The 9th Hiroshima Art Prize Doris Salcedo at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima, Japan
Review by Terence Erraught
When on a recent visit to see the historically famous Hiroshima in Japan, I had a natural curiosity to experience the site, but also was aware of the surreal (and horrific) scenario which took place there on August 6th, 1945.
It was the day before the 69th anniversary, and council workers worked hard to install what appeared to be hundreds of seats and multiple speakers while numerous cameramen were setting up. All this took place in prevailing rain. It was decided to continuously maintain the building under which the atomic bomb exploded, to stand as an ongoing reminder and memorial. By this building sat many monks chanting to the beat of a drum.
Within this city was a Museum of Contemporary Art. It sat atop a rather steep hill (in the humid temperature). I was surprised by the building and how good it appeared. A lot of money was obviously invested. There were two shows on here. One being a collection of different medium works, with no English translation, except the artist’s names and materials.
The other exhibition was that of Doris Salcedo. At first I did not recognise the name, but soon did. On entering the show there was a series of prints from previous exhibitions from around the world that were recognizable to most interested art fans. After this room the exhibition comprised of two installations and a documentary video about the artist / her practice.
For this review, I want to center my thoughts on the main installation. It was really hammered home here how sometimes (and obviously a lot of times) having money really does help……
For a start the space was essentially the basement gallery. It was circular in shape with a centre that the stairwell led you down. You were dropped into the middle of it. All around lay, or perhaps stood desks, with desks atop of them. An instant affinity to coffins entered my mind. The number of them allowed you to be immersed in the artists feelings. There was a definite motive behind this work. With works such as this, as an art maker, it makes one realize how very often, work which is pared down to it’s simpler form, gives confidence to the viewer about the purpose and strength of the work. It’s silence spoke the more you stood in the presence of the silence. In essence the installation was created from a mass grave of desks. These desks were standing upright, as designed. They were of an older era, somewhat in line with the sort you would find in a second hand or salvage shop, but in a good condition and well built. They seemed old, and had lived and developed their own character. On top of these desks was (top?)soil, about a foot high. This was meticulously compressed into the shape of the desktop, a little in from the edge. Lying on this was another desk (of similar condition), upside down. Upon closer inspection, the viewer is made aware of another presence. Tiny, delicate green blades of grass standing tall, and perpendicular to the desk’s exposed underbelly.
These blades formed connections with the shows content and it’s relationship to Hiroshima. Japan’s history shows a hard working nation, determined to fight back and recreate itself after a serious series of historic events. The skyscrapers and economy are testament to this.
Within this unnaturally lit room stood the desks. The country, the land. Above this sat it’s people, culture and the very essence of humanity. Stunting and squashing this, sits a powerful military or political might, preventing air, sunlight and water from accessing the soil level. But all it takes is a little hole and life endures.
If memory serves me correctly (from my visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum), it was rumored that after the atomic explosion, plant life would not grow back for approximately seventy years. I believe within a year, a plant sprung from the ashes. All life needs is a chance and it will fight and grow. Humanity at its essence can be seen as an amazing force that endures.
The installation was impeccable. There was no mould. No dripping of water. No smell of damp in the air. I assume the grass was real, and the light within the space was feeding it with nourishment (it seemed real !!). These artworks were no doubt treated like a monument themselves. Kept under strict watch.
An artist with something to say.
Now with this site, I am trying to steer clear of overly academic / philosophical approaches, or linking to theories, but as it happens I am currently reading Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s travels’. I think a lot of people may have read this so I’m gonna risk using it here. When discussing the ideas of traveling to a land where you become either a giant, or a miniature ant like being; “Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little, otherwise than by comparison.” (pg. 77) So here, as with works of art and general human experiences, the viewer can only engage (/ compare) with the piece in terms of their own lived experiences and knowledge.
It is at times difficult to look at art created using themes that engage with personal issues on an individual basis. Works which engage with issues of humanity, coming from an artist who grew up in a troubled environment in Columbia will naturally have more genuine purpose, drive and weight.
Salcedo stated: “I always try to relate my work to tragedy,”
As literally a tourist from Ireland, experiencing Hiroshima, a work such as this draws a reaction and sincere emotion from the viewer. Art that manages to act as a doorway into an unknown experience is a powerful one. I wonder how this work would have effected me outside of the setting of Hiroshima itself, or indeed if I had not visited the museum beforehand. There was a strong lack of narcissism within this work. It managed to dance with a global, historical issue, while making an actual impact. 69 years is not that long ago. As a very well thought out exhibition, it was a powerful, minimal exhibition with at it’s core, two installations, some prints and a video (documentary). I am aware of the available funds here, and the scale etc… but they really nailed the whole “less is more” thing here. They let the art do the talking.
(Apologies for image quality of installation, but due to the invigilators being very vigilant, I was under pressure….)
For (better / ) more pics / info on the work of the featured artist click here.