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Curator's Statement




Gaye Chan
Kaili Chun
Sally Clark
Binh Danh
Ian Everard
James Fee
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Robin Kandel
Aaron Kerner
John Morita
Katsushige Nakahashi
Masami Teraoka
Lynne Yamamoto


Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.
- Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

When confronted with catastrophic events in history or traumatic personal memory, for many, the prospect of accurately recounting those events seems insurmountable. The human tendency to disavow the event, to one degree or another, surfaces.  We simply repress the experience altogether, never allowing it to see the light of day, or we refer to it as “unimaginable,” “unspeakable,” “incomprehensible,” or similarly, such events are assigned to the domain of “fiction” or “fantasy.”  Thus, in response to 9/11 and the images of planes flying into buildings, many respond, “it was as if I were watching a movie.”

How then, when our knee-jerk response is to assign catastrophic events to the incomprehensible, or the domain of utter fantasy, do we convey these events?  What rhetorical strategies are at our disposal?  The French artist Christian Boltanski, rather than attempt to “represent” the Holocaust as an anonymous and “incomprehensible mass,” focuses on what he calls “little memories.”  Many of the artists in Reconstructing Memories adopt a similar strategy and are, in a sense, working with “little memories”—an individual experience in the context of a larger historical framework.  All of the artists “reconstruct” historical and/or personal memories.  However, often the artists reconstruct an experience to which they have no direct relationship.  In some cases the artists reconstitute the experiences of their parents.  

Implicit in many of the works in the exhibition is a critique of historical discourse itself.  History is always a series of fragments—of trace memories.  The difference between historical narratives entails how humans construct these fragments and trace memories, what fragments and traces are selected, which are omitted, and how they are subsequently assembled.  The continuity of a historical narrative itself conceals the piecemeal artistry of historical discourse; a historian’s task is to assemble fragments of knowledge and to arrange these fragments together in such a way that they appear as an organic accounting of events.  Rather than conceal the fragmentary nature of historical discourse, the works in Reconstructing Memories emphasize the imperfections of history by focusing on some minutia, a very specific detail or account that might not surface in the conventional grand historical narrative.  Some artists, in negotiating micro-historical events, might contextualize family-lore in the larger body of historical knowledge, humanizing and/or personalizing history.

History is never objective.  Historians, no matter how even-handed they may or may not be, are charged with conveying certain events in a coherent manner.  In short, the historian is charged with constructing a narrative and as such has to establish characters, settings, a narrative-arc, and resolution.  To construct a successful narrative—just as any novelist must—the historian, in order to present an intelligible historical account, has to be imaginative and illustrative.  Given that historical discourse is always already constructed, and understanding that the historian is bound to produce work that is largely governed by the conventions of coherent linear narrative, material must be omitted that is tangential to the narrative or imaginative leaps must be made to reconcile inevitable fissures in the body of evidence (e.g., testimonial accounts, archival documents).  The artists in Reconstructing Memories are charged with a similar task; they, too, are working from fragmentary elements.  For example, from an incomplete account of the experiences of one’s father during the Second World War, the artist, is left to sort out details, to sift through childhood recollections of surreptitiously overheard conversations, all the time trying to distinguish fact from fiction in family-lore, and, thus, the imaginative process of trying to “fill-in” the gaps of knowledge—to envision what the father’s experience must have been like—is reconstructed.

When we think of history we generally assume that it moves from a specific starting point forward, be it the life of Jesus Christ, or the Meiji Restoration, as opposed to the other way around, from the contemporary moment backwards.  The fact is, and historians would most likely disagree on this point, historical discourse is not intended to explain the past, but rather to justify our current condition.  We use history not to explain previous eras, or events per se, but rather to discover something about ourselves, to understand who we are, and where we came from.  In addition, our general presumption regarding history is that it is monolithic, circumscribed to a specific discipline; however, Reconstructing Memories hopes to locate a space where our historical knowledge is not limited to textbooks, but rather is also informed by our personal and family memories.  To view historical discourse within the extremely narrow confines of the specific (academic) discipline is to ignore the presence of historical knowledge embodied in architecture, geography, artifacts of popular culture, and the individual experience.  The works in Reconstructing Memories re-vitalize the historical process and illustrate how history manifests itself, not just in grand historical narratives, but also in everyday experiences that inform who we are.

As we have heard on so many occasions, everything has changed since 9/11.  This exhibition is no exception; its inception preceded that “infamous day.”  The subject and the content of the show, suddenly, took on meanings that we never foresaw: catastrophic parallels in history, days of infamy, using planes as missiles, and the so-called process of “rendering” people (the detention of people who are suspected of potentially placing ethnic or religious loyalties above national allegiance).

Although they often depict specific catastrophic episodes in history, the works in the exhibition respectfully transcend time and place, and speak more to a “universal human condition.”  They collectively utter the seemingly immutable and pernicious quality that defines humanity, a baleful image that shadows all of humanity’s advances.  These works mark axial moments in history, where ebbs turn to flows, where tidal currents in human history suddenly change course.  Simultaneously, they announce how quickly these axial points fade from our consciousness.
This exhibition might be termed a collection of catastrophic moments, not so much because of their cataclysmic nature, but rather, through referencing the word’s more archaic meaning.  The word “catastrophe” originates in ancient Greek drama, where a play took a sudden (tragic) down turn.  The catastrophic instance in Attic theater marks the point at which a character discovers the truth of his/her situation.  It is the pivotal moment in the drama—the cusp of a revelation and catharsis.  Catastrophe in this context pertains more to human revelations, recognition of our own condition, who we are and what we are capable of.  The works exhibited in Reconstructing Memories, then, are catastrophic in the sense that they mark points of discovery, revelation.

Most of the artists in this exhibition do not have first-hand knowledge of the catastrophic episodes they catalog.  Rather, their work is are drawn from cultural depositories of knowledge, from what they have heard (or did not hear) from their parents or grandparents, from visiting sites charged with history, from visiting sites that should be charged with history.  The work presented illustrates these pivotal moments, and the sites where they took place.  Some sites are literally grown over with weeds, others are reclaimed by the banality of everyday life, but all the work attempts to address the erasure of cultural and personal memory.  For example, there is a degree of urgency surrounding the 9/11 impact sites (especially the World Trade Center site); there is a passionate desire to never forget.  Or, in the few years that have passed, is it possible that the process of forgetting has already begun?  Does the fervent desire to “never forget” exist anymore?
What 9/11 has done, to one degree or another, despite our waning passion regarding this catastrophic episode, is to imbue the works in Reconstructing Memories with new connotations.  These connotations are not just on the order of cognition, but enter the domain of visceral experience.  For now we know something of an abject experience, one that makes us sick at the very thought of it.  One that is not only known through testimony, through historical accounts, or family stories, but rather, it is in the very fabric of our being.  It is the grim nausea that seizes us at the sight of the World Trade Center collapse.  We are simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by the horrific visions of 9/11.  We might not have any deeper cognitive knowledge of the historical moments that the works in this exhibition address, but perhaps we have a better comprehension of the catastrophic experience.

§§§

Reconstructing Memories
evolved from an earlier exhibition entitled Collapsing Histories (2000-2004).  This new exhibition marks a paradigmatic shift away from mere representations of catastrophic events, to the act of constructing memories or histories.  In a discussion with one of the artists, Masami Teraoka noted that Collapsing Histories had, to a certain degree, negative connotations, because collapsing suggests a state of ruin, or destruction.  The new exhibition Reconstructing Memories, on the other hand, engages a constructive process and is suggestive of our post-9/11 context.  A handful of years later, we can now reflect not just on the specific history of 9/11, but the historical process itself.
Hawai‘i and the University of Hawai‘i Art Gallery offer a meaningful location for the presentation of Reconstructing Memories.  The multiple layers of histories—of issues pertaining to native rights, to various waves of immigrants from aboard (including Western colonialists), the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japanese internment—offer a compelling opportunity to discuss the very process of historical construction.  In the previous exhibition in Tokyo (Summer 2004), the two venues—Gallery éf and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru—because of their historical significance as sites were in themselves a part of the exhibition.  Because of the complex strata of multiple histories in Hawai‘i, some of which intersect, others that are eclipsed, distorted, or effaced, the very geography (analogous to the venues in Tokyo) plays an important part in the presentation of Reconstructing Memories.


About the Curator:

Aaron Kerner is an Assistant Professor in the Cinema Department of San Francisco State University. He has a background in Art History and Cultural Studies and  formerly was a lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz, History of Art and Visual Culture Department.







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