“Let us study things that are no more. It is necessary to understand them if not only to avoid them.”
1/ Introduction: Pain that Shouts
C.S.Lewis once said that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Watching half of the videos in this series, I find it true. Some of the videos left a bitterness that bites and hurts. The pains linger and I wanted to understand more; trying to make sense of it all. The first video, “Still Hear the Wound”, showing paintings by Iri and Toshi Maruiki about the mass suicide of Okinawa citizens during the battle of Okinawa in 1945. The haunting images are completed with a music composition by Yuji Takayashi and a poem by Koukichi Nakaya, an Okinawan poet who committed suicide himself.
During the Second World War, more than a quarter of Okinawa's civilian population died. Not only was it caused by the war but also by the military coercion of compulsory mass suicide (shudan jiketsu) among civilians. There are several reasons behind this act: 1. An emphasis on a sense of solidarity about death was cultivated. 2. Fear of seeing loved ones being killed cruelly by the enemy. 3. Education to make everyone an imperial subject which make dying for the emperor the supreme national morality.[i] It was an act of love by close relatives to kill one another with their own hands.
Driven by all those reasons; civilians start throwing themselves and the family off the cliff, using hand grenade to blow themselves up, and committing mutual suicide. Father killed their son; son killed their own mother and sisters. Survivors are haunted by the sense of guilt for murdering the loved ones for the rest of their life.
Less than two months after the end of the bloody battle of Okinawa, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused Japan to surrender. This was once again captured in the silent journey to Hiroshima from 1914 to 2006 illustrated by 600 photographs of the Genbaku Dome in a video titled “200,000 Phantoms” by Jean-Gabriel Périot. These photographs become the witness of a city that was destroyed but eventually survived, transformed, and becomes a silent symbol of the savagery of war almost a century later.
Those two videos showing the dismay of the second world war are followed by more recent images of chaos and sociopolitical propaganda of Spain’s economic turndown in 2011. The conditions are portrayed in two videos: first by Javier Cruz who performs an act of saving six euros by eating the money and blocks the anal passage by inserting a one-euro coin; and second, by Eduardo Fernandez who uses a small digital camera to record the protest on the 15th of May in Plaza del Sol Madrid known as 15-M Movement that become the initial call to other cities demanding radical political and economic change.
Having watched the previous video portraying tense images of chaos and war, Michelle Dizon’s video titled “Empire (ABS – CBN)” suddenly felt menacing. The sound of fireworks behind the TV station’s tower suddenly sounds like explosion and tragedy while it actually was taken during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Yet again, aside from being an appropriation of Warhol-Mekas work in 1964; it also tells an ironic story of 15-minutes fame reality show that lead to an incident that killed 76 people in 2006. This is not a fair comparison to the other videos rich with history, political issues, and huge statistics of casualties. But then again, history is not about dates and places and wars (or in this case: numbers). It is more about people who fill the space between them.[ii]
2/ Aftermath: The Other Side of the Coin
Just when the bombarding images of war and chaos are done, a slideshow starts showing the life of Kathy Cousley’s life. Suddenly, what seem to be a very normal and happy life of a woman feels out of place. What happened in the other side of the world when Kathy was born, went to high school, met her soul mate, attending the graduation and weddings of her two daughters, and hold her grandkids? This portrait of a ‘normal life’ is followed by vernacular vacation video of “Robbins and Meg’s Spectacular Sweden and Norway Adventure” raising a question of how could the lives of people who fill the space between history remain so detached to one another? In such case, does personal issue that start out as simple as loneliness and generation gap portrayed by Singaporean artist in “Outing” even matter? Is it really that simple?
Of course, there are other videos presented that become a bridge between life after war and life during the war time. “A Place to Live” was a post-war public service announcement that talks about senior citizens and how they can spend the rest of their lives with quality. There is also a heartwarming video about Manola, an 87 year-old lady who survived all the post-war drama in “Manola Takes the Bus”. Questions then once again rise about changes, home, human mobility, migration, and colonialism as appear in the videos of “Tracing Trades”, “How to Pick Berries”, “A Fossilized Moment of Doubt”, and “Sunday (E )scapes”.
3/ Montage: Seeing the Whole Picture
Watching the 15 videos one by one, I was perplexed. These videos have a very thin line that connects the dots; either by time period, subject, and location. There are videos that talk about war, followed by videos that are deeply personal and vernacular, and those that are in between and talk more about home, migration, and current social conditions in different sides of the world. But when the whole 15 videos are seen as a big picture, the image and feeling are similar to that of Martha Rosler’s work “Bringing the War Home”. How pandemonium might actually be happening right now in the other side of the world, yet it feels distanced and very far away.
In “Bringing the War Home” (1967 - 1972), Martha Rosler created a series of photomontages combining distressing image of Vietnam War from Life magazine with peaceful all-American domestic interior images from House Beautiful magazine. This montage creates a juxtaposition between the comfort and prosperity of America post-war in contrast with the dread that is happening in the conflicting country. Rosler’s montage was originally circulated as anti-war propaganda during the height of the war and only two decades later is considered as artwork.
Photomontage, with its roots in German Dada produced in the wake of the First World War, has a history of being an effective aestheticpolitical technique. It uses the cut-and-paste process to create scenes that read as coherent authentic spaces.[iii] The same technique is used in this screening of 15 videos, shown in a particular lineup that create a big ‘montage’ of videos. These montages might not give an answer to make sense of it all but it raise questions about two sides of life that might actually be connected but falsely separated. There is a sense of separation between ‘here’ and ‘there’ where people from more peaceful places simply could not imagine what is happening at a conflicting country.
Kathy’s life will remain undisturbed by the invasion to Iraq, for example. The migrant workers have their own issues that need their attention more than those that is happening far beyond their concern. For both Rosler’s work and these 15 seemingly random video selections, there is an interconnectedness of domesticity and war, personal history and the history of the world, and the people who fill the space between them. In the societies where ignorance is considered a bliss there is a need to give a little pinch in people’s heart with a bit of pain to remind them that some histories should not repeat themselves.
The last video shown[iv], “The End” by Agnieszka Pokrywka, wrap things up in a more poetic way. This video was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five whose main character, Billy Pilgrim, has the ability to ‘time-travel’. In this video, the propaganda films of the 40s are reversed backward creating almost magical fictions where the war can be undone, the dead can be awaken, the bombing machine can take back the agony it caused and human become two perfect people that was meant for one another. What was once documentary footage is turned into a fictional work with surreal sense of time and space. The reversed historical fact is so full of wonder. But then again, it is such an utopic thought to try to undo the past. Life that is lost will stay lost, pain can not be undone, and history should not repeat itself.
[i] “Compulsory Mass Suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan's Textbook Controversy” by Aniya Masaaki for The Okinawa Times and Asahi Shinbun, 2007.
[ii] Quoted from Jodi Picoult, “History isn't about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the space between them.”
[iii] “Martha Rosler: Bringing the War Home” by Allison Berkeley, The Worcester Art Museum, (WORCESTER, Mass., August 2, 2007).
[iv] In this ‘video screening’, the video shown has its particular lineup to make sense of it all. It started with “Still Hear the Wound”, “200,000 Phantoms”, “To Save 6 Euros”, “15-M”, “Empire (ABS – CBN)”, followed with the peaceful life of “Kathy”, “Robbins and Meg’s Spectacular Sweden and Norway Adventure”, “Outing”, compared with the post-war life in “A Place to Live” and “Manola Takes the Bus”, and followed by the stories of migration in “Tracing Trades”, “How to Pick Berries”, “A Fossilized Moment of Doubt”, and “Sunday (E )scapes”. The whole series is wrapped up with “The End”.