Maggie and I had a conversation a while back where we ended up bemoaning how most of the literature we were presented in high school was written by white men. There was, of course, the token woman or person of color writer thrown in–Maya Angelou, ironically, as she qualifies in both of these categories and thus eliminated the school board’s need to have us read anything else god forbid, by people who aren’t white men. What I found most telling about our experiences of literature exposure was that, though we had both read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, neither of us knew until recently that the book was originally written in German.
The system failed us. Even when we were exposed to the voices of different cultures and races, they were edited or awkwardly tip-toed around. We read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but why did it take until University for me to learn about the epidemic rates of abuse, especially against women and even further, especially against women of color? We read the book but we never really had the conversations that could matter.
Recently in Vienna, I visited the Albertina Museum. They had a temporary art exhibit called Provoke in the photography wing.
I walked into the exhibit not knowing what to expect from “Between Protest and Performance, Photography in Japan 1960/1970.” Honestly, it’s not a time period I’m familiar with in Japanese history. Nor am I that familiar with Japanese art that isn’t the familiar wood-cut that fill the sections in Art History text books. In the exhibit I was suddenly faced with a voice I hadn’t heard much of.
Provoke features the photographs from three volumes of the magazine of the same name that Japanese artists published as well as images from other small magazines or books during the years 1960-1970. Three volumes doesn’t sound like a lot, but each one was packed with evocative, gritty black and white images and essays.
Though the photographers involved with the Provoke volumes were not student protesters themselves during the turbulent period of history in the years after the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their art exists in tandem with the protests. This is the reason for the exhibit’s subtitle.
I have, of course, seen images of the mushroom clouds that heralded such destruction. To me, these are distinctively American images. They are clinical in their documentation, perhaps tinged with awe at the fact of destructive power produced. But that is all they can be because they are marked with the American perception of the bombings at the time. The awe isn’t horror yet or even regret.
Provoke features some images that tackle the topic of the aftermath of the bombings. These are images twenty or so years after the event, so they are not the same as the stark horror that marks the early photography after the bombing that occurred in Japan which has the aesthetic of photojournalism. The topic has had time, culturally, to breathe and integrate itself with art. The photos in this collection that relate to the bombings are deliberate, loving.
This is no longer documentation. The camera moves in close on scarred skin that has healed. It is intimate, too abstracted to be akin to the cataloged photos of those freshly injured and dead. The conversation has moved on with the lives of the people who survived. This is a person, not a war story.
More than the photos of the immediate destruction, these portraits hit me with an previously absent sense of overwhelming cultural guilt as an American. It brought to light to me how much as a culture we dropped the bombs then moved on. People in America have a kind of fascination with Japan now, based on technology and modern culture.
Perhaps it was that the images of the aftermath are too similar to the other war photography from World War II. Yes, it was horrific but so was the war on every front. A special responsibility is hard to separate when faced with the never ending slide show of that incomprehensible achievement of human suffering. (Not to mention, of course, that America perceives itself as the heroes of WWII.)
Japan couldn’t be hit by the bombs and then move on. Culturally the ripple of the events would continue for decades and one of those ripples ended in a couple of photos in a series mostly about protest. It wasn’t given special attention because it was just another fact, another facet of life. But for me, that made all the difference.
Hamaya Hiroshi “Record of Anger and Sadness”
From Provoke vol 1 “Nakahira Takuma, Okada Takahiko, Takanashi Yutaka, Taki Koji
Unknown “Protests surrounding the construction of Narita Airport”
I could pull out one of my well worn, dirty and faded personal soap boxes about how art and literature should be used in history classes to illuminate students on the perception of events from different people. Of course, that soap box is of the same construction as my soap box on art education, because without learning to experience art, it can be hard to understand the significance of photos. Despite this, history text books line up photos often with nothing more than a small title and photographer name, without any discussion of the significance of the piece.
In Provoke I see photos on the universal triumph of protest, from both the young students and the determined older generation, standing still and tall in their ragged clothes. The photo of a young man screaming stands out to me, the faceless mass of the riot police familiar even though it is in a different country in a different time.
Photography and art have the special quality of needing no translation, at least not in the traditional way, giving every person equal opportunity for experience and emotion.
Though I don’t know much about the student protests, I’m looking forward to reading the translated essays in Provoke (the book) to learn about it from the people living during the times.
“This book was put together through the struggles of Nihon University comrades. We wish to dedicate this book as a love letter to all fellow students fighting on their campuses throughout Japan and the world.” -Nihon University All-Campus Joint Struggle League Secretariat