Scars of War

By Stephanie Yoon

The physical and mental scars of war are deeply ingrained in world history. With the passing of time, these scars often fade and are only remembered through stories and images. This memory of war and conflict is woven into our notion of identity and origins. Asian American identity is no exception to this notion; it is legitimized and delegitimized through the social memory of wars fought on Asian and American soil. One way to legitimize the social memory of war is through visual representation of emotion, thought, and hopes.

In her Unsettled Visions, Margo Machida explores how Asian Americans use visual art as a concrete vehicle to express these abstract concepts of self in relation to memories of war, or scars of war. According to Machida, some Asian American artists use art as a coping mechanism; they are able to share their emotions and thus recover from the social trauma that they or their relatives experienced. Machida discusses the importance of collective memory to some Asian Americans artists. Through materializing and sharing personal memory, these artists’ experiences are legitimized and added to the collective memory.

Yen Le Espritu also discusses how art is important when dealing with scars of war in his article on “Negotiating Memories or War: Arts in Vietnamese American Communities.” He emphasizes the importance of war art as self-representation and truth. Artists have creative license to express the truths of conflict, which they validate through their art. Art materializes voice and makes visible that which is invisible. While the theme “Scars of War” is universal, it adds a piece to the puzzle and helps us define one aspect of Asian American art.

Three artists in our exhibition use their art to materialize and legitimize the scars of war. They include: An-My Lê (Vietnamese-American artist), Isamu Noguchi (Japanese-American artist), and Koji Shimizu (Japanese-American artist).

 

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An-My Lê (b.1960)
Small Wars (Special Operations Forces),
2003-2004
Gelatin Silver Print, 26 ½ in. x 38. in

This photograph belongs to An-My Lê’s Small Wars series. This series explores Lê’s themes of disjunction, displacement, misplaced hopes, and false memories. The photograph depicts a Vietnam War reenactment in Virginia. While the formal medium of photography and the warm grey tonalities maintain the illusion of authenticity, the act of reenactment and reality of the southern pine trees exhibit an exercise in fakery. Lê welcomes this combination of authenticity and falseness. Through it, she is able to unite the past and present and better understand her origins and her identity. The re-enactors and Lê both address the issue of nostalgia. They revisit the scars of war in order to gain a stronger understanding of their ancestors and their identity in the present. In an interview with Hilton Als, An-My Lê refers to her photographs of war describing the creative process as “a process of discovery.” She states: “For me it is about learning something about the world, about myself.”

 

Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988)
Torso #378, 1952
Unglazed kasama red stoneware, 20 in. x 13 in. x 2 3/4 in.

Created in postwar Japan, Noguchi’s Torso #378 memorializes the victims of Hiroshima’s tragic bombing in 1945 through both form and technique. According to Amy Lyford, the form of the sculpture refers to the traditional form of the haniwa. This respected form of ceramic was often placed on tomb mounds in the third to sixth centuries in order to accompany and protect the soul in the afterlife. Noguchi manipulates the red Kasama clay slab and the firing techniques so that the marks on the figure mimic the burn patterns sustained by the victims of Hiroshima. The artist uses a traditional firing technique without glaze. The heat endured by the clay in the kiln is symbolic of the heat of the bomb scorching skin. In his autobiography, A Sculptor’s World, Noguchi states: “Sculpture, I felt, had become captive, like other arts, to coterie points of view. There must be some larger, more noble, and more essentially sculptural purpose to sculpture.” Noguchi’s Torso is a concrete symbol of the mental and physical scars of war.  He honors the memory of those affected by the violence and submits his work into the collective memory of Japan and the world.

 

Koji Shimizu

Koji Shimizu (b.1967)
Untitled (Two Peaches), 1994
Acrylic on paper, 47 in. x 75 in.

Untitled (Two Peaches) from 1994 is a representation of Koji Shimizu’s memories of childhood and war. In it, he combines symbols that represent both his personal emotions and his cultural history. This painting represents a collection of World War II stories, those of his grandfather and those drawn from his own memory. The story is about how children in Japanese-occupied Taiwan were taught that China was bigger, better and sweeter than Japan, therefore they should go to China. This story is represented in the work by the two different sized peaches, the larger represents and reads “China” and the smaller represents and reads “Japan.” The English words “sweet” and “sour” appear beneath the two peaches. The black shape across the work is a symbolic reminder of war, representing the formation of trenches. In this work, Shimizu submits his memories, and those of his ancestors to the collective memory of Japan. The memory of war is woven into his childhood memories and his identity as an artist.

Sources

An-My Lê.” Art21. PBS, Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/an-my-le>.

Corwin, Sharon, et. al. Art at Colby: Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Colby College Museum of Art. Waterville, Me.: Colby College Museum of Art, 2009. Print.

DiMaggio, Paul, and María Patricia Fernández-Kelly. “Negotiating Memories of War.” Art in the Lives of Immigrant Communities in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2010. 197-213. Print.

“Isamu Noguchi.” The Noguchi Museum. Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <http://www.noguchi.org/noguchi>.

Lê, An-My, Richard B. Woodward, and Hilton Als. Small Wars. New York N.Y.: Aperture, 2005. Print.

Machida, Margo. Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary. Durham: Duke UP, 2008. Print.

Noguchi, Isamu. Isamu Noguchi, a Sculptor’s World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1967. Print.