Eddy Kurushima and Kim Yasuda


By Traise Yamamoto

Memory and how to represent the objects of memory are crucial to the art of both Eddy Kurushima and Kim Yasuda, though in markedly different ways. While Kurushima's work strives for a realism that comes of out of his desire to faithfully render one of his primary subjects, the WWII mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, Yasuda's installations insistently bring to the foreground the difficulty inherent in any act of representation. A the heart of both artists' work is the act of bringing memory into the realm of visuality, where private remembrance enters the arena of public memory.

If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it has shown us the ways in which individual and official memories often conflict. Thus, which memories are represented and by whom is as important as what is being represented and how. Eddy Kurushima's series of paintings on the internment (1) position themselves in that juncture between personal experience and public knowledge. A seventeen-year-old when he was interned at Jerome, Arkansas, Kurushima was hired as an illustrator for the Reports Department. His pen and ink drawings recorded "various areas within the camp." Laying the groundwork for his realist paintings, some forty years later, of life in the Jerome concentration camp.

The thirty paintings that make up this series are rendered in a variety of media, including oil, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil. Though Kurushima's preferred medium is watercolor, the majority of the paintings are in oil and acrylic because they are "more permanent for me." The paintings, executed with an appropriately subdued palette, depict various aspects of camp life: the cramped boredom of the barracks, spot checks by camp guards, a brawl in which a suspected informant is attacked. Many of the paintings are punctuated by the ubiquitous presence of the watchtowers.

Immediately noticeable and characteristic of Kurushima's work is his careful and attentive rendering. Painterly expressivism never takes precedence over clear depiction. Figures are always front and center, placing emphasis on the human experience of the internment. Indeed, it is this commitment to representing that experience that motivates his style. Noting that he would never paint in a purely abstract style which he feels to be defined by form but empty of content, Kurushima says that he "wanted to make the camp paintings look real and authentic." His purposes for doing so are twofold. For those who, like Kurushima himself, were interned, there is the sense of responsibility met when the reaction to his paintings is one of surprised recognition. He recalls with pleasure a comment from several former internees who have seen his work: "How could you remember all this? That's exactly what it looked like!" For such viewers, the paintings function to affirm the accuracy of their own memories and experience. For non-Japanese American viewers, Kurushima's attentive focus on individuals' facial features and their expressions is meant "to get the feeling of how people felt at the time." His attention to historical accuracy is mirrored in details like dress and hairstyle, partly because, as Kurushima explains, he wants those who might have lived through that period to realize that those who were imprisoned "don't look like they were from another country." Informing this statement, of course, is the fact that almost two-thirds of the internees were United States citizens, born in the country that had treated them as "aliens."

Kurushima's paintings illustrate not only camp life itself, but the ways in which underlying commitments guide aesthetic choices. While his pictorial documentation of the past challenges the manipulative representations of "official" wartime photography, Kim Yasuda's work resists and questions the assumptions of realist representation altogether. Interestingly, Yasuda focused one of her earlier installations around the internment (Unspoken, 1994), explicitly noting the "tremendous amount of disparity between... officially-sanctioned documentation of the internment... and the present memory of my own mother."

Yasuda's recent work focuses even more rigorously on the gap between representation and memory. Unlike Unspoken, the multi-part Resuscitate (1997) explores private loss within the landscape of personal desires. The work is the result of Yasuda's grief over her father's death. Its first impulse might be read as the desire to revive or restore her father's presence. Indeed, the title itself seems to indicate as much, as does the inclusion of her father's personal belongings in sections of the installation: clothes bunched on their hangers; a used handkerchief; hairs from a morning shave carefully saved; a medicine cabinet stocked with toiletries.

But the impulses in any work are multiple and Yasuda layers them to call into question just what is evoked through the objects of a life, even those that seem most intimate or particular. Perhaps the closest answer to such a question is within the installation itself. One piece was prompted by her father's life-long desire to see the Grand Canyon. Yasuda constructed a three-dimensional model out of meticulously cut sections of household carpet built up and shaped to resemble geological strata. But what is ultimately represented has less to do with the Grand Canyon itself than with the landscape of her father's unfulfilled desire. In a similar way, the objects through which we might hope to recover loss and represent an individual life, instead, mark the processes of our own longing.

All these signs of a life, of course, read differently to us, the public viewers, who did not know Yasuda's father. But the gap between what we might come to know of him through the scrim of our own projections and what Yasuda herself remembers is paralleled by the gap between the several and various representations of him and what of him eludes such gestures. In this sense, the multiple sites of the piece refract the definability of their subject. Like the photograph of Yasuda's father, in which only his face is circularly framed at a distance from the picture-plane-as if through the far end of a tube-his presence both approaches and recedes. In a sense, Yasuda's final act of homage is to allow her father to remain unrecuperable and complex, uncontained by the iconicity of objects.

In their new works for the finding family stories series, Kurushima and Yasuda continue to explore the thematics of memory and how they are shaped by the contours of the visual. Kurushima's work reminds us that to remember is an act of witness. There are stories to be told and lives to be remembered. Yasuda's multimedia installations position themselves between the solace and slippage of memory, continuing to see and re-see the multiple possibilities of being.

1. The Japanese American National Museum distinguishes between the termincarceration and internment as follows: Incarceration refers to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans-Japanese nationals and American born-placed in U.S. concentration camps under the War Relocation Authority as delineated in Executive Order 9066. Internment refers to the Japanese nationals who were placed in confinement in internment camps administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the U.S. Justice Department during WWII. For further reading, please refer to the writings of historian and author Roger Daniels.

The Museum respects the author's preference to use internment rather than incarceration in this essay.

Traise Yamamoto is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Riverside.

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