The national discussion of race relations is never far below the surface of American life. As it moves to the foreground once again, an exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art assumes a significance even more pressing than it would already have.
“Relocations and Revisions: The Japanese-American Internment Reconsidered” is a generous, provocative show, perhaps too large and ambitious for the space it must occupy, but nonetheless engaging for it. The museum’s galleries are chock-full with paintings, sculptures, Conceptual works and, most persuasively, installations by 10 American artists of Japanese ancestry. (A program of videotapes presents eight additional artists.) In an unusual move, the show’s insightful catalogue is composed of both a booklet and a 30-minute videotape.
At their best, these works begin to make gut sense out of an event whose long repression has had awful repercussions. Re -locations, re -visions, re -considerations--the show means to look anew at one of the most shocking violations of constitutionally protected liberty in all of American history.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the relocation to camps of more than 80,000 U.S. citizens. Their crime? Being of Japanese heritage. Their recourse? None.
The wicked story of the internment camps has been slow to emerge. One result is that plenty of people are still willing to argue that the wartime attack on Pearl Harbor justified the internment of Japanese-Americans--as if such a wholesale ruination of American principle would, or could, paradoxically have protected endangered American principle.
What’s especially interesting about the Long Beach show, which was organized by museum curators Noriko Gamblin and Carole Ann Klonarides, is that the artists are Sansei, or third-generation Japanese-Americans. Most were not themselves interned at Manzanar or Tule Lake or any of the other eight camps established by the military; their parents and grandparents were. So, this is not a show of personal remembrances of the camps, but of personal relationships with a remote and shadowy history.
As Sansei, the artists possess a certain useful distance from the events of 1942. They benefit from the insights of earlier generations, but they’re more fully assimilated than Issei (Japanese immigrants) or Nisei (Japanese-Americans born of immigrant parents), which can offer perspectives inside and outside their varied cultural heritage. And, perhaps most significant, most were born or came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the era of the civil rights movement.
Take Dorothy Imagire’s affecting “Memory Text.” On simple wood shelves in a blackened gallery illuminated by bare bulbs, Imagire lines up “packages” made from layers of glass bound in wire and sealed with paraffin. Sandwiched in the airless glass are texts and images related to the internment, which can be picked up and seen only by holding them to the light. Layered, weighty, fragile, waxen, Imagire’s hand-held packages are somewhat reminiscent of the well-known work of Christian Boltanski, but without his usual sentimental theatricality.
Ironically, the shadowy remoteness of the subject is in part due to the silence maintained by many Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned. “ Deru Kugi Wa Utareru ,” or “The nail that sticks up the farthest takes the most pounding,” is an installation designed to make visible a proverb, in order to explain one foundation for that silence. Into walls papered with copies of her grandfather’s letters and testimonials from the 1981 congressional hearings on reparations, Kristine Yuki Aono has begun to hammer an evenly distributed array of 120,313 nails, one per internee.
Visitors are invited to continue the process, drawing from sacks of nails on the floor and noisily pounding them into surrounding walls. A subtle tension is established between the proverb’s admonition, which warns against the dangers of standing out from the crowd, and a proud enactment of solidarity with a way of life that speaks of profound social loyalty. Either way, with all that noisy hammering the silence is broken.
Rea Tajiri’s meditative installation takes the form of a desert encampment merged with a Zen garden. Natural substances such as sand, water and rock also merge with video, stereo and other high-tech materials. These dualities echo personal ironies at the core of her room-size installation.
The most remarkable is that Tajiri’s mother was imprisoned in the relocation camp in Poston, Ariz., which is seen on a tiny video monitor propped atop a mountain-like boulder, while her father, whose amorphous voice is heard on a recording, fought in the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regiment. This all-Japanese-American combat team was the most decorated in World War II--and the liberator of imprisoned Europeans from the Nazi camp at Dachau.
Traditional painting and sculpture are difficult mediums in which to grapple with such specific narratives, and they’re the least effective works in the show. Margaret Honda’s sculptural animal traps and Tom Nakashima’s expressionistically painted chicken coop do raise questions about who is the captor and who the captive, but, because neither is specific to the Japanese-American internment, both seem out of place.
So do the more convincing paintings of Roger Shimomura, even though they were inspired by diary entries written by his grandmother during the internment. In one that responds to an entry penned five days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a contemplative woman sits inside a vaguely prison-like, Japanese-style room, while the shadow of Superman looms across the shoji wall. Dating from 1978-1982, these pictures are notably early efforts at coming to terms with the event. Yet, the artist is of a significantly older generation than the rest, and alone among the others, Shimomura was interned as a young child.
Together with the effective agitprop posters of Qris Yamashita, which also precede by as much as a decade everything else in the show, the paintings and sculptures seem to diffuse the pointedness of the exhibition. And there is much to be pointed about, as Matthew K. Fukuda’s “22 Homes” attests.
The most politically barbed piece, Fukuda’s, is a Conceptually derived pairing of aerial photographs of internment camps with documentary pictures from 1942 of the residences of 22 California congressmen. Chronicling real estate, Fukuda wants you to know that Japanese-Americans were less than 1 percent of the state’s population at the time, yet they controlled nearly half the region’s truck farming. At least, they did until the internment, when everything was summarily taken away. “22 Homes” is not fully resolved (remarkably, Fukuda is still a student), but it probes trenchant territory.
Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, who are perhaps the most widely known artists in the show, have contributed its most resonant piece. “Framed” is a video installation in which enlarged propaganda photographs taken under the supervision of the War Relocation Authority are projected on a translucent scrim, through which a video monitor flickers with excerpts of similar propaganda films. In both, life in the camps is portrayed as pleasant, even happy, with smiling faces in much abundance.
Certainly there were authentic experiences of joy in the camps, just as there were for, say, Anne Frank in her awful hiding place. That is precisely why the government’s propaganda images suddenly become shocking. Designed to manipulate an aura of normality for a situation of barbarous cruelty, these grinning pictures rob even the authenticity of happiness from the men and women depicted. And with that, the mugging of the American dream is complete.
* Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E . Ocean Blvd., (310) 439-2119, through July 5. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.