Naoyoshi Hikosaka," population of Hiroshima and nagasaki over the past 110 years"

neon

 

HISTORY LESSONS: WHITE BOX, NEW YORK

There are four works in this small show. They claim to explore modern Japanese history. They do so, but in doing so reveal more about the poverty of certain means of historical representation and more about the urgency of crafting new ones.

Naoyoshi Hikosaka, one of the contributing pair, contributed most as an artist and critic in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He was at the center of critical writing and art associated with the student movements in Japan. Here, he installs light: neon and illuminated transparencies and nothing else. Three lines of neon—one flat, horizontal, and beige, the one above squiggly, rising, and blue, the one above that squiggly, sharply rising, and turquoise—compose a population graph, the centerpiece of the installation. The blues dip suddenly on the atomic summer of Japan’s defeat. The blues, reading left to right, then escalate, the topmost continuing its climb into the present while the middle peters out somewhere amidst what may be the ‘70s. There are no digits, only lines; gallery text discloses signification: the most vertically ambitious neon Hiroshima, the middle Nagasaki. The beige is the base: empty time of 110 years, from the introduction of the municipality system in Japan in 1889 to just yesterday. The blues mark swells and receding tides of human presence across that span. Accompanying text, mounted by the artist across a series of light boxes, provide a quick history of Postwar Japan. The narrative is standard in its abbreviation—ashes, growth, unrest, growth, and unrest—differing from that of common textbook in its personal cast. Details of fantastic biography spot familiar topics. For one, the birth of the artist was immaculate—a product of howling and dispersing gods upon the eve of the fall of the Japanese Empire. The light story ends with an intriguing fantasy: the revitalization of the Emperor as a symbol of Japan—he is to shed his suit and don a kimono; he is to quit foreign fare and offer native foods to his guests—in an “ever-expanding information age.” It is odd not only for its politics—irony is not typical of this artist—but also in contrast with the polar impersonality of the population graph.

Yukinori Yanagi is the other of the contributing pair. Upon a hanging screen is a projection blue, green, brown, and discombobulating. All is murky in this video documentary of the artist’s exploration of the sunken battleship Akitsushima. This Japan—Akitsushima is an ancient word for Japan—sunk in the Pacific in the middle ‘40s. It would not resurface—at least not in the same way—and still sits buried under water. On a neighboring wall hang nine roughly repeating illustrations. Each records an array of documentary details: the path of exploratory passage across the boat’s surface, depth, temperature, currents, equipment, problems with equipment, and so forth. A capsized craft is colored gray in each of the nine. This work is only a partial departure: The artist has contributed most to the International scene with legible metaphors of National identity in a transnational age. His message is no longer clear, despite the presentation being familiar. National Geographic and the History Channel (or their local variants) are this installation’s unacknowledged forerunners. But the mass media history documentary is here stripped of perspective. The past is submarine is all it seems to say.

According to the press release, these are the components of “a memory trigger, so to speak, that prompts people to reflect on Japanese history.” The project of historical memory in Japan has been long in the making. The battle has been mainly over representation—over the language of publicly presenting war, empire, and injustice—and the arena of public education has been foremost. “History Lessons,” then, would seem timely. But, these installations’ use of abstraction and ambiguity—a mode not necessarily unproductive—does not serve the project of historical memory well. Little sense is made, in fact, of memory. In Hikosaka’s case, memory is reduced to a linearity representative of no personal memory anywhere in time. The reduction is a concession to official history—dates, names, headlines, numbers—with personal lived experience made to fit the textbook highlights of twentieth century Japan. With the offering of Yanagi, memory is again made to conform with depersonalized symbols of Japan’s wartime past, not as submarine as Yanagi’s plunge might suggest. Visible from across the street, a roster of dates—white on black backed glass—lists events. From “9.18.1931 Fifteen Year War begins” to “8.15.1945 Japan defeated.” Pearl Harbor comes twice: 12.7.1941 (bracketed) and 12.8.1941 (asterisk). The doubling is a product of the International Date Line. In the politics of commemoration, time zone trivia promises to unearth very little.

Ryan Holmberg
New York, New York
2002

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