Art, History, and Hiroshima

I’d like to make a proposition: hiroshima, by Ishiuchi Miyako, is an exhibition of paradox.**

Ishiuchi started her professional photography career in the 1970s, and since then, has become one of Japan’s foremost contemporary photograpers.  As an artist, Ishiuchi is predominantly concerned with the notion of personal memory, and how it is disseminated through the human body as well as material objects. Past exhibitions include, which consists of images of the feet and hands of women born in the same year as her; Mother’s, an intimate display of photographed items belonging to Ishiuchi’s later mother; and, most recently, hiroshima, in which Ishiuchi focuses her lens on clothing items and accessories that once belonged to victims of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing. These items were selected by Ishiuchi from from a collection of 19,000 objects in the possession the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. After several exhibitions throughout Japan since 2008, hiroshima opened on October 13th in the Museum of Anthropology’s Audain gallery, marking the exhibition’s first foray in North America.

As a body of work, artist Ishiuchi Miyako has stressed that hiroshima is, in its essence, an art exhibition. This is significant not only for the appreciation of the photographs themselves, but also in the context of the Museum of Anthropology. By denoting hiroshima as fine art, Ishiuchi has created a distinction between the historical aspects of an object – perhaps its ‘historicity’ – and its formal, aesthetic qualities. In exhibiting hiroshima at MOA, Ishiuchi has created a dichotomy between historicity and art, and this dichotomy has immediate ramifications for both the

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Museum and for hiroshima. Among those ramifications is the emergence of a visual-historical paradox.

The paradox is as follows: as an art exhibition, the clothing items captured by Ishiuchi’s camera become the recipients of a disinterested gaze. They are abstracted from their socio-historical context, and in the process, lose their utilitarian qualities. The viewer – in theory – admires them purely for their formal aesthetic characteristics, in a passive manner. Bereft of their sociological connotations, each vestment becomes meaningful only insofar as it references the others that surround it, within the ‘frames’ (as Ishiuchi calls them) of the gallery’s delineated wall space. Beauty, itself a trapping of the art-denotation, is attributed to the objects based on their composition, arrangement, and patterning. The lack of immediately attached context for each photograph further abstracts the objects, emphasizing their discrete existence in the art environment.

Of course, such an analysis does not persevere in the reality of the Museum, or more importantly, the reality of ‘Hiroshima’ as a proper noun. For Hiroshima inheres in each clothing item. The clothes and accessories on display are not discrete art objects; even without immediate explanatory information, it is apparent they are the belongings of private individuals. They reflect the characters of these individuals, and indeed, their very lives. We know that the owners of these garments are the victims of tragedy; but, more significantly, the colour, texture, and wear of the clothes speaks to the personal qualities of the people who owned them. The photographs invite us to engage in the life narratives of these individuals; indeed, the subjects of these images are not really the clothes, but their wearers. They become far more than ‘victims,’ the nameless constituents of a statistical abstraction. In hiroshima, the viewer is presented (albeit in a mediated way) with their personalities, emotions, desires, fears, and dreams.

Thus there is a conceptual conflict at play. Ishiuchi invites us to read these images as narratives, pertaining to particular identities and personas, yet simultaneously stresses that these narratives should not be specified or contextualized. How are we to reconcile these two ends of the conceptual spectrum? I would argue that a resolution stems from the ahistorical aspect of the exhibition. As Ishiuchi points out, some of the dresses are items of clothing that she very well could have worn herself. At first glance, there is nothing about these images that is immediately representative of the particular society from which these objects derive, i.e., they do not adhere to any preconception of Japanese culture, fashion, or society. Instead, there is a timeless quality to the items shown in Ishiuchi’s images. The natural or artificial light that illuminates them conveys a fragmented, liminal space, as if each object has been taken from the fabric of time itself. Yet this chronological extrapolation does not negate the profundity of the objects themselves; in fact, it does the opposite. Through their social abstraction, Ishiuchi emphasizes the unique qualities of her subjects, and, therefore, how they evoke a lived persona. The major achievement of Ishiuchi’s work is that, through the subjective, simple organization of her compositions, the viewer is immediately engaged with the essence of each subject’s personality. Yet, simultaneously, the artist avoids communicating any didactic or historical information, which would cause the viewer to categorize the subject and thereby fail to make this essential connection.

In this sense, Ishiuchi may not be not entirely correct when she argues that hiroshima is strictly an art exhibition – it is also an exercise in historiography, i.e., the analysis of history. The artistic, subjective vision of the work suggests a negation of the historicity of the subject. Such a negation, intentional or not, is a counterpoint to an otherwise essentialized, linear conception of history. Therefore, hiroshima makes a proposition about how we perceive historical phenomena. It complicates our preconceptions of Hiroshima, and its associations, thereby inviting us to reconsider how history is mentally constructed and disseminated.   

One might argue that this is actually problematic, on a couple of levels. The most salient of these is in regards to the subject matter itself. For in negating the historicity of the subject, does hiroshima perhaps belittle the momentousness of this moment in human history? Is the use of the victims’ clothing exploitative, the exhibition limited in terms of its inherent artistic merit? This is obviously not the case, for hiroshima was first exhibited in Hiroshima’s Museum of Contemporary Art, to critical acclaim. The success of the exhibit, in perhaps its most relevant gallery context, implies that Ishiuchi’s vision, subjective though it may be, is both honourable and astute. During her artist’s talk at MOA, Ishiuchi asked the rhetorical question, “Do they [the subjects] have any right to be so beautiful? Yes, they do – because they were even more beautiful before the bomb.”

Yet the issue of artistic relativity does not end with Hiroshima itself – as I mentioned, it is highly pertinent to the Museum of Anthropology in particular. Having hiroshima on display at MOA is potentially problematic in its own way. After ongoing complaints about the lack of immediate historical context available to visitors since the opening of the Museum in 1976, staff and curators have since worked hard to ensure that the historicity of the objects on display is not abstract, but immanent. Just a few weeks ago, additional signage was added to the Ramp and Great Hall display areas, while other signs were updated to correct textual and factual errors. Objects in the Museum, generally speaking, are grouped based on their historical and/or geo-cultural contexts.

With its profound historiographical connotations, hiroshima subverts the careful arrangement of the Museum’s collection. For why should the re-examination of historical narratives be limited to items on display within the Audain gallery? Surely, despite the efforts of MOA (and the scholars and community members who inform its work), there remain essentialized understandings of history within its walls.

But this dichotomy, between pure artistic subjectivity and historicity, is far too simplistic. There are multiple layers in between, as hiroshima (and its companion exhibit, A Green Dress: Objects, Memory, and the Museum) show. For one thing, the formal qualities of an object may tell us far more about its owner than the sign next to it. The patina of an object, its careful rendering, or its symbolism – all of these can communicate an individual sensibility, and its associated worldview. So, in asking us to step off of the linear historical path, Ishiuchi Miyako does not obviate the possibility for narrative or trans-historical analysis; if anything, her work emphasizes an innovative, personalized historicity. This novel way of looking, arguably, does greater justice to historical memory than any other preconceived narrative.

Furthermore, it is a fact that no one ultimately can dictate how an object, and its associated memory, is understood; we know that perception is subjective. Museum visitors may learn about the objects on display in terms of their practical or spiritual significance, but this does not prevent them from admiring the objects for their craftsmanship and beauty. As archivists, curators, scholars and researchers, it is the job of Museum staff to promote the propagation and dissemination of knowledge, as well as different ways of knowing. What museum-goers encounter may surprise, shock, or amaze them. These responses can help the viewer to realize their own sensibilities, beliefs, and ethics. This self-discerning practice informs what Ishiuchi wants viewers to take from hiroshima: precisely whatever they want. hiroshima illustrates the possibility of diverging from a deterministic life narrative, while retaining a sense of discrete identity. The way this divergence manifests is not to be specified by the historian, or the art critic, but by the individuals with whom it corresponds.

 Essay by Rhys Edwards, UBC Interdisciplinary Studies, 3rd year.

**Please note: the name of the exhibition, hiroshima, is intended to be preceded by the Japanese hiragana characters spelling the word “Hiroshima.” Unfortunately, due to our blog’s formatting restrictions, the hiragana characters do not appear properly, and so we have left them out. Apologies for this.