Upon entering the exhibition, Teardrops that Wound: The Absurdity of War, currently showing at the Wing Luke Museum, one is immediately confronted with two immense sculptural representations of the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy.” Their silhouettes serve as a reminder of the violent history associated with this weapon, which was dropped on the city of Hiroshima during World War II killing hundreds of thousands of people and affecting many more. While engaging with a tragic and overwhelming past, the room also has a sense of lightness as hanging kimono fabric ripples in a light breeze and paper cherry blossoms are scattered about the floor. As one wanders through these “teardrop-shaped” structures, one is initially forced to simply reckon with the form and appearance of the bombs. Visually, they are pleasing to look at, stunning, and even delicate. But how does one conceptualize the incredible, violent capabilities of such a structure?
The exhibition, titled Teardrops that Wound: The Absurdity of War, is currently showing at the Wing Luke Museum. The show features contemporary work by Asian Pacific American artists approaching the subject of war from diverse perspectives and backgrounds. In common, the pieces all engross visitors in unique reimaginings of history and reality which shed light on historical events, practices, and concepts which we have become all too familiar with.
The curator, SuJ’n Chon, commented on the power of absurdity to allow “a side entry to face what some people might think is a hackneyed topic. I think that we, as a society, are a little bit desensitized to the topic and I think that there’s a lot that is happening in the real world that we are not even picking up on.” She compared absurdity to science fiction, “the power of science fiction is to take parts of reality and be able to approach really difficult topics through a lens that is just not real enough that we can actually tackle them. I think that’s what’s powerful about the work of these artists. It’s like a manifestation of altered reality—a new dimension.”
The piece which is perhaps most clearly a representation of an alternate reality is “Break into Blossom,” an installation developed by Sarah and Phong Nguyen. Phong Nguyen is the author of a collection of short stories, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History. His story, “Einstein Saves Hiroshima,” imagines a world in which the bomb dropped on Hiroshima lands without detonating. Inspired by the short story, Sarah Nguyen’s sculpture lays partially submerged in moss. Surrounding the sculpture are paper cherry blossoms and hand cut paper scrolls which hang unfurled, depicting the cherry blossom trees of the short story. Having spent time in Japan, Sarah Nguyen was also influenced by the idea of kami, or the Shinto concept that “every natural thing, be it man, a volcano, or plum tree, has a kami or spirit.”
Hanging nearby is Yukiyo Kawano’s sculpture, “Little Boy—Sad Tale of Tanuki.” Kawano also engages with the history of the bombing of Hiroshima, an event which she has an extremely personal relationship to having grown up in Hiroshima as a third generation hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor).
Kawano’s sculpture of the Little Boy atomic bomb is made of kimono fabric sewn together with her own hair. While in graduate school pursuing an MFA, Kawano was deconstructing her grandmother’s kimono and began recalling the story of Hiroshima. “Growing up in Hiroshima,” she said, “all the kids have to go through these horrible images of the hibakushas and the one that was always especially horrifying, was women losing their long, black hair because of the radiation sickness.” Kawano remembers feeling discomfort and fear of the grotesque image of seeing her own hair on the floor in the shower or when brushing her hair.
As an artist, she was intrigued and began sewing with her hair. When the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami hit, the process of sewing her hair on her grandmother’s kimono fabric became, for Kawano, a process of prayer. The piece shown in the exhibition is influenced by Kawano’s experiences; she “collected kimonos from the Fukushima region and stitched the sculpture of the bomb into Little Boy together with hair, this time melding an atomic bomb survivor’s DNA and its memories with the ongoing and unfolding bodily fear of downwinders in Fukushima.”
In the next room, Thomas Dang’s work draws on his personal relationship to war as well. Dang is a ceramic artist, a microbiologist, and a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. As part of the Dirty Canteen artist collective, Dang hopes to enable veterans to express their experiences and open up dialogues between veterans and others. Dang’s experiences and military identity are central to his work which engages with the “cynical comedy of warfare.”
One installation, “Bombs Away,” merges the destructive power of bombs with the hostility of biological weapons by combining these two weapons in hanging ceramic sculptures. “Tactical Decision Games,” presents army canteens placed in a grid as if they were pawns in a game. Some are battered or broken, pointing to the impact of war and combat on military personnel. Dang hopes viewers will “connect with the sacrifices that are still being faced today.” He believes, “the capacity to unite through art is a weapon that everyone can carry to break down walls and build bridges.”
Working to further complicate the narrative of the soldier or other military personnel, is Noa Batle’s “Domestic Soldiers” series. As a young artist, Batle recalls packing up for college and sorting through childhood possessions. While reflecting upon his set of green, plastic toy soldiers, Batle had a realization: “as a child, I only saw these toys frozen in the roles they were cast.” Batle’s work aims to depict the lives of soldiers beyond the battlefield. Using plastic parts of toy soldiers, Batle creates scenes of soldiers involved in activities ranging from vacuuming to reading, playing in the park, to sitting on the toilet. For Batle, “it is through the seemingly contradictory juxtaposition of mundane tasks in the hands of toy soldiers that the absurdity of their one-dimensional narrative becomes clear.”
In the hallway, photographic pieces from Patrick Nagatani’s “Nuclear Enchantment” series hang. An eerie soundscape designed by Kamna Shastri situates the visitor in a desert bomb testing site. Living in New Mexico, Nagatani became concerned and fascinated with the repercussions of the nuclear industry. Using techniques he developed while building sets for films such as Bladerunner, Nagatani stages his images by hanging props and overlaying images in front of blown up photographs serving as backdrops. Nagatani plays on the way in which we easily accept photographs as truth; by superimposing fantastic experiences and scenes upon his images of real nuclear sites, Nagatani allows one to view nuclear sites in a new way. Nagatani’s works reference historical events in our country’s nuclear history and reflect his anxieties about the ongoing development of the nuclear industry. Through his photos, he says, “I point a boney finger at the contemporary dance of death we are on the verge of joining.”
Teardrops that Wound is an illuminating exhibit which opens our eyes to the impacts of war which permeate our present. SuJ’n Chon explains: “When I was asked to do the exhibit, it was during the Obama administration. Now we’re in an age where it’s all about power and we’re flexing our muscles. Everyone’s trying to flex their muscles. We had no idea how painfully relevant [the exhibition] would turn out to be.” In a time when threatening and dehumanizing language is employed regularly by the current administration, when nuclear attacks are an acknowledged concern, this exhibition certainly is relevant and worthwhile. With the recent emergency at the Hanford nuclear site located in Eastern Washington, we see the enduring impact of nuclear technology, locally, and on indigenous communities which once called these lands sacred. With the upcoming anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are once again reminded of the legacy of this event. A sculpture by Yukiyo Kawano will also be displayed at the “From Hiroshima to Hope” event on August 6 at Greenlake.
Teardrops that Wound is an immersive and multidimensional exhibition which expose us to history and reality through the imaginative worlds of an impressive group of artists. Artist Kawano stresses: “When people encounter art that can successfully widen the message, it’s the viewer who actually needs to decide the story behind the art piece. When he or she interprets the art piece, they have to bring their own history when they try to understand the art that is not going to give the answer. I think that’s the process, the hopeful process. That when one is bringing his or her own history, then the art pieces become the viewer’s story—their story, not my story, and that’s what I’m hoping in this show.”
The exhibition will be on view at the Wing Luke Museum until May 20.