4.3 / Review

(re)collection—A collaboration with Lost and Found

By Lea Feinstein October 23, 2012

Hundreds of four-by-six-inch photos in plastic sleeves line the galleries at Intersection for the Arts. Once-clear snapshots of family gatherings and celebrations have been transformed into abstract swirls, their imagery eroded, their chemistry reversed. This mosaic of loss acts as both the subject and the background in this collaborative exhibition.

After the March 11, 2011, Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan, rescue workers picked up seven hundred fifty thousand photos scattered in the mud and debris and stored them in a school gym. Two months later the Salvage Memory Project, organized by the independent photographer Munemasa Takahashi together with countless volunteers, began to sort, wash, reshoot, and digitize the photos. In a task one perceives as both sacred and mundane, they saved the memories of residents who had lost everything. Thousands of these pictures have been reclaimed. Unwilling to throw away unclaimed photos, Takahashi and Ivan Vartanian, an independent curator, created a traveling exhibition accompanied by videos documenting the restoration process and the haunted coastal landscape left ravaged by the tsunami. 

For this current iteration, seven Bay Area artists viewed thousands of photographs and were invited to create new works in response. Their contributions and the wall texts documenting their processes, which feel heartfelt and eloquent, enrich viewers’ experiences. Sean McFarland reproduced a single photo, Untitled (2012), a partially erased image of a fleeting kiss between an adult and a young child—a father and daughter? A birthday? The image conveys a moment of tenderness, an emotional capsule caught, lost, saved, recreated. For McFarland, a single image stands for the whole. Ariel Goldberg’s take-away text contribution, Chemicals in Reverse (2012), is a photographer-poet’s meditation on loss and restoration; it is a paean to the raw materials and reversibility of print photography: light, water, and chemicals.

Imagining the sudden, devastating reality of losing everything, Taro Hattori realized how much he relies on physical surroundings for his sense of identity. Everything I Could Lose (2012) is a forty-five-minute video slideshow documenting each of his possessions: books, CDs, computers, photographs, chopsticks, crockery. Each item is shot unpretentiously on a desk surface, and each frame passes in the blink of an eye. The cumulative effect is a revealing portrait of the artist at a precise moment in time. Systematic and detached, it nevertheless conveys enormous empathy for the sufferers of the Japanese earthquake. Kelli Yon’s mnemonic study #1 (2012), a bichromate gum photograph on mulberry paper, has faded dramatically since its installation. It is an image of Yon’s young daughter—her hair and dress blown by the wind—running down the steps of a luxuriant garden. The single image is printed across nine unmounted, fluttering sheets, which create a fractured effect. Yon’s choices of medium, technique, and subject echo the losses inherent in the photos from Japan. She captures a transitory moment, infused with love, in an ephemeral medium that is destined to change and disappear.

Taro Hattori. Everything I Could Lose, 2012; still; video, 45 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist and Intersection for the Arts.
Kelli Yon, mnemonic study#1, 2012; gum bichromate photographic print on Mulberry paper. Courtesy of the Artist and Intersection for the Arts.

Mayumi Hamanaka engages in long video interviews with Shonto Begay and Dave Fazenbaker in What We Talk About When We Talk About Land (2012). In these conversations, she addresses issues of cultural disruption and personal dislocation. Begay, a Navajo, was sent as a child to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school and forbidden to contact his family or to speak his own language. The dislocation and forcible relocation of Native Americans is a well-known story, but Begay makes it personal, allowing viewers to connect with his history and experience. Forces beyond his control ruptured his sense of self and his attachment to place—although the force was the United States government, not a tsunami, Hamanaka’s point is made. I thought of the forced removal of Japanese American citizens to internment camps during World War II and their struggle to regain their property after the war’s end.

This exhibition raises countless questions for viewers. For example, if my house were on fire, what would I grab? Where are the photos from Hurricane Katrina? Was this painstaking and thorough restoration of thousands of photos a particularly Japanese response to the disaster? How did memories of past disasters, including Hiroshima, impact this process? In the country that created Canon, Nikon, and Fuji film, what does a photo mean? How do images help us remember? Does looking at a photo intensify the emotional experience of a retrospective memory? Why is a picture worth a thousand words?

My favorite movies are all by Japanese directors who embrace the brevity of life as their subject, treating it with humor and pathos: After Life (1998), Departures (2008), The Taste of Tea (2004), Seven Samurai (1954). In an essay on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life, the film critic James Bowman writes, “The paradox of creating an illusion to stand for a reality which has already been lost in the illusions of memory tells us something about the illusions of art itself.” As the artists in this exhibition try to grasp the enormity of the 2011 tragedy, they rely on a variety of personal strategies. And they invariably tap into their own histories of loss and dislocation. The thousands of family snapshots swept by the tsunami were not intended as art. Does their juxtaposition with intentional artworks transform them into art? The powerful emotional valence they bring to the exhibition underlies everything we see here, and most of the responses pale in comparison to the original material.

Finally, is this exhibition a cautionary tale to those of us who live in the seismically fragile Bay Area, in a city once destroyed by fire and earthquake? For residents of San Francisco, this show has special resonance: Where are your photos? How will you remember your life?


(re)collection—A collaboration with Lost and Found: Family Photos Swept by the 3.11 East Japan Tsunami is on view at Intersection for the Arts, in San Francisco, through October 27, 2012.

Comments ShowHide