There’s something going on with destruction over at SF Camerawork. The last time I came here was to view Katsushige Nakahashi’s work The Depth of Memory. The piece was a life-sized reproduction of a WWII Japanese suicide submarine, composed of photographs of the entire surface of a toy model. The result was unsettling in its Oldenburg bean bag lumpiness and cellophane glisten. The original would have housed a single man whose job was to become a kind of human torpedo. When its creators discovered that the Japanese military wanted an escape hatch added to the design, they protested. Sekio Nishina, one of the co-inventors went so far as to volunteer as a pilot for their first strike mission. In March, Nakahashi set fire to his simulacrum kaiten in a ritual ceremony attended by veterans from the war. The event typified the entire life cycle of the work. The sub had been painstakingly assembled by San Francisco volunteers and the museum had presented a video conference between American war veterans and a surviving kaiten pilot. Commemoration of conflict is often marked by divisions drawn: friend from enemy, ally from foe, victor from vanquished. Unsettling facts or harsh details are often edited out of the narrative (as chronicled in Kazuo Hara’s electric documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On). For Nakahashi remembrance is something very brave: unflinching yet inclusive and restorative.
And so we come to two of the current exhibits at SF Camerawork where we find that destruction and the creative process are likewise very much on the artists’ minds. The first one I viewed is Sunburn, Chris McCaw’s exploration of how the process of photographic development is at its heart an act of obliteration to craft something new. To make the point more pronounced his prints are exposed to sunlight to the point where they actually sear their surface. The first print I looked at, Sunburned GSP #178 (SF bay) 2007, first with lazy attention and then with greater and greater concentration, presented a nearly black surface with a small area of rocky shoreline visible in the bottom corner. Arching above is a streak that by contrast appears like the white hot outline of a welding torch flame. Still closer: there are visible ellipses and circles at intervals along the arc. It is impossible for a pic or gif file of the print to fully convey the original: to do so I would need to take an exacto knife and incise your monitor. The sun has actually not only developed the print but burnt holes right through the paper. That curve, the legacy of the sun’s passage across the sky as the exposure soaks in its rays, appears variously to the eye in this and others in the series. At times it looks like the launch of a missle, in another appearing like the vapor trail of a jet or a shooting star against the deceptive black background of day. I find it a bit disturbing that the images conjured up are often vehicles and reminders of warfare; the aforementioned missle, the scattered holes appearing as nothing so much as bullet holes in concrete. I’m reminded of the fact that part of the compensation for my friend Tina sending me the Hiroshige book I blogged about previously was that I was supposed to track down some chemicals or pre-treated paper for her to make cyanotypes. Despite hitting every art and camera store in the neighborhood (I work very near an art institute) I came up empty handed. Everyone had heard of them, but no one had carried such materials in a long time. I wish she could see these. It’s a joy to see someone who not only thinks very deeply about process, but finds inspiration in its contradictions and most importantly can convey them in such a way that the piece itself, by its nature, is the meaning. It’s like a storyteller who is himself the story.
In Gallery Three is Ruins to Renewal by dual artists RongRong and imri. In nearly all the works on display ruins are definitely in evidence. Piles of brick and concrete litter the corners of all the photographs in the series. Hutongs, the traditional Chinese courtyard neighborhoods, have been in the news quite a bit in the past few years as stories chronicled their destruction to make way for new buildings. Fans of Chinese films like The Blue Kite will recognize the winding alleys and central shared open space around which families have traditionally formed small communities. The artists were victims of one of the hutong clearings and watched as their home was razed to the ground.
But they did more than just experience and memoralize the incident. In the series Destruction of a Courtyard- Liu Li Tun 2000-2003 is a triptych of black and white images that serve as a set of tone poems. They are each framed in an iris like in old Silent Films, with the same effect of giving the viewer the impression that they are present, watching a scene firsthand. The first is an interior shot of a man and a woman, presumably within the dwelling space of a hutong, supine on a mat in the dark. Their bodies and limbs appear tensed as in shock or as a response to oppressive heat that gives their position the hint of rigor. The focal point of the second print is a woman viewing the destruction of a hutong. Her back to the camera, her black hair bleeds into that of her overcoat. She views the empty archway of the courtyard as two construction workers climb amidst mounds of rubble. In the distance, two modern apartment buildings stretch toward the top of the frame. The third photograph is the shot of the corner of a courtyard steeped in darkness. Illuminated in the shadows are the bare legs of a seated man and woman.
The image in the center anchors the ones on either side. Somehow they all relate to destruction of a home, the central photograph providing the context of the event directly, immediately, like reportage. The prints on the periphery can be seen as reaction, memory, thought balloons billowing out from either side of the woman in the overcoat. They are the reality of the multitude of experiences, of the individual contrasted with the facts of the mechanical and unstoppable force of incident. Although there is always more than one figure in every scene, none suggests much of interaction or communication.
Stepping away I turn to find that a second triptych angled toward the previous and I realize that what I was looking at was in fact a piece of hexaptych separated by an opening in the wall. As we revisit the former images we find motion where there was immobility and emotion where there was impassivity. The sitters legs are now a blur of motion, the coated woman leans on another for comfort and the sleepers are now curled against one another.
Such transformative motifs run through all the works in the gallery. They document the aftermath of destruction in all particulars but still observe the cluster of flowers sprouting in the rubble. There is more going on here I think than just hopefulness: the works are too deflating in their honesty. Out of nowhere the poem The Nymph’s Reply To the Shepherd pops into my head, Raleigh’s answer to Marlowe’s uncharacteristically sappy The Passionate Shepherd To His Love. The works aren’t really records for memory or posterity, for the comfort of reflection. Recording is the work of the news or history books where the event is paramount. This or that happened and it’s a fact: you can look it up. The event is followed by another in a chain and these are recorded in their turn. Their chronicle is an indicator of what happened at a certain moment in time. Events might have occurred but once they’ve been noted, if indeed they’re deemed notable enough to mention, the newspapers move on. Human beings still have to deal with their aftermath as the reality of an event stretches backward to prompt our memories or forward to new concerns that will worry us into the indeterminate future. RongRong and inri’s work does what art is always doing. It is a response giving experience a voice. An artist may look at the predictability of Neo-Classical style and respond with Impressionism. We may break art down into “movements” and freeze them in time but within those movements are countless images or words and the experiences that prompt them produced in artistic defiance or as quiet rejoinder. RongRong and imri seem to have turned their lives into a kind of response, casting themselves in someone else’s play rather than being forced to remain in the audience. An image of a roofless house seen from above finds them huddled together with flowers clasped in their hands, evicted but present. No photograph of an abandoned or demolished building tells the whole story. There is never an emptiness in a house or home despite what you see in the frame.