Life Interrupted: Art for Social Change
February 9, 2017 | Branden Schwab
February 9, 2017 | Branden Schwab
Part of a multi-disciplinary series of events and performances, the exhibit explores the eerie poignancy of the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The order, which imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans, severely disrupted the lives of citizens and aliens living along the Nation’s west coast in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Artist/Curator/Architect Nancy Chikaraishi, herself a child of parents that met during the internment, composes an immersive spatial experience that conveys a powerful message about the internee experience, its cultural ramifications, and how they are felt today.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors encounter a series of printed informational panels to the right, and an adjacent interactive installation to the left. Stones are suspended off the floor by lengths of twine and organized in a grid as they dangle at ankle height. When touched, the elongated pendulums swing freely, some colliding and becoming intertwined, while others settle into preordained places of stillness and solitude.
Suspended between the ceiling and floor, the information panels relay the historical narrative succinctly; the geographical context, clearly; and the cultural landscape, poetically. On one panel, a copy of an original notice notifies “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien” of their impending evacuation.
Progressing through the panels I read a few lines about the limitations set on the families being relocated to camps; what they were required & allowed to bring. I imagined a mother reading: “…bed linens for each member of the family…plates, utensils.” I initially pictured a kind of picnic basket, then corrected the image in my head to be a suitcase, with shirts and pants inside, sleeves folded over dinner plates like arms in a casket, a fork in a front pocket. A few panels later, I saw the photograph of a grandfather, seated on an upright suitcase at a dirt bus stop, waiting to board a Greyhound that would deliver him to a compound. Flat brim of his hat set straight, eyes resting on the horizon, while the plates in his suitcase slid deeper into the folded sleeves of one of the few shirts he decided not to leave behind. At the compounds, internees were forced to sleep in horse stables on the edge of a field, or in newly constructed military style barracks.
Visitors to the exhibit will appreciate how carefully and thoughtfully Chikaraishi presents not only the historical information, but the emotional content. The sensibility of the construction, in terms of both the exhibit itself and its message, is reinforced by a pragmatic delivery that challenges us to question and understand how large scale operations of the State like these are carried out. Portions of the exhibit’s narrative are rigid and structured, encouraging visitors to examine the historical records and artifacts left behind by the processes of evacuation, transport, and relocation of internees. The harsh realities of their experiences are strangely hypnotic, but the rigor of the message encourages one to avoid peeling off into an eddy, “the wallows of victim pity”, and stay the course, allowing a powerful undercurrent to propel them through the sequence of spaces and installations at a serious and respectful pace.
Some visitors interacted with the installations with reverent aloofness; committing sentiments to memory while taking in symbolic and sensory aspects like the suspended stones and doll-sized cots, or the participatory question cards and portraits of internees pinned-up like photos in a dark room. The distance and removal from the prisoners’ experiences that is felt is contradicted by the closeness and intimacy afforded by domestic items. The tension in the spring of a clothespin pinched, the respectfully placed shoes, spaced like those of ghosts between the wall and the metaphorical firing squad of history, wars and the disturbing realities of the past.
Contributing Photographer Brian Vanne is the Design Fabrication Coordinator at the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University. He is an artist/designer and explores/supervises exploration associated with traditional and digital media in the context of architecture and design.
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