A Father’s Past Unknown: Illuminating, Retelling and Recreating Memory

Sara Lilah Rockefeller, MA Candidate,
Anthropology Dept. Columbia Univ.

Like most of Hirokazu Fukawa’s work, “A Thought at the Edge of the Continent; Manchuria to Siberia 1942-1947” is both raw and spiritual, detached and undeniably human. It uses crude materials, unfinished wood and florescent lights that appear to have been ripped from an office ceiling to create angular structures that somehow, through a fluidity of repetition, form a narrative; a puzzle to be interpreted by the viewer.
Curated by the artist and installed in the main gallery of Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT, the exhibition was many things at once. In a sense it was a memorial to Fukawa’s father and his experience as a Japanese sniper and prisoner during World War II. It was a story told and constructed in a multi-vocal display of two-dimensional prints, 3D sculpture, audio and video media. And perhaps most of all, it was the reflection of the artist’s journey to understand a past that can never be known.
Real Art Ways, founded in 1975 as an “alternative” venue for artists of diverse backgrounds, includes a theatre, cinema, and visual art gallery. While the organization began as a small museum run by local artists, it has expanded into an internationally renowned space. Managed by Director Will K. Wilkins, Real Art Ways remains faithful to its roots as a showcase for local, often unconventional artistic expression. For Fukawa, a professor of art at the University of Hartford, this was the first exhibition at Real Art Ways.
Fukawa’s original intention, relayed in a note at the entrance to the gallery, was to display his father’s past as a riddle, exploring the historical specificity of his experience while tying it to an examination of contemporary suicide bomber attacks. While the idea may have been political, the outcome is on a more personal level. Fukawa’s work evolved throughout his four year process of research and creation to focus on the abstract notion of memory.
As a soldier in the Japanese Army, stationed in Manchuria, or Manchukuo as it was called by the Japanese occupiers, Fukawa’s father was given a landmine and told to lie in a foxhole and wait for a Soviet tank to approach before blowing himself up. No tank arrived and the war ended but the surviving Japanese soldiers were abandoned by their army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. The artist’s father was one, among an estimated 600,000 Japanese, that remained prisoner in Siberia for several years after the war.
Growing up, Fukawa heard bits and pieces of this story but never fully understood what had happened. So a few years ago, as his father’s memory was beginning to surrender to Alzheimer’s, he began to ask questions that eventually led him on two separate journeys to Japan and north-eastern China, and to Siberia. It was on these trips, as well as through conversations with other POW’s and with his father that Fukawa began to piece together a story.
The artist was surprised to find that the story he was uncovering in his research did not always match his father’s account. At one point his father mentioned being taken to a location that, according to the single discharge paper that serves as the sole record of his time in the army, he was never taken.
The exhibition played with the notion of accuracy and authenticity of memory. There were three main pieces in the puzzle: a sculptural installation that includes two major structures alongside built speakers, four prints framed on one wall, and a video room with three adjacent monitors.
When entering the gallery attention was immediately drawn to Blizzard, an installation of dozens of blinding fluorescent lights on thin wooden boards, arranged floor to ceiling on an angle. The viewer can maneuver in-between the boards and be encircled by a white, linear repetition of lights while listening to a medley of Communist anthems and abstract music coming from snowball-esque plaster speakers. While there is no descriptive text or title presented alongside the work, a binder at the entrance to the gallery shares the artist’s interpretation. Blizzard echoes a snowstorm that Fukawa’s father faced in Siberia.
The other major sculpture in the room payed respect to Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist model tower Monument to the Third International, built by Tatlin as an homage to the Bolshevik Revolution. Fukawa’s rendition, entitled The Third International, uses the same unfinished wood as Blizzard to brace a spiral staircase that leads up to a platform, perhaps a podium for a dictator of the Soviet Union or Imperial Japan.
Also in the main gallery was a single line drawing, Marching, that traces the route that the artist’s father walked from China to Siberia, and a set of three prints labeled Starvation 1,2 and 3. In the Starvation prints Fukawa layers 12th century Buddhist scrolls of starvation hells, pencil sketches of his father and other POW’s, and real ferns and other plants that the soldiers ate to survive.
Separated from the main gallery by a curtain is the video room. Three televisions simultaneously display a more literal, while decisively disjointed, narration of his father’s past. The central screen shows Fukawa’s father remembering and retelling his story into a microphone. The left screen shows dark cells and tunnels and the screen to the right shows footage of the artist’s trips to the locations of his father’s past. The soundtracks of all three videos alternate and overlap evoking a dream or a memory just out-of-reach.
Fukawa’s exhibition is a thoughtful, engaging, and ultimately successful exploration of the often dream-like, ephemeral quality of memory and the inevitable dissatisfaction one faces in an attempt to know the past.
While the link between Fukawa’s work and the other show on at the same time at Real Art Ways was not overtly displayed, the two shared a common element. The second exhibition was a collection of works by Taiga Ermansons, who began embroidering miniature patterns onto Kleenex tissues after receiving instruction in the art of crochet from her aunt, a prisoner in a Siberian camp between 1945 and 1953. The fragility of Ermansons’ media, and the subtlety of association between Fukawa’s and Ermansons’ shared influence reflect the overall theme of Fukawa’s exhibition; the delicate, transient, and blurred nature of history and of human memory.
“A Thought at the Edge of the Continent: Manchuria to Siberia 1942-1947” and Taiga Ermansons’ works are at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St, Hartford, CT, (860) 233 6691, ran until March 22.