Remembering the Japanese American Incarceration Through Abstraction

On February 19, the United States observed the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the catastrophic decree that led to the eviction and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. The White House issued a presidential proclamation to mark the occasion, reaffirming its apology to those affected. “I have always believed that great nations do not ignore their most painful moments — they confront them with honesty and, in doing so, learn from them and grow stronger as a result,” President Joe Biden said.

Biden’s reiteration of regret was a disavowal of a disgraceful event, a renewal of the nation’s commitment, at least under a Democratic president and legislature, to anti-racism, civil rights, and progress. Still, it was consonant with a well-established historical narrative taught in high school history classes across America: That the confinement and ostracism of vast swaths of residents and citizens was an aberration — at best an essential wartime measure, at worst an abomination nevertheless still outweighed by the horrors committed by the fascists and Nazis. 

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No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarceration, an exhibition at New York’s Noguchi Museum closing this Sunday, May 15, carries a title that communicates a Bartleby-like stubbornness in the face of such liberal notions. It’s not immediately clear what saying no to monumentalization means politically: As distasteful as an invocation of the memory of incarceration to reference “lessons learned” in service of national progress can be, it also doesn’t feel quite right to object to something like a national memorial dedicated to Japanese American patriotism, a hard-won result of the advocacy of descendants and survivors of the camps. A viable and productive response, however, is to make space for aesthetic alternatives — visual and conceptual resources that reshape the contours of our memory of the event, and perhaps even encourage us to dwell on what memory of such an event can and should be.

The entrance of the exhibition includes an untitled wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa, a stainless steel sculpture by Isamu Noguchi titled “Sentinel,” and two photographs by Toyo Miyatake.

That’s what No Monument — a compact show that provokes a great deal of meditation, wonder, and melancholy across the space of a gallery and a half — aims at. Curated by Genji Amino with Christina Hiromi Hobbs, the exhibition centers artists who lived through the period of incarceration, many of them survivors of the camps, but whose work strayed from presenting a compassionate chronicle or heroic narrative of that moment.

“Instead of monumentalizing and documenting the events of the incarceration and its aftermath,” Amino said in an interview with Hyperallergic, “these artists turned to difficult questions of opacity and transparency, silence and testament, contingency and precarity, that arose precisely out of the ways in which the ideas of monument and document were inadequate to describe how these submerged histories failed to register for public memory.”

The show brings together works by a diversity of Japanese American photographers — Hiromu Kira, Toyo Miyatake, and Patrick Nagatani — and sculptors — Leo Amino, Ruth Asawa, Joseph Goto, Isamu Noguchi, Kay Sekimachi, and Toshiko Takaezu. Regional diversity, in particular, was a key concern for the curators. Hobbs told Hyperallergic that front of mind was an “attempt to acknowledge the unevenness of wartime experiences for Japanese Americans across the country by placing artists from each of these regions in conversation.” A number of works that were made by anonymous Japanese detainees in the camps are also on view.

Ruth Asawa, “Untitled” (1962), copper wire

Noguchi’s six-feet-tall “Sentinel” (1973) stands guard at the entrance of the exhibition. Though Noguchi lived in New York at the time of the fateful order, he voluntarily drove to the Poston War Relocation Center after commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs John Collier urged him to organize an arts and crafts program in the camps. That effort failed when promised supplies and staff were never dispatched. Neither guards nor fellow inmates were particularly friendly to him, both groups viewing the outsider with indifference and suspicion. The stainless steel sculpture, made by an artist who described a “haunting sense of unreality, of not quite belonging,” is impersonal, haunted by absence at its core. Stationed at the threshold, it is ambivalent about access. Is the sculpture an imposing obstacle or a playful entrance? The abstraction of the corporeal form down to bold lines and round curves encourages the viewer to think not about the humanity of the subject but about their role as a functionary of the state — or perhaps as a psychoanalytical symbol.

Left: Toyo Miyatake, “Row of Barracks” (c. 1942-45), gelatin silver print; right: Toyo Miyatake, “Evergreen Cemetery Tombstone” (1925), gelatin silver print
Toyo Miyatake, “Untitled (Manzanar)” (c. 1942-45), gelatin silver print

Behind it are two photographs by Toyo Miyatake, who was an active member of the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California (JCPC), a photography club that met in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. Of the many personal possessions that were mercilessly stripped from Japanese Americans during the war were cameras, classified as “weapons of war,” and a ban on all photography by incarcerees reigned in the camps. Miyatake is chiefly remembered today for smuggling a lens into the Manzanar camp, building a camera out of wood, and setting up early in the morning to shoot away from the watchful gaze of camp officials. “Row of Barracks” (c. 1942-45) is a record of the austere and uniform living quarters at Manzanar lining the base of the sublime Sierra Nevada mountain range, a stoic and cool testament to the conditions of everyday life. “Evergreen Cemetery Tombstone,” an earlier work from 1925, may otherwise appear as a frigid formal experiment with shapes and lines — but capturing the ridges of a grave marker close up, it becomes a commemoration of the devastation the incarceration wrought on creative and artistic life. In wartime, the JCPC was sundered, and many of the works its members produced were seized and destroyed.

“Framing the exhibition in terms of the wake of the Japanese American incarceration is intended to gesture in the direction of the period immediately following the war, but also to gesture towards the effects of the incarceration for the ways that earlier Japanese American histories were remembered,” Hobbs said.

The centerpiece of the second room is Kay Sekimachi’s “Ogawa II” (1969), a hanging sculpture crafted from nylon microfilament, glass beads, and clear plastic tubes. From top to bottom, the silvery luster of the filament is reminiscent of human hair, then the delicate alienness of a jellyfish, then human hair again. Woven on a multi-harness loom, the sculpture resides in the unbearable lightness of being — its spontaneity, transience, suspension. The urge to compare it with Ruth Asawa’s wire sculpture in the other room is irresistible; both artists’ work blurred the boundaries between craft and fine art, and incidentally, both were Bay Area-based and born about a year apart from each other.

Leo Amino, “Composition #8” (1947), polyester resin (courtesy Estate of Leo Amino)

A series of three sculptures sit on pedestals on the long wall of the gallery. Notably, “Composition #8” (1947), a small polyester resin sculpture, was molded by Leo Amino, one of the first American artists to work with plastics after the military declassified polyester resin, though rarely credited as such. (The artist is Genji Amino’s grandfather.) The sculpture is yet another provocation on the potential of reproducing suspension in space. The chunks entombed inside are ambiguous, containing none of the surety of scientific specimens or historical artifacts. 

Against the adjoining wall is Noguchi’s “Monument to Heroes” (1943), a title which in the setting of this exhibit can only be read with a degree of irony. The work pines to cast off the burdens of being a monument, to be more than a monument, with its Calder-esque use of string and bone. Completed in 1943 after the artist was allowed to leave the camps, the sculpture is static, a cylindrical object that does not move the way that its use of string may imply. 

Left: Patrick Nagatani, “Topaz, Japanese-American Concentration Camp, Utah, October 14, 1994” (1994), chromogenic print; center: Isamu Noguchi, “Monument to Heroes” (1943), cardboard, string, wood, bone; right: Patrick Nagatani, “Minidoka, Japanese-American Concentration Camp, Idaho, October 15, 1994” (1994), chromogenic print

The remaining photographs in this room include a series of landscape photos, studies of light and shape, and the most literal image of the exhibition, of a hand-cutting barbed wire. The landscapes were taken by Patrick Nagatani, a Sansei (third-generation) photographer born in 1945 and the youngest artist featured in the show. 

Visiting ten camps in the 1990s, Nagatani represented places that are stark in what they do not show. Indeed, were it not for their titles, little in the photographs themselves would betray their subject. A barren rectangular foundation at Minidoka, scattered nails lying on a cracked mud ground, and fields of yellowed vegetation are some of what remain of what Biden called “one of the most shameful chapters in our Nation’s history.” 

How do these absences act equally on our memory as do preserved and restored sites that have become tourist destinations, Nagatani asks? The curators of No Monument take these silences seriously, silences they are personally familiar with. Hobbs, whose great-grandfather passed away at Minidoka from insufficient medical care, never heard from her grandmother about her father’s passing, and never spoke to her grandfather about his incarceration at Topaz.

Carved wood nameplates made by incarcerees

Finally, a collection of carved nameplates, on loan from the traveling exhibition Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, were made by unknown incarcerees to indicate their living spaces in a communalized environment. Fashioned from wood, the works were identified as “genius for making something out of nothing” by Eaton, who collected the art of those incarcerated toward the end of the war. 

Yet the curators are not uncritical of the conditions under which such objects were assembled. By recontextualizing these objects next to the subtle artistic responses of Japanese American artists — as opposed to photographs of Japanese Americans working on crafts taken by White photographers in an effort to “humanize” them — they are given new room to breathe. 

“These are also disobedient acts in their attempts to make their surroundings habitable and their conditions livable,” Hobbs told Hyperallergic.

The modern age, assailing us with an unrelenting barrage of atrocities while demanding that we bear witness, grasps us in unending ethical and aesthetic dilemmas. How might we avoid assimilating the shock and violence of existence to cliché? How might we remain sensitive beings, to ourselves and others? How might we remember without reproducing that trauma, personally and politically? No Monument refuses monumental memory, embracing poetic memory, entering the pantheon of the eternal.


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