Art, History, and Hiroshima

By Rhys Edwards

                                                   Photo by Ishiuchi Miyako

After several exhibitions throughout Japan since 2008, ひろしま hiroshima  by Ishiuchi Miyako opened recently at the Museum of Anthropology, marking the exhibition’s first foray into North America. Artist Ishiuchi Miyako began her professional photography career in the 1970s, and since then has become one of Japan’s foremost contemporary photographers. As an artist, she is predominantly concerned with the notion of personal memory and how it is disseminated through the human body as well as material objects.

Ishiuchi has stressed that, as a body of work, ひろしま hiroshima is an exhibition of art. This is significant not only for the appreciation of the photographs themselves, but also in the context of the Museum of Anthropology. By denoting ひろしま hiroshima as fine art, Ishiuchi has created a distinction between the historical aspects of an object and its formal, aesthetic qualities. In exhibiting ひろしま hiroshima at MOA, Ishiuchi has created a dichotomy between history and art, and this dichotomy has immediate ramifications for both the Museum and for ひろしま hiroshima.

I’d like to make a proposition: ひろしま hiroshima is an exhibition of paradox. As art, the clothing items captured by Ishiuchi’s camera are abstracted from their socio-historical context. In the process, they lose their utilitarian qualities and can then be passively admired by the viewer purely for their formal, aesthetic characteristics. Bereft of their sociological connotations, each vestment becomes meaningful only in as much as it references the others that surround it, within the ‘frames’ (as Ishiuchi calls them) of the gallery’s wall space. The lack of immediate context for each photograph further abstracts the objects, emphasizing their discrete existence in the art environment.

                                                     Photo by Vitor Munhoz

Such an understanding does not persevere in the reality of the Museum, or more importantly, the reality of ‘Hiroshima’. The clothes and accessories on display are not discrete art objects; even without explanatory information, it is apparent they are the belongings of private individuals. We know that the owners of these garments are the victims of tragedy; more significantly, the colour, texture, and wear of the clothes speak to the personal qualities of the people who owned them. The photographs invite us to engage in the life narratives of these individuals—indeed, the subjects of these images are not really the clothes, but their wearers. They become far more than ‘victims,’ the nameless, a mere statistic. In ひろしま hiroshima, the viewer is presented in a mediated way with the wearers’ personalities, emotions, desires, fears, and dreams.

Ishiuchi invites us to read these images as narratives pertaining to particular identities and personas, yet simultaneously stresses that these narratives should not be specified or contextualized. As the artist points out, some of the dresses are items of clothing that she very well could have worn herself. At first glance, there is nothing about these images that is immediately representative of the particular society from which the objects derive. Instead, there is a timeless quality to the items Ishiuchi represents. The natural or artificial light that illuminates them conveys a fragmented, liminal space, as if each object has been taken from the fabric of time itself. Yet this chronological approach does not deny how profound the objects are themselves; in fact, it does the opposite. Through their social abstraction, Ishiuchi emphasizes the unique qualities of her subjects and how they evoke a lived persona. The major achievement of Ishiuchi’s work is that, through the subjective, simple organization of her compositions, the viewer is immediately engaged with the essence of each subject’s personality. Yet, simultaneously, the artist avoids communicating any didactic or historical information that would cause the viewer to categorize the subject and thereby fail to make this essential connection.

In this sense, Ishiuchi may not be not entirely correct when she argues that ひろしま hiroshima is strictly an art exhibition, as it is also an exercise in the analysis of history. The artistic, subjective vision of the work suggests a negation of the history of the subject. Such a negation, intentional or not, is a counterpoint to an otherwise essential, linear conception of history. Therefore, ひろしま hiroshima makes a proposition about how we perceive historical phenomena. It complicates our preconceptions of Hiroshima and its associations, inviting us to reconsider how history is constructed and disseminated.

By omitting the historical context of the subject, does ひろしま hiroshima  perhaps belittle the momentousness and tragedy of this moment in human history? Is the use of the victims’ clothing exploitative, the exhibition limited in terms of its inherent artistic merit? ひろしま hiroshima was first exhibited in Hiroshima’s Museum of Contemporary Art, to critical acclaim. The success of the exhibit, in perhaps its most relevant gallery context, implies that Ishiuchi’s vision, subjective though it may be, is both honourable and astute. During her artist’s talk at MOA, Ishiuchi asked the question, “Do they [the subjects] have any right to be so beautiful? Yes, they do—because they were even more beautiful before the bomb.”

                                                 Photo by Vitor Munho

The issue of artistic relativity does not end with Hiroshima itself—as I mentioned, it is highly pertinent to the Museum of Anthropology in particular. Having ひろしま hiroshima on display at MOA is potentially problematic in its own way. After ongoing complaints about the lack of immediate historical context available to visitors since the opening of the Museum in 1976, staff and curators have since worked hard to ensure that the historicity of the objects on display is not abstract, but immanent. Just a few weeks ago, additional signage was added to the Great Hall display areas, while other signs were updated to correct textual and factual errors. Objects in the Museum, generally speaking, are grouped based on their historical and/or geo-cultural contexts.

With its profound historiographical connotations, ひろしま hiroshima  subverts the careful arrangement of the Museum’s collection. For why should the re-examination of historical narratives be limited to items on display within the Audain Gallery? Surely, despite the efforts of MOA (and the scholars and community members who inform its work), there remain essentialized understandings of history within its walls.

                                                      Photo by Vitor Munho

But this dichotomy, between pure artistic subjectivity and historicity, is far too simplistic. There are multiple layers in between, as ひろしま hiroshima shows. For one thing, the formal qualities of an object may tell us far more about its owner than the sign next to it. The patina of an object, its careful rendering, or its symbolism—all of these can communicate an individual sensibility and its associated worldview. So, in asking us to step off of the linear historical path, Ishiuchi does not deny the possibility for narrative or trans-historical analysis; if anything, her work emphasizes an innovative, personalized historicity. This novel way of looking does greater justice to historical memory than any other preconceived narrative.

What museum-goers encounter may surprise, shock, or amaze them. These responses can help the viewer to realize their own sensibilities, beliefs, and ethics. This self-discerning practice informs what Ishiuchi wants viewers to take from ひろしま hiroshima: precisely whatever they want. ひろしま hiroshima illustrates the possibility of diverging from a deterministic life narrative while retaining a sense of discrete identity. The way this divergence manifests is not to be specified by the historian, or the art critic, but by the affected individual visitors.

ひろしま hiroshima is on view at the Museum of Anthropology through Sunday, February 12, 2012

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