Can Art Capture the Trauma of the Hiroshima Bombing?

Good art is on view in this exhibition about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 70 years ago. But in this case, art cannot match the power of direct documentation of the event.

On August 15, 1945, at 12 noon, while the Emperor’s capitulation speech was being broadcast on the radio, Hamaya Hiroshi pointed his camera at the sun and took five single shots. In an article in the catalog of the exhibition “Beyond Hiroshima: The Return of the Repressed,” at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, curator Ayelet Zohar writes that Hiroshi thus created a quintessential image of the era. One of those frames – depicting the sun, which functions like a nuclear reactor and becomes a metonymic image for the atomic bomb – and is also “a moment of anti-photography and anti-vision, in the form of pure light,” and “a negative of the Japanese flag,” is encountered at the entrance to the comprehensive and thorough exhibition.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, the exhibition (opening August 15) consists of contemporary Japanese photography and video art that addresses the trauma of Hiroshima (devastated by an American atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, followed three days later by the dropping of a similar device on Nagasaki) and with the memory of the war in general.

With regard to memories of the war and its consequences, Zohar distinguishes between art by members of the first, second and third generations. “Attitudes toward war memory in Japan range from the silence of the First Generation, the practical rehabilitation of the Second Generation, to the young people of the Third Generation (born from the 1970s onwards), who suggest facing the dilemmas, pain and suffering of the past through accepting the idea of Japan’s responsibility, in a more direct and honest manner,” she writes. In another article, the historian Akiko Takenaka explains the intergenerational tension by observing that the Third Generation experiences only limited exposure to the war experience, whereas the Second Generation was directly exposed to the survival narrative of their parents and grandparents. Thus, the primary trauma for the “post-memory” generations lies not in the experience of the war itself, or even in growing up in the shadow of the previous generation’s experience, but in life amid the never-ending experience of Japan’s defeat and the burden of granting compensation for the crimes of the past.

Besides the single photograph by Hiroshi, the exhibition consists largely of series of photographs and video works, which look like documentations of theatrical performances, role playing, drag and various forms of reconstruction involving alterations and interventions that impinge on the historical narrative. These are decoded in the exhibition through the art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s concept of “parafiction,” referring to an event that occurs in the space between fictional and real, and the notion of the performance as developed by the theoretician Judith Butler.

Thus, for example, Yasumasa Morimura duplicates the famous photograph of the historical meeting between General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito. Morimura himself plays MacArthur. The reconstructed meeting is thus between two Japanese. The venue of the encounter is moved to a tea room in Osaka, which is owned by the artist’s parents. Meiro Koizumi presents “Portrait of a Young Samurai” (2009), a video installation in which, for example, an actor declaims speeches of kamikaze pilots and converses with his partner, who was killed in a mission 67 years earlier.

In “Identical Twins,” a 2003 series of staged photographs by Mamoru Tsukada, two men engage in various poses in a forest, one in a soldier’s uniform, the other in jeans and a jersey, exchanging roles. This series references the unbelievable story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese intelligence officer who refused to surrender and remained in the jungle for 29 years after the end of the war. Being isolated, on Lubang, an island of the Philippines, he was convinced that all the announcements about the war’s conclusion were enemy propaganda. In 1959, he was officially declared dead. In 1974, he was found by Norio Suzuki, a college dropout from Japan and an adventurer, who took photographs of himself with Onoda to prove the latter’s existence. Only then did Onoda agree to surrender, on condition he received an order to do so from an officer of higher rank. His former direct commander, who had become a bookseller, was located and flown to Lubang, where he informed Onoda that the war had ended in Japan’s defeat and ordered him to lay down his weapon.

Yasumasa Morimura, 'A Little Requiem: Unexpected Guests, 1945,' 2010. (Courtesy)

The exhibition’s major problem is that even the best takeoffs, semi-fictional reenactments, imitations, conceptual exercises regarding historical moments or other Cindy Sherman-like art involving costuming and staging of scenes cannot match the power of direct documentation. An example is Hamaya Hiroshi’s photojournalism series, “Days of Rage & Grief” (1960), which documents the wave of protests and demonstrations against the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, in which students were killed and injured, and the American delegation was rescued by helicopter. The series comes across as a storyboard of a civil-political scenario. Violence, both suppressed and raging, and perfect order interfused with chaos create a more powerful emotional effect than is achieved by dredging up ghosts of the past via a screenplay.

Another failing is the result of the curator’s decision to split up typological and thematic series randomly instead of placing them together. This peculiar decision has the effect of nullifying the cumulative impact of the photographs and rendering them bland. There is also a surplus of information labels and explanations that repeat themselves in a cumbersome way. The curation has an academic orientation, which is prone to verbiage and the piling up of historical contexts, background circumstances and theoretical prisms through which everything is supposedly explained.

However, the explanations do not expand or deepen the viewer’s understanding of the facts in all cases. Some are wearying, vitiated by didactic historicism, and generate an embarrassing feeling of inequality between the curator’s reliance on leading authorities (notably in the trauma research field) and the art on display itself. Not all the works of art are actually equal to the description they receive, with the result that the explanation is perceived to dominate the work – whose display is thus justified only in sociological terms – or to be simply exaggerated. This also creates an effect of over-imploring Israelis to get to know and identify with Japan’s culture and history, in some cases creating a reverse result. Is it really hard for the Israeli viewer to identify with a nation that suffered atrocities? Is it difficult for him to grasp the self-perception of victim when in practice he is an aggressor?

For those who wish to fill gaps of knowledge in the year of the 70th anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the exhibition is an excellent source. For those seeking an aesthetic and emotional experience, identification with the pain of victims, or even to take in scenes of the awesome and shocking mushroom-cloud spectacle, the exhibition might prove disappointing.

“Beyond Hiroshima: The Return of the Repressed,” Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv University campus, Ramat Aviv, Fri. 10.00-14.00, Sun-Thur 11.00-19.00. (03) 640-9022, (03) 640-8860