VNovember 18, 2009
Using the precise dimensions of the V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile, Taro Hattori built a life-size cardboard model and placed it on its side in disassembled sections on the floor of the main gallery at Swarm. While researching the V-2’s fascinating and horrible history and designing the model, Hattori purposefully assembled his own personal history. In “V,” he traces his process as a way to question and ultimately de-activate the missile’s destructive power.
The cardboard model itself is both monstrous and comic: over seven feet high and twenty-six feet long, it occupies the length of the gallery floor and much of its width like the proverbial elephant in the room. Six light boxes hang on the surrounding walls and illuminate various quotes, drawings, photos of Hattori’s family, as well as the artist’s poetic prose. The technical drawings and grids that are laid under the photos remind us that the V-2 and all its progeny originate with pattern-making and design. Quotes from Milan Kundera’s writing highlight the divide between sanity and insanity, and a repeated sentence from Hattori, “The bird is telling you a secret,” invokes the seemingly innocuous origins of the missile as a rocket.
Hattori covered the walled glass entrance to the gallery in yellow cellophane, and the afternoon sun fills the room with an eerie, filtered yellow glow, which makes dappled patterns on the floor and cardboard model. The effect is dreamy and beautiful—like walking onto a lit stage or stepping into another dimension. At times, the V-2 model glows as if lit from the inside.
The historical context provided sheds light on Hattori’s model in a chilling fashion. According to the gallery press release, “The V-2 was the most inefficient weapon ever made, causing more deaths during its production than in its deployment. An estimated 20,000 inmates at Mittelbau-Dora died constructing 5200 V-2s. Deployment resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7250 civilians and military personnel.”
Its creator, Wernher Von Braun, had labored in its pursuit on his own before the rise of the Nazi regime, which recruited him to lead its design and manufacture team. When Germany finally surrendered, Von Braun enthusiastically shifted his allegiance and expertise to the United States, eventually becoming the head of NASA, where he laid the foundation for technological innovations now familiar to us: satellites, rockets, drones, and all forms of far-flung communication and destruction.
I questioned at first whether the partially completed model—two other sections couldn’t fit in the space—and its poignant, grotesque presence required the five light boxes and their disjointed narrative. Investigating Hattori’s field of free associations brought a deeper level of connection, which Hattori, I believe, originally sought as anodyne for his own troubling questions. The fragile cardboard and the lit boxes containing personal mementos are containers that reflect the tenacity and absurdity of his pursuit to define himself in relation to the things he hates.
The questions Hattori seems to ask include: How do we define our humanity when our creations, so enthusiastically begun, become destructive? What happens when they threaten the very existence we celebrate in the creative process? How do we disassociate and disconnect from the function or purpose of our creation, and what happens when we do?
Hattori grapples with possible answers through designing, imagining, and free associations. The model is a practical, crafted solution to a design problem. The light boxes—particularly a series of photos of Hattori’s father and grandfather titled and dated 1951—iterate the themes of fatherly authority and tragic absurdity, which Hattori believes plays into the V-2’s own construction. Hattori’s grandfather was an engineer in the World War II for the Japanese, and later became a shoemaker. Hattori’s father turned the family craft into a successful factory business.
Hattori told me of his difficulty in putting Von Braun’s description of Hitler as a godlike, authoritarian figure in front of the photo of his own father, and I find his willingness to make these associations courageous. He sees a human core in the V-2 through the following: the desire to assemble, pattern, plan, trace, and the joy in doing so; its beauty as an object that imitates the flight of birds; in the delusion and futility inherent in making order out of chaos when each destroys the other; in the power of paternal authority, which exploits by posing as godlike; and in the disconnection between process and product.
No easy answers here except in the radical creating and situating of the object and its association, both political and personal. Through his process and its self-conscious revelations, Hattori grounds the missile: the object is no longer far-flung, disassociated, and destructive, but rendered inert and grounded like the wrecked hull of a ship. If only the powers that be could be so conscious.
“V” is on view at Swarm Gallery, in Oakland, through December 6, 2009.