Last summer, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe controversially revised the pacifist Japanese constitution to allow Japanese forces to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. The decision picked a fragile scab, exposing the unhealed wound in Japanese collective memory – a wound that artist Meiro Koizumi has been examining in his work over the past several years. When remembering the war, how does one separate memory from nostalgia, propaganda and revisionism? How can we relate to others’ painful memories of war, and how can artists represent these stories, particularly when they fall on the ears of those unwilling to listen?
‘Theory on the Desk’, Koizumi’s first solo exhibition in France, is a product of his residency at Kadist Art Foundation, where he researched and produced two new videos that confront the trauma of WWII as it has been filtered and reinterpreted through the intervening years. The Confessions (2014), is based on an interview the artist conducted with a Japanese man that he contacted in Paris, who had joined the French Foreign Legion in the hope of experiencing battle. Koizumi creates a condensed war story, splicing the interview into a short one-and-a-half-minute account. The footage stays closely cropped to the interviewee’s mouth as he relates a dramatic tale of being ‘on the front line [...] in Afghanistan’ where ‘bullets were flying all around’, which comes in short bursts of speech. The narrative logically coheres, but it is also dubious, as Koizumi makes no attempt to hide the fact that he has spliced and edited the legionnaire’s testimony. We don’t realize how much he has manipulated the story, however, until we turn to the interview transcript presented on a wooden stand in front of the monitor. Here, a totally new narrative unfolds: the ‘bullets flying around’ turn out to be part of the legionnaire’s description of a scene in the movie Black Hawk Down (2001). Reading further, we learn that he never saw the front line, and ended up deserting the Legion. Koizumi’s video illustrates how war stories, contemporary and historical, come to us filtered through untold layers of interpretation. Neither video nor transcript proves to be reliable evidence of what happened (or didn’t) in battle.
The second video, Trapped Words (2014), features another close-up of a man’s face – this time wrinkled and worn, barely lit against a black background. This is Mr. Harada, a WWII survivor, narrating his memory of the American bombing of his city, Maebashi, when he was eight. He closes his eyes, as if trying to picture the attack, and recounts a claustrophobic tale of fighting his way into a crowded air-raid shelter with his parents and, once inside, fearing that he would burn to death. Harada calls up each detail slowly, reciting the dialogue he remembers and imitating the noises of sirens and bombs falling. It’s as if he’s narrating a film clip playing in his head – trying to give us the most direct access to his memory, but one nonetheless filtered through time passed, unreliable recollection, the limits of speech and the artist’s representation. ‘Help me please’, he repeats, summoning the voice of his long-lost eight-year-old self. Eventually, we begin to visualize the shelter and imagine the heat: but it is our memory, our vision, far removed from Harada’s first-hand experience. An excerpt from a historical text, which Koizumi includes in the exhibition booklet, fills in the missing, tragic details of the bombing: ‘People who were in the shelter were asphyxiated by smoke and heat […] Only a few people were resuscitated thanks to mouth-to-mouth, the others having died instantly.’
Discounting Koizumi’s sculptures – clay limbs cast from the body of the artist’s young son and assembled in parts – which felt superfluous and clumsy compared to the videos, the artist’s mannered interviews of survivors and supplementary texts are an effective counter-strategy to our inoculation against pictures and documents of war. In his work, words that should act as proof are the very things that cast doubt on any real account of war or history. But, in asking witnesses to reenact or recount dramatic events, Koizumi is committed not only to how important the retelling is – but also how crucial it is for us to listen.
First published in Issue 168