Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Hiroshima Bound: Placing Yoshiki Araki's Errant Art in an Atomic Era

Detail from Yoshiki Araki, Mother & Son (1985), oil and straw on canvas, photo by Bob Lee, edited by Jeremiah Kim

errant (adjective | er·rant): 1. erring or straying from the proper course or standards 2. traveling in search of something

“When the bomb fell in Hiroshima his grandfather was there. The next day his mother, then a young girl, went into what was left of the city to search through the devastation for him.

She never found him.”

Five years after the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb above a half-asleep port city on the southwestern tip of Japan’s main island, Yoshiki Araki was born in Hiroshima.

An itinerant artist who traversed multiple disciplines and continents, Araki spent the 50-year sum of his life searching for those elusive figures and landscapes whose sight and memory had been blotted out of existence on the morning of August 6, 1945, in the city of his childhood and early youth.

Starting his journey in the fishing village of Hokkaido as a young student of traditional Japanese watercolor techniques, Araki soon migrated to New York City at the age of 24, where he expanded his repertoire with the Art Students League. Throwing himself into creative profusion of New York’s vibrant communities and neighborhoods, he joined the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble and traveled with them to perform in Hiroshima in the mid-1980s.

Upon returning to Hiroshima 40 years after the bomb dropped, Araki no doubt witnessed the enduring devastation wrought by the sheer leveling force of the initial explosion and the horrific intergenerational effects of radiation poisoning. Coinciding with his homecoming, Araki’s art began to reflect an uncanny sensitivity to the bomb’s ghastly after-life as it haunted the city and his own psyche. Thematically, Araki assembled scenes that unmistakably expressed sensations and situations of alienation, disfigurement, flesh, death, war and torment—all visceral registers of experience billowing out of Araki’s status as a marked child of Hiroshima. At the same time, his practice developed towards multi-paneled oil paintings incorporating heterodox elements like wax, tar, tree branches, straw, bones, and cage wire. Assuming a Neo-expressionist style, Araki laid his brush thick and heavy on the canvas to produce streaks of irradiated color that imbued his figures and landscapes with a raw, burning energy.

Yoshiki Araki, Adam and Eve (1986), oil and straw on canvas, photo by Bob Lee

Into the 1990s, Araki continued to push the envelope of his experimentation with different mediums and deviant subject matter. Fragments of photographs began to enter his assemblages—most commonly he spliced disembodied nudes together, creating impossibly tangled figures held together by unbearably taut contortions of skin and sinew. This unfolding collision of haunted memory and erotic imagination was cut short, however, by tragedy: eking out a precarious existence as a relatively unknown artist in New York City’s unforgiving concrete climate, Araki was driven to the point of hospitalization under the pressure of repeated landlord harassment and shortly died from health complications in 2000.

Yoshiki Araki, Untitled (1996), mixed media, photo by Bob Lee

In 2006, six years after his death, the Asian American Arts Centre exhibited a career-spanning selection of Araki’s artworks in a solo exhibition titled Yoshiki Araki: Hiroshima Born. The opening passage describing the direct proximity of Araki’s family to Little Boy’s blast radius is an excerpt from the four-page postcard used to promote the exhibition and its panel discussion.

Araki’s posthumous solo exhibition at AAAC presented 35 works spanning his artistic output from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. In a 2007 review of the exhibition published in the magazine Art in America, art critic Elisa Decker grouped the curated selection into “three distinct bodies of work”: eight large-scale oil and mixed media paintings (1985-88), seven smaller panels combining painting with found objects (late 1980s-early 1990s), and 20 surrealist photo-collage paintings (1996-99).

In her review of Hiroshima Born, Decker devotes lengthy, detailed paragraphs to the exhibition’s standout pieces. In Araki’s 1985 painting Mother & Son, Decker finds “four figures set in a stormy landscape [who] have a story to tell,” and declares the work to be “one of Araki’s most powerful paintings.” Though her analysis goes deep—a hovering male nude with a diagonal patch of straw for a head in Mother & Son might be “a reference to T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men,’” she speculates—conspicuously absent from Decker’s reading of the exhibition is any acknowledgment of the most basic, foundational element driving Araki’s art: the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

Yoshiki Araki, Mother & Son (1985), oil and straw on canvas, photo by Bob Lee

As evidenced by the Art Centre’s postcard, the bomb and its aftermath were central themes to be confronted in both the art exhibition and panel (titled Hiroshima Legacy: The Art of Yoshiki Araki, the panel featured a collection of socially conscious artists and anti-war activists, along with a video on Hiroshima bomb survivors known in Japan as hibakusha). Writes AAAC Director Bob Lee in the postcard, introducing audiences to the significance of Araki’s work:

“We have been taught to tolerate violence, to look past its pain… The consequences of military action [are] ‘good’, the collateral damage to people is to be ‘tolerated’, at least until it can be put aside and forgotten… So many realities are not faced because of this kind of skillful practice. The bomb is one of these.

Araki chose a different path. His art and his life hold a logic contrary to so much of what is current and acceptable… Araki has made the undisclosed underbelly of society into an art transparent. He exposes social convention to its own undoing.”

Powerful as they might be when viewed from the formalist perspective of an educated critic like Elisa Decker, artworks like Mother & Son and Physical Memory gain a much deeper meaning when perceived through the prism of their creator’s mind-and-flesh experience as a victim of atomic warfare. The anguish writ plain on the faces of the two dominant figures in Mother & Son registers with an emotional clarity that is only enhanced by our awareness of Araki’s own dislocated family lineage. Likewise, the stomach-turning dread that arises from our apprehension of Physical Memory strikes us with an ever more piercing edge when we place its vulnerable figure, frozen mid-fall, alongside a mental silhouette of the Little Boy bomb making its silent, downward plunge towards Hiroshima.

Yoshiki Araki, Physical Memory (Hiroshima) (date unknown), oil and wood on canvas, photo by Bob Lee

We can ascribe a dual quality of errancy to Araki’s art: On one hand, his unsubdued eroticism and pained expressionism arrive as an affront to our euphemized sensibilities. On the other, his unerring orbit around and through Hiroshima points our hearts toward a more real plane where no trick of the light can obscure the toxic “scene of the crime”, or prevent us from gazing straight at our transgressions, face-to-face.

For we know that there are many kinds of violence, and many faces to war. As Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton once wrote, “The system, in fact, destroys us through neglect much more often than by the police revolver. The gun is only the coup de grâce, the enforcer. To wipe out the conditions leading up to the coup de grâce, that [is] our goal.” If the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a final death blow (and a patently unjustifiable one at that), they were also, paradoxically, the opening volley in a more massive assault that has persisted well into the new millennium. In this nuclear era, we must consider the afflicted zones encircling and outlasting the first blast crater as embattled fronts in a totalizing war that is being waged by the ruling classes of our own country.

Suffice to say that, surveying the tremendous distance between the kind of nuanced analysis developed by revolutionary thinkers like Newton versus our society’s pervading lack of awareness about its own endemic violences at-present, there are a number of harsh realities which remain to be confronted at the level of this country’s national consciousness. Most of us have not confronted, for instance, the reality that the United States has 6,800 nuclear warheads; or the reality that the United States maintains 800 military bases in 80 countries; or the reality that the United States military is the biggest polluter in the world; or the reality that the United States has sponsored fascists, drug lords, and terrorists in 35 countries, and executed at least 81 attempted regime changes since World War II.

In its quest for ruthless expansion, the United States has exported its conflicts abroad via limited proxy wars that fit right in between breaking news of Kanye West’s latest freakout and corporatized #Resistance ad campaigns on our social media feeds. The American system of indirect control over the resources and labor of less powerful nations has been implemented, more often than not, by shameless methods of war and debilitation—but we remain blissfully uninformed about the price of our domestic development, believing we live in a civil, free, and equal society.

We have yet to confront the reality that, at this moment, there are 18 wars taking place around the world, all of which bear the prolific mark of American empire in some shape or fashion. That Yemen is currently embroiled in a civil war because of U.S. intervention is an indisputable fact. That the U.S. government bankrolled a $1 billion CIA program to exacerbate the Syrian Civil War is another indisputable fact. That any one of the present or future U.S.-backed “foreign” conflicts could spill out into a world-engulfing nuclear war with mutual destruction guaranteed for all humankind is the reality we live in, whether we want to face it or not.

We have not confronted, lastly, the reality that Yoshiki Araki was one of millions to have been killed in the global war between people and private, profitable property—and this, only five decades after being born to a city destroyed under those disastrous pretenses of civilization, freedom, and equality.

To elide the troubling vision of artists like Yoshiki Araki is to ratify our society’s moral degradation and the inevitability of our collective ruin. To err on the side of the confrontation, however—to probe fearlessly, as Araki did, into the anatomy of America’s unspoken conventions—is to join the rest of humanity in its ongoing struggle towards building a new paradigm of peace that will last for generations to come.

– Written by Jeremiah Kim, AAAC Summer 2018 Intern


Disclaimer: “AAAC wants to give its interns the opportunity to express themselves. However, in doing so at times views are expressed that are very explicit and may be frowned upon coming from a community nfp organization. AAAC would like to make an exception in this case and not attach here any sort of disclaimer, remaining sensitive to any comments and feedback from those who chose to comment or disagree.  

The kind of humanity that permitted/acquiesced or stood by silently when the bomb was dropped, this kind of humanity I believe, is what Yoshiki Araki sought to make us aware. Moral and ethical limits that have yet to be discussed on a wide if not global scale, towards the day when such can be realized and adopted, this has yet to happen. May this article elevate our awareness of what peace may bring.”
– R. Lee for AAAC
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Tuesday, July 31, 2018
A Critical History: AAAC in Reviews

Throughout the decades AAAC has received critical attention from various sources. While going through our archives we recently rediscovered several articles referencing the Asian American Art Centre’s exhibitions and activities, a few of which we present here.

AAAC is particularly thankful to Holland Cotter for his continued acknowledgement of AAAC’s work, in addition to that of other diverse artists and organizations. Cotter has written for the New York Times since 1998 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009; his focus on multiculturalism has brought many artists of color into the mainstream. He reviewed a number of AAAC’s exhibitions from 1999 to 2003.

Reception for China: June 4, 1989 at Blum Helman Warehouse, Oct. 1989. Photo courtesy of AAAC.

In his 2001 article on art in the Lower East Side, Cotter describes AAAC as “a hard-working, meagerly financed grass-roots institution that caters to community needs but has an internationalist perspective broader than that of most galleries in the mainstream,” adding that “under the direction of Robert Lee, this nonprofit space has given many Asian-American artists, young and old, exposure impossible to find elsewhere.” On the 1999 exhibition 7 lb. 9 oz.: The Reintegration of Tradition in Contemporary Art, Cotter writes that AAAC “was founded long before multiculturalism was so much as a glint in the mainstream art world’s eye” and praises AAAC’s “very smart tabloid-format magazine” ArtSpiral

Cotter has reviewed other AAAC exhibitions including Colin Lee's solo show for the Sixth International Asian Art Fair (2001), Toyo Tsuchiya’s Six O’Clock Observed (1999), 2 Far 2 Close (2000), Zheng Lianjie (2002), and Dream So Much 2 (2003).

Installation view of China: June 4, 1989, remounted in 2014. Photo courtesy of AAAC.

To note some additional press AAAC has received, renowned art historian Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013) wrote several articles for AAAC’s exhibitions and catalogues. One such article from 2000, “Asian American Art: The Transitional Generation”, was rediscovered and posted to the blog earlier this summer; a 1996 article, “Negotiating Modernisms: Contemporary Asian Art and the West,” is available on our website. 

China: June 4, 1989, an exhibition on the student uprising at Tiananmen Square that included work by major figures including Xu Bing, Nam June Paik, Zhang Hongtu, Barbara Kruger, Leon Golub, Vito Acconci, and Byron Kim, received significant critical attention. Art in America magazine at the end of 1989 chose China: June 4 as one of the most significant exhibition for the year. In 1992 Douglas Utter wrote in the New Art Examiner, "China: June 4, 1989 is an intimate exhibition. Each work comes forward to bear witness on its own terms. [...] A moving exhibition of political art, it transcended the usual considerations of both politics and art to indict a brutal moment of recent history.” The show was remounted at the Whitebox Art Center in 2014 on the 25th anniversary of the incident, and was reviewed in Manhattan Digest and Beyond Chinatown.

Eye to Eye panel, 1983. Photo courtesy of AAAC.

Recently Ryan Wong paid special attention to AAAC’s role in creating a space for Asian Americans in the arts in his 2017 Hyperallergic article “A Brief History of the Art Collectives of NYC’s Chinatown,” where he describes our 1982 panel and exhibition Eye to Eye on the definition of Asian American art as well as the China: June 4, 1989 exhibition. AAAC was also mentioned in a New York Times article by Nikil Saval on Tseng Kwong Chi and Martin Wong, whom we exhibited in 1985 along with Ai Weiwei. 

AAAC continues to be grateful for your recognition and support.

–Written by intern Amy Hong

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018
‘Detained’ in America: Immigration, Incarceration, and Imperialism in Diasporic Art

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of upholding President Trump’s travel ban against Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Although the official majority position written by Chief Justice John Roberts shies away from an explicit alignment with anti-Muslim bias, the fact remains that imposing a prohibition on migrants and visitors from five Muslim-majority countries enacts a vicious ideology of nativism against Muslims and other communities that do not fit the criteria of white, Christian, English-speaking, Western educated, upper-class, able-bodied, documented citizen. The same logic can be applied to the Department of Justice’s announcement on June 29 that it would, after intense public outcry, keep immigrant families together—in indefinite detention.

These decisions, far from being exceptions to the rule of American values, merely continue a long tradition in the country’s history of criminalizing the migrations and movements of people of color in the name of “security”, “merit”, and “legality”.

As the American people are confronted with the compounding moral crises of unchecked ICE raids, immigrant concentration camps, anti-black police brutality, complicity in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, federal-level assaults on the labor movement, and Islamophobic travel bans, they would do well to look to the past for clues concerning the cause and consequence of their country’s shameful behavior both within and beyond its borders. This behavior—all of it transpiring under the failed leadership of the U.S. political establishment—has evaded justice and public apprehension for decades, if not centuries.

In this context, the Asian American Arts Centre looks back to 2006, when the Centre organized Detained, an exhibition and panel discussion that approached questions of incarceration, racial profiling, immigration, visibility, interconnectedness, public memory, and injustice through the art and activism of Asian and Arab Americans situated amidst multiple diasporas. Responding in large part to the targeting of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities in the post-9/11 era, Detained exhibited a cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary selection of artists including Wafaa Bilal, Chitra Ganesh, Mariam Ghani, Dorothy Imagire, Pia Lindman, Trong Nguyen, Lina Pallotta, Jenny Pollack, Dread Scott, and Rene Yung. The accompanying panel featured five activists whose work converged on fighting detention under the U.S. military-prison-industrial complex: Palestinian rights campaigner Konrad Aderer, Monami Malek of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Adem Carroll of the Islamic Circle of North America, Tushar Sheth of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and Visible Collective.

AAAC, Exhibition postcard for 'Detained' (2006)

In addition to the panel and exhibition, Detained also featured a talk by James Yee, a former chaplain for the U.S. Army stationed at Guantanamo Bay who was arrested on unsubstantiated espionage charges and detained in solitary confinement for 76 days in 2003. Yee, a New Jersey-born Chinese American who converted to Islam, spoke out against the torture and unjust incarceration of Guantanamo’s Muslim detainees to whom he had been assigned to administer spiritual aid—and was tortured by his own country in return.

Turning to the artists, we witness parallels that run across (but do not negate) lines of race, time, gender, location, medium, and gesture. From the unsettling photographic/performance/video art of Wafaa Bilal’s “The Human Condition”, Trong Nguyen’s “Messages from Guantanamo”, and Jenny Polak & Dread Scott’s “Welcome to America”, to the archivalist re-creations of Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani’s “Index of the Disappeared” and Dorothy Imagire’s “Japanese American Concentration Camp”, there runs a common ethos of making visible that which has been concealed from view in American culture. Much like Ganesh and Ghani’s interactive “Guantanamo Effect”, we can thread an incriminating red line linking out-of-sight, out-of-mind incarceration centers like Angel Island, Carlisle boarding school, Attica, Manzanar, Guantanamo Bay, Rikers Island, and Brownsville together: an unthinkable genealogy of grotesque relations.

Chitra Ganesh & Mariam Ghani, "Guantanamo Effect" (2013), digital catalogue. All credit goes to the artists

In that vein, Wafaa Bilal’s watershed 2007 exhibition “Domestic Tension”, though it was not featured in Detained, exposes the contradictions of U.S. imperialism in creating climates of total war and total indifference that simultaneously co-constitute and slip past each other—holding some in thrall so that the rest might be “free”. For 31 days, Bilal confined himself to a solitary room and placed his body at the mercy of a paintball rifle whose trigger could be pulled via an open-access chat room trafficked by thousands of visitors by the end of the month. The ceaseless rat-tat-tat of the rifle, the large splotches of yellow paint plastering the room, and Bilal’s vulnerable, fugitive figure are testaments to the faceless, nameless precision violence which the artist experienced firsthand as an Iraqi refugee who lost his brother to an unmanned U.S. drone strike in 2005.

Wafaa Bilal, "Domestic Tension" (2007), photograph. All credit goes to the artist

So let’s expand our frame of reference: as Wafaa Bilal’s art shows us, detention, violence, and containment are issues that cannot be limited to sites existing within the mapped borders of the United States. All the different waves of migrants and refugees from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who have flocked to North America within the past hundred years—where are they coming from? And I don’t mean this in the No, where are you really from? sense. What I am asking is: what are the contexts, the conditions, the circumstances out of which certain groups of people have been compelled to take flight—and then get detained?

To try to answer that question, we need to start asking a larger set of questions: How many wars has the United States, whether by direct invasion or proxy campaign, started in the rest of the world? How many military bases have we—and I say we because most of us have consented to this peculiar government and its perplexing history—installed in countries that we have no conceivable right to occupy? How many violent coups and capitalist regimes have we financed in Central and South America? How many bombs have we dropped on Southeast, Central, and East Asia? How many tons of oil, rubber, cocoa, gold, salt, diamonds, ivory, and wood have we extracted from Africa—and for how much profit?

Interchange the recipients in each of the questions above and you’ll get directly variable results. However, the underlying function—U.S. imperialism—remains the same. At every link in the chain of the many diasporas implicated in the Detained exhibition, the myth of American benevolence crumples and collapses under the weight of its own deafening hypocrisy. People come to this country because this country has undermined and maimed their countries; we detain people from those countries because we believe they will undermine and maim this country. This empire.

Without losing sight of what is unfolding right before us—American state and corporate interests culling working class families and children for indefinite detention in euphemized concentration camps—we push forward through the veils of anonymity, indifference, and misinformation obscuring our view of the larger picture. No longer able to fool ourselves, art pushes us to confront the reality of the kind of people we really are—and the possibilities of who we might become.

Written by AAAC Summer intern Jeremiah Kim.
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