Seeing the Hiroshima Exhibition at the Anthropology Museum at University of British Columbia was so timely. It was happenstance that I should be in the Northwest only a few days before the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor bombing.
Being Japanese American always leaves me feeling so out-of-place and awkward when confronted with these two devastating bombings, one in my homeland, the other in the country of my grandparents.
I remember going to the Pearl Harbor memorial and feeling shame and sadness. I felt like the enemy at the memorial. I could not help but wonder how my mother who grew up in Honolulu dealt with it. She was there the day of the bombing. She had just left the movie house with a friend and thought it was just another air raid and then she heard the explosions and saw the smoke.
In Japan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and I again felt alone and shameful. As I viewed photos of burnt people and leveled buildings, waves of shock and repulsion went through my body. It was hard to be in the presence of these images.
It was refreshing, but equally as painful to see the 48 photos of Ishiuchi Miyako. Instead of black and white photographs of piles of rubble and dead or injured people, she focused on colorful and frayed, but not too damaged clothing and artifacts left behind after the vaporization of their owners. It was as if I could visualize the young vibrant woman who may have been on her lunch break or the tot who left behind her dolly. Miyako chose particular articles that spoke to her and an assistant carefully laid them out on top of a light box so she could photograph them. The lace on the collar of a dress was arranged to lay flat and the arms of a shirt were made to curve to express movement. Some of the pieces were placed in the sunshine as if to re-energize them, bringing them back to life. It was the missing wearers that visitors were left to fill in or perhaps they transported themselves into the photographs framed on the wall.
I appreciated the way the exhibition was hung. Children’s clothing and toys were placed low on the wall, at kids’ height. Some photos were hung higher and some closer together. They seemed to be speaking to each other. The dimly lit room begged viewers to talk in hushed voices and to move with respect through the space. I liked how the photographs were reflected in the sheen of the floor. It reminded me of a timeless, still pond.
This was not the first time I had encountered Ishiuchi Miyako. I had seen her work in 2005 at the Venice Biennale. There I saw her equally beautiful and poignant exhibition of remnants of her mother’s clothing and articles – a lacy negligee, a used lipstick, a handkerchief. I fell in love with her work and it was a joy to see her again in Vancouver.
I believe I has here to see her photographs to give me the time and space to reflect on horrible acts of war – whether they happen in my country of birth, my country of ancestry, or anywhere in the world.