Fiona Amundsen, Arsenal of Democracy
Tokyo Wonder Site, Hongo, Tokyo; 14 January to 12 February
It’s hard not to hear the echo of the adage, ‘if we do not learn from history we are condemned to repeat it’, when viewing the memorable and memorialising work of Fiona Amundsen. Featuring two poignant video works of a documentary nature a series of six photographs, the artist successfully weaves sentiment with artistry to produce a body of work that touches on one of the most harrowing events of human history – the incendiary bombing of Tokyo city.
The video works most directly deal with this occasion and do so in a respectful and complex fashion. One video features an interview with Ben Kuroki, a Japanese-American pilot who committed himself to war service in an apparent repentance for the action of his parents’ homeland in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. He is the only American of Japanese ancestry to serve in combat operations in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Joining the B29 bombing squadron, after appealing to Congress for an exemption from the ban on Japanese-Americans serving on bombing raids, he participated in the fire bombing of Tokyo, watching the sky turn red from the back of the plane as the squadron returned home in the air. His narration it delivered over American archival footage of the event and other airforce raids on Japan. It is a compelling story and deftly delivered without forceful political tone, allowing the story itself and factual footage to do the work of addressing the issues and conjuring subtext.
The second video features a Japanese woman recounting her experiences as a young child on the ground in Tokyo. Evacuated from the city just before the incendiary bombing raids, she lost most of her family and witnessed the horrific injuries inflicted on those that survived – around 100,000 people died under bombardment by around 200 bombers in one night. Her narration is layered over military footage of American steel yards producing weaponry during the war itself, intercut with contemporary images of derelict steel yards in Pennsylvania. This collaging of elements provides for a very prescient tension in the works, which I’ll elucidate more on in a moment. The tone of both narrations is tinged with sadness as both narrators touch on their regret, shame and deeply personal memories of family and enduring concern for the human beings caught up in the tragedy.
The photographic works are varied in subject matter but maintain a cohesive relation to the overarching project. Three highly evocative images of pipes from the Pennsylvanian steel works are gorgeous, full of colour, texture and chiaroscuro light and shadow. The surface of the steel is a reptilian skin of rainbow colour, taking the hinted shape of crucifixions. This is fossilised memorialising brought forward with shuddering reality when it dawns that these are the very derelict factories upon which the new American President waged a war of rhetoric upon the political landscape. It is these factories, in towns just like Pittsburgh, that were the foundation for a rallying cry about ‘making America great again’. If these very factories lurched into potency through an industrial leap made by war efforts to produce armaments and ammunitions, then exactly how does America plan to be great again and the back of re-establishing these industries? Industries borne of the explicate purpose to produce the means by which the Allies could decimate enemy forces along with the innocent civilian population of their commanding leadership.
A portrait of the pilot Ben Kuroki sits adjacent an image of a boulder, a poetic reflection on endurance and the ancient source from which our materials of construction and destruction arise. The process of extracting iron from rock being a moment of human evolutionary development and the double-edged sword of power we continue to wield in amazing and terrifying ways. A map of photographic map reminds us of the anaesthetising effect of both distance and time – for we can all too easily murder at the end of a satellite image, a long haul plane flight or a drone strike at the stroke of a keyboard button; and the turn of a century and the passing of our living human connections can thrust our history deep into text books and out of our understanding.