From the beginning of my life, there was war. I was born in Kobe in 1921, and spent most of the 1930s in Former Manchuria. At that time the Sino-Japanese War was spreading throughout China. When I left the Harbin Girls’ School in 1937, I returned to Tokyo to study art at the Women’s Academy of Fine Art.
The war intensified. Young male art students set off for the battlefront, anxious and worried. We were the war generation, the generation that lost the most young men in uniform. In 1945, the fifteen-year-long war ended in defeat. At 25, I was a refugee standing in the midst of ruins. First came the struggle to survive.
In the 1950s I began my life as an artist creating works about copper and coal mines. Ten years later, energy production shifted from coal to oil, the coal industry declined and many miners migrated to South America in search of work. I followed them along sea routes charted during the so-called “Age of Exploration” to South America via South Africa. On that sea journey, I began to think about the connections between the West and colonialism, and then journeyed from West to East, as well as to West and Central Asia.
I decided to go to Seoul in the fall of 1970, just when the Osaka Expo, the “grand festival” of Japan’s post-war era of rapid industrial growth began. I recalled things I had seen when travelling between Harbin and Tokyo during the war. At that time I watched the Special Police scrutinize passengers arriving on ferries at the port in Busan, and gasped in horror as they arrested several young Korean men. Though the Asia-Pacific war had ended a quarter of a century earlier in Japan, in Korea deep wounds from the horrors of the 1950-1953 Korean War were still visible everywhere in 1970. That war should be called the continuation of Japanese colonial rule in the form of a “proxy war” between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. It resulted in the rupture and division of North and South. Now the Cold War, despite the collapse of the Soviet state, still grips the region.
In 1970 as well as before 1945, this was a country enduring the dark night of oppressive military rule. Inspired by Kim Chi Ha’s poems, I too began making art that might tell of that dark night. Black and white lithographs could express this more fully than oils. In 1974, the military dictatorship demanded the death penalty for Kim Chi Ha and student leaders. A young TV director in Japan produced the documentary, “A Christian in Darkness~Poet Kim Chi Ha.” With my lithographs in the background, a Pastor from the National Christian Council of Japan and I talked about Kim—but the program was censored just before going on the air. Unwilling to give up, the young TV director remade it as a slide show, and the tables were turned: it was sent to the Riverside Church in New York. The slide show and my lithographs were first shown there in New York and then traveled to Chicago and Berkeley.
The Democracy Movement in South Korea was growing stronger. May 18, 1980. Martial Law troops fired on Chonnam National University students demonstrating in Gwangju. Citizens joined in, as did bus and taxi drivers. They expelled the troops and proclaimed a “Free Gwangju.” But only a few days later, the people were defeated in a massive attack by government forces. May, 1980 in Gwangju is reminiscent of “May, 1870, Paris Commune”. In response, we produced, Prayer in Memory: Gwangju, May, 1980, with Takahashi Yuji’s original music.
The 80s were years when Japan closed its eyes to the wartime past, intoxicated by the wealth of rapid industrial growth. Japanese companies advanced into Asian countries that had once been battlefields; I was startled when people asked if young Asian women were being used as “ comfort women for Japanese businessmen”. “Japayuki” (young women “bound for Japan”) arrived from Asia to work in the “kaishun” district (a term meaning “to buy spring” or “sex,” created to highlight the role of male customers in prostitution and trafficking) of Kabuki-cho in Tokyo. I made the multimedia slide work The Thai Girl Who Never Came Home on that theme. This was the time of Zofuku zaishin. Gods of Happiness, Business, or “Let’s Get Rich!”
At the beginning of the 90s, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, I arrived at Harbin station, the place where my life as an artist had begun. So much history had passed through this station—the Russo-Japanese war, the Russian Revolution, Korean Independence activist Ahn Jung-geun (who killed the Japanese Governor-General there), the “puppet” Manchukou government, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the eve of the Chinese revolution, the Republic of China….I asked myself what did Japan’s wars mean for Asia? At Harbin Station, Asia’s modernities seemed to unfold before me like an epic poem. It took me three years to complete the multi-media slide work, Harbin: Requiem for the Twentieth Century. But by the 90s, slides had already become a medium of the past, and celluloid film was no longer produced—now we were entering the age of videos. This depressed me and I even thought that my life as an artist was over.
Then came the 21st century….and 9/11 in New York. Using collages and oil paintings along with music composed by Takahashi Yuji, we published the book with dvd, Hiruko and the Puppeteers: A Tale of Sea Wanderers (2009). The book didn’t sell well, but thanks to Ilse Lenz and Laura Hein, my works were shown at Ruhr University and Northwestern University, and now there is a permanent website where my work can be viewed from anywhere in the world. (http://imaginationwithoutborders.northwestern.edu/index.html).
On March 11, 2011, came the Great East Japan Earthquake—it was like a double punch with the force of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and Chernobyl both at once. The world was shocked and all eyes were on Japan. Images on the TV news took my breath away as I watched from my home in Tokyo. The power of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake was unimaginably fierce. The earth shook, sea currents reversed and swallowed up the land. The tsunami left 600 kilometres of coastline in complete ruins. Was this the end of modern civilization?
This became the theme of Revelation from the Sea, a work that took 3 ½ years to complete. It consists of paintings, collages and a dvd. This series on 3.11 was completed thanks to the original musical composition by Takahashi Yuji, who for thirty-eight years has collaborated with me in the creation of paintings and music with slides, videos and now as dvd works.
“….with longing for the light, you are burnt, O butterfly…And until you have possessed dying and rebirth, you are but a troubled guest on this dark earth.”
Whenever I stand at a difficult crossroads, I recall this poem by Goethe.
Translated by Rebecca Jennison
The 50 works by Tomiyama Taeko shown here under the title, Silenced by History Revisited — »From the Life of a Woman Artist«, include mixed-media collages on paper, lithographs, silk screens and digital prints of paintings. Now 94, the artist has long explored the ways that Japan’s colonial and war experience still haunt present-day East Asia. In the larger context of this exhibition, both Tomiyama’s artistic strategies and her themes are a response to direct and indirect forms of censorship that still operate in Japan today. The works appear in four »Acts« (with three accompanying dvd/slideshows), each organized around a theme selected by the artist for this exhibition.
The exhibit opens with Tomiyama’s newest work, created after she had thought her days as a working artist were over. As she has done so many times before, the artist turned her attention to an unfolding crisis—this time the »triple« natural and man-made disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011— and began to paint. It took a short 3 1/2 years to complete the new series, Revelation from the Sea (2014). In »Act One« of this exhibit, prints of these paintings and a selection of original mixed-media collage works from this series are being shown for the first time outside of Japan.
Revelation from the Sea—Tsunami, is the first of five large oil paintings in the series. This is a dark and angry sea, carrying Buddhist Guardian Deities from afar to admonish and »sadly scold« humans who have so foolishly imagined they can control the powers of nature. In Fukushima: Spring of Caesium 137 and Japan: Nuclear Power Plant, we see traces of Caesium 137 that float in the air alongside cherry blossoms, and the skeleton of the Fukushima Daiichi plant rising from dust.
When Tomiyama learned of mutations and high mortality rates among butterflies in the Fukushima region, she began making collages on black marbled paper, citing Goethe’s well-known poem in what would become the epilogue, To the Dead Butterfly: Fukushima. The dvd/slideshow of the series (shown in the gallery here), with original music by Takahashi Yuji, premiered in Tokyo in September 2014. Tomiyama made a modern-day version of Goethe’s Der Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice) for the occasion. Disturbed by ongoing reports of precariously poised tanks filled with radiation-contaminated water near Fukushima Daiichi, she created a life-sized puppet with bucket and mop, disturbed by the daunting task of clean-up.
In statements about the work, Tomiyama points to the »relentless pursuit of wealth and convenience« and over-reliance on technology in the postwar era by leaders who pursue profit »without any reflection on the past.« She likens the failure to learn from the disasters to the failure to learn from the war, and notes how difficult it is for artists to probe these important questions in their work. She writes, »A thick fog of taboo blankets artworks that explore remembrance of the war. Worse now, in the 21st century, as the ›ghosts of Yasukuni‹ who still do not acknowledge war history are returning.«
The Second Act includes lithographs and digital prints from Prayer in Memory: Gwangju, May 1980, the artist’s response to the violent suppression of the people’s uprising in Gwangju during the dark night of South Korea’s military dictatorship. The bold lines and gestures of these works speak clearly of the collusion of three governments in military rule and the suffering of the people of Gwangju. Tomiyama collaborated with Takahashi Yuji to produce one of their first dvd/slideshows, also being shown in the gallery.The Third Act, »The Sorrows of War and the ›Postwar‹ Era: what an artist saw,« features 15 new mixed-media collages created for this exhibition. Using techniques developed in earlier series, Tomiyama deconstructs earlier works, juxtaposing cutouts from them to create images with new meanings.
In the Fourth Act, Former Manchuria and Korea: Harbin Station and the Karayuki, we see »postcards« of Harbin Railroad Station, tracing the history of events that shaped the 20th century alongside serigraphs of the Karayuki, women from poor, rural areas of Japan who went abroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work as prostitutes. The beautiful Black River prints (Fish, Horse and Dragon) punctuate the end of the exhibit with a sombre elegance.
It is both extraordinary and extraordinarily fitting that these works are being exhibited in Berlin on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII and the fourth anniversary of the triple disasters in Northeast Japan. Tomiyama first visited Germany in 1967 on her way to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. When she returned in 1982 to exhibit her works on Kim Chi Ha and Gwangju, she discovered a vibrant community of artists, musicians and feminist activists in Berlin. When she came again in 1985 to show the film, Hajike Hosenka »Pop-Out Balsam Seed«—her visit coincided with President Richard von Weizsacker’s well-known speech on the 40th anniversary of WWII. Tomiyama vividly recalls both the speech and the impassioned dialogue it sparked among Korean and Japanese residents of Germany that continued late into the night. She hopes her new work will spark further dialogue.
Tomiyama Taeko’s works are like postcards from the past, sent by the artist to help us remember whence we have come, so that we might better see where we — who are also »troubled guests on this dark earth« — now stand. At the same time, there is no question in my mind that these works are also Tomiyama Taeko’s letters to the future. If we heed her message — «no war, no nuclear power plants or weapons, no more environmental destruction, and no more sacrifice of young women’s lives« — we may just be able to imagine a better future.
Laura Hein, “Postcolonial Conscience: Making Moral Sense of Japan’s Modern World,” in Imagination Without Borders: Feminist Artist Tomiyama Taeko and Social Responsibility (2009).
See Hagiwara Hiroko, “Working on and off the Margins,” in Imagination without Borders, and Kobayashi Hiromichi, “Slides and Collages,” Hiruko and the Puppeteers (2009).
For an insightful analysis of the links between the “military comfort station” system, the postwar era, and current debates on these issues, see Jeff Kingston, “Japan’s public diplomacy is expensive and errant,” The Japan Times On Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.