be happening for the coming 250 years by the time of mankind’s vanishment.’


(slide 24) This is a list of participating artists. The 15 Japanese artists were participants of the Nirvana exhibition who continue to gather at the Sensui-iri meditation platform in Suwa. On the last day of 1971, some of them went up there and performed rituals. Most of the rituals seemed to deal with nature – listening, walking and meditating in the wilderness.

This focus on nature may well have a connection to Shintoism and Matsuzawa’s background and upbringing in Suwa. It may also reflect the environmental crisis that became increasingly severe in Japan at that time, with the rapid economic growth and resulting pollution of air, water and soil all over the country.

There was also a hippy movement in Japan from the mid 60s seeking for an alternative life style and advocating dropping-out of the materialistic society and going back to nature. Matsuzawa corresponded with some leading figures of this alternative movement, including Buzoku group and Ooe Masanori, who is also an experimental film maker.


(slide 25) This is Matsuzawa’s work. It says: ‘Now I imagine the word ‘death’ nine times at nine random spots under trees around Sensui-iri meditation platform. This is a response to the approaching disappearance of human beings’

(slide 26) This is a work by Furusawa Taku, a performance artist. He buried himself in the ground with only a tube sticking out for air. He has been doing this kind of extreme near-death body art for many years.

 (slide 27) This is by Ashizawa Taii. His project was to record the sound of his body responding to the earth, water, fire, and air, and then transmitting it to the universe.

(slide 28, 29)

Artists invited from outside Japan were Daniel Buren (28), Lawrence Weiner (29), and Douglas Heubler


 (slide 30) The World Uprising continued for the next 3 years. From the second year, 1972, Matsuzawa increased the number of invited artists to 108. The invitation expanded geographically too - they were sent to Japan, Western and Eastern Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australia.


(slide 31,32) There is a notable number of works from Eastern European artists, as mail art was one of the few ways to show their work in the West. Kozlowski lived in Poland and was very active in mail art. He invited Matsuzawa to do a solo exhibition at Akumulatory 2 gallery in Poznan in 1975. 

 Miroljub Todorovic lived in Yugoslavia, and formed an art group called ‘Signal’ and is still active.



The significance of Nirvana and World Uprising is that they had both a philosophical foundation and a clear purpose that went beyond the ordinary framework of Art. Many mail art exhibitions in the 1970s and 80s seemed to have focused on mail art as a new method of artistic expression, whereas for Matsuzawa, the method itself was not an issue. The focal point of his mail art projects was to communicate thoughts and to realize the idea of  ‘Free Commune’ in order to express the unknown and unperceived, that went beyond the limit of the material world, and ultimately to sound the alarm to human beings about the current state we were in.


Although sending mail seems anachronistic in this age of internet, the questions he raised against the materialistic world is still relevant, and these projects indicate the potentiality of collective power of thoughts.


This research is ongoing. The network is extensive and the amount of the materials is enormous (there are thousands!). If you are interested, a part of the materials will be uploaded to Matsuzawa Yutaka Psi Room Foundation, which I helped to establish. (slide 33website address)



Thank you.