A close-up of Masami Tera-oka's racy triptych.
Art divines wellsprings of calamity
Masami Teraoka, arguably Hawaii's best-known artist internationally, has created two stunning, momentous triptychs that flank the central exhibit at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery. But you won't see their full, scandalous imagery reprinted here.
On view: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 13
Place: University of Hawaii Art Gallery
Also: Curator Aaron Kerner presents a free lecture, with artists Katsuhige Nakahashi, Kaili Chun and others; 7 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 12, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.
Similarly, visitors will miss the breathtaking video by filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu -- director of "21 Grams," "Amores Perros" and "Babel" -- because most of the time the screen shows black.
And the centerpiece of the exhibition -- a life-size replica of a Japanese fighter plane that took hundreds of hours to assemble -- will be set ablaze and destroyed in 17 days (see accompanying story).
Such are the paradoxes of attempting to represent visually the dark side of history -- the stories that didn't get told, the memories that were left out, the repressed knowledge that, covered over, seeped even more profoundly into the fabric of our personal and collective psychology.
As a "viewer discretion" warning testifies at the gallery door, the shadow memory proves perennially dangerous to represent.
Exhibition curator Aaron Kerner, a filmmaker and art professor at San Francisco State University, came up with the idea for "Reconstructing Memories" -- which had four previous incarnations in Japan and California -- through his interest in how people choose to represent catastrophes that are by definition "unthinkable," such as the Holocaust.
It is thus Iñárritu's video on Sept. 11, 2001, that slugs home Kerner's central message that history as we usually understand it -- an account of "how it really was" -- must be fabricated by favoring certain details over others. Gaps and pieces that don't fit get left out.
The universally televised events of 9/11 brought catastrophe before our very eyes, making all of the world eyewitnesses. Yet, five years later, those memories have been smoothed over, the pieces that didn't fit neatly aligned.
Iñárritu flashes the now-suppressed shots of people jumping out of the World Trade Center, cut with recorded phone messages from the doomed flights and panicked live broadcasts from around the world.
The long periods of blankness and silence that follow thrust the viewer back into those early moments, with their overwhelming pity, fear and horror, long before the collapsing towers became symbols for politicians and demagogues.
Iñárritu thus answers the question, How does one represent a catastrophe that has been overrepresented by the media? with this answer: silence and darkness.
Teraoka chooses the opposite approach -- a superfluity of images -- to channel the language of European church art into a surreal apocalyptic vision of priests and bishops wrestling with naked women, to the apparent detriment of unfettered biological life.
A panel from "Cloisters/Venus and Pope's Workout," by Masami Teraoka, part of the "Reconstructing Memories" exhibit.
The Japanese painter explained last week that the women could be called Eve or Venus or Madonna, interchangeable icons of healthy sexuality and humanism that he sees at war with repressive authoritarian institutions such as capitalism and organized religion.
The priest sex-abuse scandal exploded at about the time of the 9/11 attacks, he said, as he was considering how to represent American culture. In the flowing mental imagery that results, we see the mature artist confidently actualizing an alternative history couched in rich symbolic forms.
The rest of the artists in the exhibition -- including Hawaii artists Gaye Chan, Kaili Chun, John Morita and Lynne Yamamoto -- were not witnesses to the events they represent, but undertake Kerner's project of excavating a seed from what was plowed under by the "official history."
Their visual strategies point to the crucial difference between the news media, which fosters an overdependence on visual testimony to declare "how it really was," and the artistic challenge of conjuring the unseen, which is closer to the realm of magic.
Binh Danh printed photographs from a 1969 Life magazine article on Vietnam soldier casualties in "Dead #4."
Vietnamese-born Binh Danh applies an alchemy he invented of "printing" photographs on living plants to reproduce a handful of soldiers' photos from a 1969 Life magazine pictorial of "One Week's Dead."
Who remembers these faces and stories today? They are like fallen leaves, buried by time. Yet, as fresh soldiers' faces sprout on our front pages today, one feels the wrenching grief of those who can never forget.
"They look almost like people I know, when the people are looking back at you and asking what happened to them," Danh says of his clippings from old newspapers.
Such is the Vietnam War as most of us experienced it, he suggests -- via news images that we animated with the horrors of the imagination.
In fact, many works in the show employ photography ironically, to divine the haunting omissions of "objective" reportage.
James Fee captures in vivid color the rusting World War II ruins from Peleliu island in Micronesia. His father, a veteran overcome by memories from that bloody battle, killed himself in 1972. The son's camera searches the beautiful, lush island scenery of today not quite swallowing the menacing machinery of war -- just as Sally Clark's beautiful photos of Dachau and Terezin evoke a shudder for their peaceful compositions of concentration camps in the bright sunlight of the everyday.
"Two Men," by James Fee.
If history is written by the victors, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin famously put it, the commonsense lessons it purports to teach are bound to justify the status quo -- a formula all the more insidious in an age when visual testimony is the test of truth.
No one doubts what he witnessed, what was recorded by the camera -- just as no one questions the thousands of little rituals, manners of speech, ways of doing things that nonetheless bear the imprint of an invisible history of battles lost and won, of which we are the final product.
Kerner notes in the exhibition catalog for "Reconstructing Memories" that his first theme for the project was "catastrophe," a word that originates from ancient Greek drama as the point where events take a tragic turn and characters discover the truth of their situation.
In applying artists to the task of representing catastrophe, Kerner expresses hope that nothing is ever truly lost and that the artifact, document or remains offer the means to reconstruct the scene of the crime -- an inherited resource for creative re-imagining.
And this, unlike visits to the Arizona Memorial, World Trade Center or other shrines with their scripted history lessons, is the freedom that the art exhibit invites you to consider.