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Friday, January 4, 2013

Post-Traumatic Art

Tokyo Protest 1968  photo by Tomatsu Shomei
-- By Tom Phillips

Of all the horrors of the 20th century, the most traumatic must be the atomic bombing of Japan.  The Holocaust in Europe was more destructive in terms of lives, and more evil in its intentions.   But the atomic bombs were more psychologically searing and disfiguring.  The Nazi extermination campaign took place over years, and some of its victims were able to mount a human response in the face of death, responses that endured as the Nazi dream died.   But Hiroshima took place in an instant, and that instant has never died.  The white flash that vaporized the center of the city came with no warning, no precedent, no context for those on the ground.  And it was followed, not by redemption or revenge, but by unconditional surrender, occupation, and a slavish identification with the American conquerors.  Harry Truman famously said he never lost any sleep over Hiroshima, and Americans to this day tend to see it as a necessary evil that put an end to a terrible war.  But Japan is sick to this day from the effects of the bomb, and Japanese art reflects it.  Americans who care to contemplate those effects can see them in a harrowing show of post-war Japanese art now at the Museum of Modern Art. 

The transformations wrought by the bombing are everywhere in the show titled “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.”   Amid the formal elegance of Japanese style, images of atrocities, monstrosities, disfigurement, decapitation, torture, destruction, helplessness and sudden death are everywhere.  +Maeda Josaku’s 1959 painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” looks at first like a minimalist abstraction, a golden circle surrounded by irregular concentric fields.  But on inspection it turns out to be an aerial diagram of the bomb blast – utter annihilation in the center, and the outer rings filled with outlines of prostrate bodies.   

More overtly shocking is +Nakamura Hiroshi’s 1968 “Circular Train” (left) where the passengers are deformed Japanese schoolgirls, with featureless faces except for one upside-down eye.  What humor there is in the show comes from the hopelessness of resisting:  a mock instructional film by the Hi Red Center group shows people supposedly being measured for one-person fallout shelters, coffins for the living.
Over and over again there is reference to the blinding white flash of the explosion, after which life will never be the same.   The flash is a recurring nightmare, the kind typical of war veterans who spend their nights trying and failing to master their horrific experiences of war.  

And as in real life, trauma affects not just its victims but their offspring.  The most haunting image  for me is a 1968 construction by +Kudo Tetsumi, titled “Homage to the Young Generation: The Cocoon Opens.”  The cocoon is a large peanut-shaped shell on a bloodstained baby carriage, pushed by a molted human skin, with a flimsy umbrella above.  Inside the half-opened shell we hear a baby’s cries, but looking in, we see only what looks like disembodied brain tissue and random industrial parts, with a white light flashing every few seconds, the afterimage of the blast that peeled the skin off the parent.  The horror is transmitted intact to a new generation.    

In the whole show, I found only one artist who seemed able to absorb the trauma and send it back.   Sixties photographer +Tomatsu Shomei literally looks it in the face, in a portrait of a Nagasaki bomb survivor with skin that has partially melted and then set in ripples across her face.   Her gaze is level; she's not asking for sympathy.  The portrait is rather an indictment of the world that did this to her.  Even stronger is his image of a statue of Christ with its head blown off, in the cathedral at Nagasaki.  Here western civilization is not decapitating Japan, it’s decapitating itself.  And finally there is his image of protest (photo at top) a young demonstrator firing a projectile at riot police during the 1968 student uprising in Tokyo, alone and single-minded in his fury.    

The show is not all about the atom bomb.  We also see some architectural drawings envisoning a new post-war Japan, and some pure abstraction.  But for this viewer, the whole exhibit is shadowed by a mushroom cloud; a cloud made in the USA, but which we have never fully owned. 

Tokyo 1955-1970:  A New Avant-Garde” continues through February 25 at MOMA.     

 Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips          
Images courtesy of MOMA