The man-machine: Hiroshi Kawano’s algorithmic Mondrian


Why an artificial Mondrian? Perhaps there’s an obvious and immediate affinity between his iconic compositions and such computer-generated figures as those that appeared in Japan’s IBM Review in 1964. But Hiroshi Kawano did not simply digitize Piet Mondrian; it could be stated inversely that he was among the first to Mondrianize digital art. The visualization of color and form for Kawano follows from an apparently vital aesthetic process in which analysis bears the same “artificial” relation to programming as reduction might bear to painting. One is inclined to ask—What other kind of Mondrian could there possibly be?


Kawama spoke of his work in precise and programmatic terms, seemingly adopting a physics of predictive lab experimentation at the exclusion of messy empirical studies undertaken en plein air. The syntax and logical operators of the OKI symbolic input programming language, which served as his medium, constitute an experimental “style” in the artisanal, perhaps even botanical sense—a meaning retained in the Dutch “De Stijl”—and thereby invoke a rodlike connection, jamb, joint, or post. If algorithmic art hinges along such vertices, Kawano’s fascination is with its pivotal motion. To be technically skilled is to be well attuned to movement framed by limits. The temperament corresponding to this fascination is therefore always a perverse autism that indexes when and where such movement falls short, almost obsessively, but nonetheless cannot escape its binary logic: the modus operandi of the programmer.



While there are more than a few compulsions that might inspire a philosopher to learn programming, its this austere regard for the beauty of process that seems to have enchanted Kawano. Unsurprisingly, he discovered in the work of Max Bense in the early ‘60s an all-too-German nimbus of abstract rationalist systematicity and existential obtusion. There’s perhaps no better complement to the technophilia of postwar Japan than a treatise such as Programmierung des Schönen, which must have invigorated Kawano as he produced his first pieces with the OKITAC 5090A at the University of Tokyo’s Computer Center.

This German word for beauty in Bense’s title is equally fitting. One thinks of the luminescence of Tokyo’s techno-aesthetic regime, appearing in subsequent decades as a rising, man-made sun across the once-imperial Eastern sky. The 24-hour resplendence of Shibuya overtakes that shadowy quality which the novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki described as a “sheen of antiquity” essential to the traditional Japanese character—a lackluster patina found sheltered beneath deeply extended eaves. The “softness and warmth of paper” is soon enough vanquished by the cold sting of fluorescent and neon lighting, and across a worldwide crepuscular umbrage we see faces awash in the glow of display screens.



Kawano’s interpretations of Mondrian therefore suggest themselves as an oddly ephemeral transition in the nexus of technology and art. The familiar colors and forms are flash-frozen in crystalline pixelation, almost as if seized up in the final, overheated throes of a suddenly-too-old computer.