“SOMETIMES THE PUBLIC INTEREST is better served by art that isn’t a giant space invader,” wrote Lucy Lippard. “Sometimes the art is small in scale and the audiences are gigantic. Sometimes the audiences are small but affected by the art in a big way.” Affirming Lippard’s musings, New York’s Noguchi Museum this past spring mounted “No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarceration,” which was organized eighty years after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—a mandate that ultimately authorized the imprisonment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans on the suspicion that they were a threat to national security after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.
An intimacy of scale pervaded the exhibition’s twenty-odd sculptures and photographs made by artists of Japanese heritage. Confined more or less to one small room, the show could have had the feel of a congested parade but instead conjured a quiet procession down an alleyway. In its inward approach, it was surprisingly effective—especially now, when the ongoing deprivation of rights on US soil is a subject of public discourse that warrants amplification.
In an accompanying catalogue, curators Christina Hiromi Hobbs and Genji Amino laid out their project’s stakes in pursuit of “alternatives to monumentalism.” While monuments select for absolutes, this exhibition selected for possibilities. Hanging just beyond the two heaviest-hitting (and maybe least surprising) pieces on display—sculptures by Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) and Isamu Noguchi himself (1904–1988)—were a pair of small black-and-white photographs taken by Toyo Miyatake (1895–1979), which set the real tone of the show. The Los Angeles photographer shot one of these pictures at the Manzanar internment camp in California: It captures barracks cast in darkness and light, their brutally streamlined geometry contrasting with the veiny surfaces of mountains beyond. Miyatake took the other photo (which depicts the corner of a tombstone in close-up) in 1925, almost two decades before anti-Japanese sentiment reached its zenith during World War II. This pairing of images in “No Monument” was the first signal that the camps would serve as just one backdrop among others in the telling of a bigger, more complicated story.
A monument frequently derives its power by offering one version of history at the expense of others—ones that are messy, muddy, contentious. A memorial’s intention can be simple: Don’t forget this happened. Among various family members affected by Roosevelt’s order, that message was perhaps best exemplified by my great-uncle Joe Nagano, whose scrupulous efforts guaranteed that nothing was forgotten. Uncle Joe returned every year to Manzanar for a reunion, worked as a volunteer docent at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and even wrote songs about incarceration, which he’d perform with his buddies from the camp.
But any exhortation to never forget inevitably raised the question of what in fact we were collectively trying to remember, when the reality was that people were scattered across the country—at Manzanar or the other major prisons located in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Others endured FBI surveillance, or joined the armed forces, or attended college in the Midwest. US citizens from disconnected communities, some of whose members spoke different Japanese dialects, were interned together. The prison camps themselves—from in LA’s Tuna Canyon Detention Station (formerly a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps camp) to Manzanar (once home to the Native American Paiute tribe, who were forced out by the US military during the California gold rush)—were as distinct as the various purposes for which they were originally designed. These divergent stories, sloppy and hard to pin down, offer up the most useful pieces of history. Of course, the impacts of piecemeal policy, and of anti-Japanese sentiment more broadly, intersected and tangled with every preexisting aspect of one’s life. My father’s parents were living in a hotel in California when the order was enacted: Penniless, landless, and rendered jobless, they moved inland to Colorado instead of submitting to internment. By contrast, peasant farmers and other people who operated businesses of various sizes had to quickly figure out how to preserve what they’d built or watch it be taken away. As my paternal grandmother’s sister Mitzi and her farming family were bused from Chula Vista, California, north to the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, they remember watching with despair as neighbors entered their house to loot their belongings.
The curators allowed us to properly comprehend that America, since its inception, has always been a carceral state.
The conflicting pressures to both demarcate and complicate this sordid point in history have necessarily informed the past half century’s succession of art exhibitions about Japanese American incarceration. One notable example was curator Karin Higa’s influential “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942–1945,” a traveling show that opened at the Japanese American National Museum in 1992. As suggested by its title, Higa’s exhibition focused on the camps as sites of production or learning. It made sense that this particular offering featured a cartoony drawing by Kango Takamura of a watchtower guard at a camp in Santa Fe cheering as detainees played baseball in the shadow of a formidable-looking fence. In presentations such as these, questions of site are answered by the boundaries marked by barbed wire, while questions of material are answered by the resourceful scrounging and repurposing carried out by prisoners given very little to work with.
For the most part, “No Monument” made do without such defined conceptual parameters. Purporting to address art “in the wake of incarceration” more generally, it extended forward and back in time, not to mention across geographic space. The most direct path through the exhibition seemed to begin with Miyatake’s photographs and to end with a series of wooden nameplates bearing bubble-lettered surnames carved by the incarcerated, who sought to personalize their barracks. Between these ostensible bookends were works from 1925, 1969, and even 1994. One resin sculpture, looking much like a sci-fi scholar’s rock, was made by Leo Amino (1911–1989), who was subjected to travel restrictions as well as to police interrogation and surveillance and who, while never imprisoned, was ultimately made to translate for the US Navy. Another piece, an elegant black-streaked vessel the size of a large gourd, was made by Toshiko Takaezu (1922–2011). Though many Hawaiian residents of Japanese descent, like Takaezu, were not interned (even though the Honouliuli camp in Waipahu confined over two thousand people, most of whom were Japanese American), they still faced discrimination in their home state.
Any show featuring many strands will ultimately succeed or fail through its self-imposed constraints. The main focus of “No Monument” was on Japanese American artists working in abstraction, with Genji Amino and Hiromi Hobbs proposing a “reconsideration of the social histories latent within a body of abstraction until now considered too remote from the incarceration to have been informed by it.” Take, for example, the ghostly, curvaceous figure of Kay Sekimachi’s nylon weaving Ogawa II, 1969, or the small, brutal welded-steel composition Untitled, 1965, by Joseph Goto. With works such as these, the exhibition wasn’t presenting a new art-historical narrative about the development of abstraction in Japanese American art. Rather, it realized how this language expanded the range of tactics available to exhibitions addressing this specific moment in history. The presentation expressed faith that abstraction itself—and its challenges—can intensify the understanding between maker and viewer. Via its necessary ambiguities, abstraction requires the audience to decode the work, as archaeologists must unearth and puzzle over odd, long-forgotten objects of obvious human design.
Did “No Monument” lack a certain academic and editorial rigor? Some critics might say so. Yet the result was a show freed from the pressure to present not just artworks as monumentalized objects but also the camps themselves as monumentalized sites. The curators took on a set of conditions that are much harder to pin down, looking at the physical, psychological, and departmental confinements imposed on the Japanese diaspora in the United States at the time. They allowed us to clarify a muddy vision of history through seemingly disparate experiences and curious juxtapositions—and to grasp that America, since its inception, has always been a carceral state.
What would Uncle Joe, a Japanese American who was himself interned, have made of “No Monument”? Whether because of his scientific mind or his specific feelings about Manzanar, Joe wanted stories to be told in an orderly, chronological fashion; he championed specificity and clarity. While writing this, I found an oral history he’d made—a comprehensive, five-part work that runs for 150 minutes—to remember his time at Manzanar. “No Monument” wasn’t really Joe’s kind of show, but I’m sure he would have appreciated its necessary purpose.
Jacob Hashimoto is an artist based in New York.
With additional research by Dawn Chan.