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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Persistence (and deconstruction) of memory

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Hirokazu Fukawa: A Thought at the Edge of the
Continent: Manchuria to Siberia 1942—1947

Through Mar. 22, 2009.
Artist talk: Thurs., Mar. 5, 6 p.m.

It was a war story. It was a common story in Japan, the story artist Hirokazu Fukawa's father told him when he was little. A story of occupation first—in Manchuria in China, then called Manchukuo by the Japanese occupiers. Fukawa's father was a sniper with the Japanese occupation forces. Then it was a story of defeat, desperation. Near the end, Fukawa's father and other members of his troop were each handed a landmine in place of a rifle and commanded to suicide bomb approaching Russian tanks. Fukawa's father waited in a foxhole but no tank came; he survived. With surrender came a role reversal: the occupiers become prisoners of the victorious Soviets, abandoned by the vanquished Japanese government. Fukawa's soldier father was marched across the border to spend years in Siberian labor camps, like the hundreds of thousands of other Japanese in occupied Manchukuo. Unlike many, Fukawa's father survived and was repatriated to Japan two years later.

Hirokazu Fukawa's A Thought at the Edge of the Continent at Real Art Ways is a multimedia sculptural exhibition inspired by Fukawa's quest to confront his father's experience as a soldier and detainee. While he had picked up bits and pieces of his father's story as a child, Fukawa decided four years ago to investigate it in depth as the basis for an art project. Although his father is still alive, he suffers from Alzheimer's. Fukawa had to supplement the unreliable information he gleaned from his father's fading memories with facts from a one-page debriefing document Fukawa's father had written for the Japanese government on his 1947 return. Hoping to more fully understand his father's experience, Fukawa made two research trips, to Japan and Northeastern China in 2007 and to Siberia in 2008.

Memories are multi-layered. They are discrete and inter-connected. They are also ephemeral and subject to contestation and dispute. In A Thought at the Edge of the Continent, Fukawa interprets his father's story through separate but related elements in different media. The most literal attempts to tell his story are a three-channel video installation and the three "Starvation" collages.

The predominant element is "Blizzard," a striking installation of some three dozen fluorescent lights in the main gallery. Braced by solid, unpainted wooden boards, the lights are diagonal lines of force. The viewer can (carefully) walk into and through this installation, which evokes a fearsome Siberian snowstorm experienced by Fukawa's father. Its design was influenced by the lines and sensibilities of the avant-garde Soviet Constructivist art movement.

The other large sculpture in the main room is "The Third International," an homage to Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International." Tatlin, as a tribute to the Bolshevik Revolution, had created his model for a planned headquarters of the Comintern, or Communist Third international; the tower was never actually built. Fukawa's sculpture is similar in design but the effect is not triumphal. The unpainted wood boards of "Blizzard" are reprised here, bracing a spiral staircase. The boards and light fixtures of "Blizzard" have an illusory randomness characteristic of the trajectory of falling snow. But the boards in "The Third International" drive up toward a single focus, the platform where the dictatorial leader will stand. Whether it is Stalin or the leaders of Imperial Japan, the viewer's gaze is directed up, up toward those who direct others, up toward those who set remorseless historical forces in motion.

Along with the large sculptural works, there are three smaller plaster creations positioned in the gallery. In contrast to the angular and geometric orientation of "Blizzard" and "The Third International," these works are more organic and natural in shape. Fukawa sees them as "tumors" or "cancers." They are also a source of sound. The form closest to the Tatlin homage plays five songs: "The Internationale" (the anthem of the Communist movement), anthems of the Communist and Nationalist Chinese parties, a Manchukuo occupation song and a song popular in postwar Japan among people waiting for their relatives to return from internment. A second "cancer" recapitulates the soundtrack of the video and the third plays abstract music. There is a layering of sounds. They compete but also complement each other.

The abstract music is derived from "Marching," a map Fukawa drew in pencil of his father's forced march to the several labor camps in which he was held. The line drawing was interpreted as a musical score in the GarageBand computer program.

The three "Starvation" collages deal with the overwhelming hunger the captured Japanese experienced in the prison camps. Over scans of 12th century Buddhist scrolls depicting starvation hells, Fukawa made pencil drawings of his father and some of his soldier colleagues, based on an old photo. Layered over each are dried examples of the wild plants on which the prisoners subsisted: ferns, onion grasses, leaves.

The three-panel video montages footage that Fukawa shot in China, Manchuria and Siberia with video of his father. The soundtrack layers impressions of the ungraspable nature of his quest with details of his father's experience within the broader historical context of the time. One can sense the frustration in Fukawa's efforts. He travels long distances to try and get a sense of the past. But he finds himself in places stubbornly rooted in the present.

There is no fully understanding the past. There is no reliving the past, especially not the past of someone else's jumbled memories. History is often a big story told through the prism of ideology. It is contested. What happened? What was it like to experience the occupation, the war, the imprisonment? Fukawa, in narration over the video installation, found that even in traveling to the locations where his father had fought and been detained, he could not feel his father's experience:

Instead I felt like a void standing in front of a void. Whenever I visited my father's past, whether physical traces remained or not, I felt that I myself was the void, that I was alienated from everything there--out of time and place, floating through lost memories that weren't my own.
These memories were no longer even his father's. Speaking with me in the main gallery at Real Art Ways, Fukawa tells me that when he asked his father where he had been disarmed by the Soviets, his father gave him a place name. Fukawa researched that location for a year before finding out through the official document that in fact his father had been disarmed at another location 150 miles away.

Most of the elements of A Thought at the Edge of the Continent can stand on their own. "Blizzard" is a stunning installation whether one is aware of its back story or not. Taken together, they constitute a moving meditation on political and personal history and the precious yet precarious nature of memory.

"This is my father's story, even though my father couldn't remember. I had to rebuild or reconstitute his memory. Maybe it's not right from his point of view," Fukawa says. "This is my construction/deconstruction of his memory. I tried to fill the gap between his memory and himself and between me and him."

In exploring his father's story, Fukawa touches on the ways the past intrudes into the present. And the ways it remains lost in the past.

Hirokazu Fukawa will give an artist talk in the gallery this Thursday, Mar. 5, at 6 p.m.


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