Upside-Down Worlds: Yoko Inoue at SPACES
As an associate professor at Bennington College and a Japanese-born artist she has been shocked by the ignorance of some of her students in regard to the most basic facts about the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in the early 1940s, and its deployment in 1945 (among other matters of recent history). In a pamphlet accompanying her exhibit she quotes historian Howard Zinn’s 2010 book “The Bomb”: “[The atomic bomb] forces us to ask: what “kind of mood,” what “moral arrangements” would cause us, in whatever society we live, with whatever “fundamental decency” we possess, to either perpetrate (as bombardiers, or atomic scientists, or political leaders), or just to accept (as obedient citizens), the burning of children in vast numbers.”
Simply put, there are unthinkable facts about the world and recent history that all of us should know, living under a constant, and most often repressed, threat of nuclear war. Inoue addresses this situation obliquely, even intimately, drawing on her experience as a ceramicist and as a scholar as she surveys a winding path through postwar economic and aesthetic narratives. Working in Cleveland for the past two month as SPACES’ World Artist Program artist for 2017, she adopted Cleveland’s CMA Director (1958-1983) and internationally renowned sinologist Sherman Emory Lee (Lee died in 2008) as a site-specific translator of a kind, a signifier and guide for local audiences to the cultural period of collision and recovery, which is Inoue’s primary subject at SPACES. Lee was, very famously, one of the Monuments Men, working under General Douglas MacArthur. Consisting of two main parts, Inoue’s Exhibit A displays documents and objects that attest to Sherman Lee’s acumen and the important role he played in preserving Japan’s artistic heritage. One document is a typescript memo, cogently urging that Japanese antiquities never be monetized for the purpose of war reparations. This and similar wartime memos and reports are scattered around a table, interspersed with traditional tea bowls.
As a counter-thesis to this rarefied cultural ceremony, Inoue presents dozens of other objects that illustrate the debasement of Japanese ceramic art as a commodity for export. Two large tables are crowded with functional and decorative chachkes, and a long row of small ceramic figurines hang nearby on the wall at about counter-level. Referring to these mass-produced products as “Upside-Down Objects,” wall text explains that the figurines were manufactured specifically for sale in the U.S. and were marked on the bottom as products of occupied Japan. Some of these are Japanese-themed, others appear to be copies of European models. The long row of these on the wall are displayed with their heads or tops hanging down so that the labeling, in blue, is clearly visible. They’re mounted two by two, as if hung out to dry at the end of short sticks. Spot lights shine down between the pairs and make long shadows down the wall – shadows that look like bits of meat, presented en brochette.
Elsewhere Inoue refers more directly to the burning of Japan – the firebombing and carpet bombing of dozens of cities, as well as the aftermath at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Newsreel footage from the war, of massacre and injury, incinerated corpses and racist propaganda (which of course operated in both directions during the war), are projected on a large blank rice paper scroll. Displayed on two large tables crowded among pristine upside-down ceramic ware, stand figures six or eight inches high with lumpy, charred heads – survivors of a holocaust that spared no artifact, no atom of its ground zero. Displayed on a separate pedestal protected by a plexiglass vitrine is a sculptural combo that manages to sum up the situation of occupied Japan with dire simplicity: on a pile of small, broken, burnt plates a stack of Wonder ™-type slices of bread is served up to SPACES audiences, enriched (I couldn’t help but reflect, having grown up in that time, if not that place) with vitamins, and probably plutonium.
Occupying the galleries nearest to SPACES’ entrance, Yoko Inoue’s Tea Taste Democracy serves to introduce the larger show of works mounted farther inside, reacting to the Trump presidency and policies. Inoue’s cataclysmic ironies thus lead up to the chasm of reactionary amnesia which typifies much of contemporary politics. Writing about the poetics of tea in Japanese culture and history, Sherman Lee wrote (in 1963):
“The tea always tastes the same, and yet each bowl is slightly different; the nuances of substance are its essence. It can be a surprising school for taste or a dreary ritualizing of schematized foreknowledge. But always it plays on the nuances of sense, a dialogue between perception and raw or but slightly formed material.”
History is ever the same yet variously experienced and construed. For each person the present moment always tastes of self, yet fear and pain flavor the edges of time; we’re never far from the gagging flavors of murder and hideous death.