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James Fee




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

Not since Robert Frank has a photographer captured the American experience with such a piercing sociological vision. Unlike Frank, however, James Fee's work does not exhibit the raw exterior of that experience, but rather, the uncanny specters that haunt it. Space and memory for Fee are intimately connected. Although Fee is predominantly concerned with the American landscape (e.g., New York City, shipyards, defunct factories), and the memories woven into these territories, it is the Peleliu series that is presented in Reconstructing Memories.

In September of 1944 the American military launched a campaign against the Japanese occupied islands of Peleliu and Angaur, part of the Micronesian islands. What unfolded was one of the bloodiest battles between American and Japanese forces. The expectation was that the campaign would only last a matter of days, but instead lasted two months. Craig Krull describes the carnage:

The Japanese … changed their tactics and rather than defend the beaches, almost all of their 10,000 soldiers holed up in caves within the island’s rocky interior. Their mission was simply to delay defeat. In fierce combat, the casualties on this 5 square mile island reached 20,000 by the end of the battle two months later.

Eventually the US military resorted to pouring aviation fuel into the caves and setting them ablaze to end the bloody standoff. Nevertheless a “determined group of 34 [Japanese] soldiers remained in hiding until they were discovered in April of 1947, and astonishingly, the last remaining Japanese soldier surfaced in the late 1950s.”1 


In this remote location, the American (and Japanese) experience still permeates the landscape. Like some of the other artists exhibited in Reconstructing Memories (e.g., Clark) the natural progression of time has reclaimed these historical charged sites; the memories that are figured in the wreckage of warfare are corroded rusted hulks of partial memory, memory effaced by time. Fee’s photographed landscape functions on multiple levels. He photographs the regeneration of the landscape – the weeds, the trees, vines that all but hide the scarred terrain – recalls the resiliency of life. The fact remains, however, that these ruins of war are still there, some barely visible, and this calls attention to the fragility of human memory; memory that is repressed, neglected, kept as private episodes and eventually surrendered to the death. Fee’s images by collapsing the continuity of time and space – bringing the past and the present together in the same frame – illustrates the uncanny presence of the American (and Japanese) experience in Peleliu.

Fee’s work is inspired not just by the sheer drama of these events, but by the fact that James’s father, Russell Fee, partook in the bloody assault against the Japanese in Peleliu. The experience haunted Russell Fee. James recalls nights when he would be awakened by his father, brandishing a weapon, commanding him, “Up and at ‘em soldier!” Eventually in 1972 Russell Fee committed suicide.

James Fee has made three trips to Peleliu for “unstructured experiences of discovery.”2 He photographed the war-scarred landscape and the wreckage of war. The images reflect Fee’s ongoing interest in the interpretation of American culture through an examination of cultural remains or architecture in decay. More importantly however, these explorations are a coming to terms with a formative experience in his father’s life, and the collective American ‘psyche.’ This pursuit has become the defining core of James’s life. Works in this exhibition include James Fee’s ‘collaborative’ works in which he has combined, and manipulated, his father’s work with his own. “Two Men,” depicts a young James sitting on his father’s lap, and “Four Soldiers,” are examples of this collaborative work. In an oddly personal and prophetic coincidence, Fee discovered while on the island that the original name for Peleliu was “Odesangel,” which means, “the beginning of everything.”3


Also see James Fee's website: http://www.jamesfee.com.



  1. Craig Krull, “James Fee,” in James Fee, catalogue (Los Angeles: St. Ann’s Press, 2001).
  2. Krull.
  3. Krull.
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