Japanese Artist Constructs Model of WWII Suicide Sub as Cathartic Art

Critically-acclaimed Japanese artist Katsushige Nakahashi investigates history, war and memory with the construction of a life-size Kaiten submarine in the gallery of SF Camerawork, a nonprofit that nurtures artists, mentors youth and helps make San Francisco a destination for the exploration of photography as an artist’s medium.

Vivian Chan turned me on to SF Camerawork over drinks with Shanghai Sherry at a SOMA bar last night.

Katsushige Nakahashi arrived in San Francisco in December to build a life-sized simulacrum of a World War II era Japanese suicide submarine known as the Kaiten. The massive three-dimensional piece is made from 20,000 photographs of a miniature toy model constructed for this project and painstakingly photographed with a macro lens.

For Nakahashi, this enormous effort, undertaken with hundreds of local volunteer veterans, Japanese-Americans, youth and members of the public, is a cathartic and participatory act of storytelling in which the layers of historical narrative weave together with personal memories as the emotionally charged object takes shape.

The resulting Kaiten and an accompanying installation of Nakahashi’s On the Day Project, 7th of December, 2006 / Battleship Missouri, Pearl Harbor is on view at SF Camerawork through March 22, 2008.

SF Camerawork is the only U.S. venue for the Zero Project Kaiten. “This is quite an undertaking and significant leap forward for Camerawork to stage a major one-person solo exhibition on this scale,” says Camerawork Deputy Director and exhibition co-curator Chuck Mobley. “We’re quite proud to introduce Bay Area audiences to Nakahashi’s work.”

Since 1998, Nakahashi has devoted himself to large-scale sculptural projects that investigate the narratives of World War II and the significance of memory. His deep fascination with the war has personal roots. Some of the artist’s most vivid memories of childhood are of building toy model airplanes of Japan’s famed Kamikaze Zeros and Spitfires.

Nakahashi began to question this transformation of war into play as an adult, which ultimately led him to create his first Zero Project – a life-size replica of a Zero made from photographs of a model. When his elderly father came to see the piece and began to critique the plane, pointing out what was right and not right about it, the puzzled Nakahashi asked him why he knew so much about it. His father revealed for the first time that he had been a Zero mechanic during the war, and the stories began to flow.

It was then that Nakahashi discovered the powerful potential of his photographic sculptures to open up entry points into personal stories and memories and reveal the complex ways in which these intersect with official histories. Exhibition co-curator Aaron Michael Kerner says that for Nakahashi, this dialogue, especially with the scores of volunteers that come to help him assemble the piece, is at the heart of the project.

“His work is specifically about personal memory of a catastrophic event and finding those stories that are not organized around generals, presidents and emperors,” says Kerner. “Through that connection to specific memories, he provides an opportunity for us to connect in a more vital and spirited way to history.”

Before the first volunteer gets involved, however, the artist works in his studio near Kyoto, Japan, photographing the entire surface of a toy model with a macro lens, taking on average 27 photographs per square centimeter. He develops these into snapshot-sized prints, which become ready-made materials like swatches of color that he uses to assemble his sculpture.

It is at this point that Nakahashi begins construction at the location where the installation will be exhibited, gathering multiple generations of volunteers around tables to tape together and assemble sections of the work. A square centimeter on the model becomes roughly a square meter of the sculpture, so the volunteers must hunt through hundreds of photos for microscopic details like distinguishing grooves on the body of the model to match them up like a giant jigsaw puzzle. It is during this intense and communal phase, when all gathered begin to share stories with one another, that Nakahashi feels the artwork to be at its most vital.

The finished pieces look something like soft sculpture, floppy and malleable, and are ultimately a photographic monument to the ephemeral. At the conclusion of exhibition, his Zeros are always carried to a significant historical location and ritually burned with participants.

For the exhibition at Camerawork, Nakahashi employed this same process to create something entirely new — his first Kaiten submarine, essentially a human-guided torpedo used by the Japanese in World War II.

Kaitens were in the works from the start of the conflict between Japan and the United States, but were only implemented towards the end of the war in a last-ditch effort to stop the Allied advance. The hype around the Kaitens in Japan at that time was largely exaggerated as the program proved to be a failure. The cost in money and human lives was enormous and largely ineffectual. Most blew up en route, disappeared without a trace and presumably sank, or were destroyed by antisubmarine devices. They very rarely hit their target.

Nakahashi was inspired to create a Kaiten in San Francisco due to the city’s history of maritime defense, shipbuilding and its role as the world stage for the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1951. It is precisely this kind of layered historical strata that he finds so compelling about a site.

The Kaiten created at SF Camerawork will travel to Japan at the end of the exhibition to the Yamamoto Museum where it will be ceremonially burned. In this spirit of exchange between the two countries, the piece On the Day Project, 7th of December, 2006 / Battleship Missouri, Pearl Harbor, which was constructed and shown in Tottori City, Japan, will travel to San Francisco to be a part of Camerawork’s exhibition.

On the Day Project, 7th of December, 2006 / Battleship Missouri, Pearl Harbor represents Nakahashi’s other significant body of work, On the Day Projects, that layer temporal moments, giving time sculptural form. For these projects, Nakahashi photographs a particular place or architectural feature non-stop from sunrise to sunset on a day of particular historical significance.

The USS Missouri piece was photographed on December 7, 2006 – the 65th Anniversary of the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Nakahashi chose to photograph the portion of the deck of the boat where a Kamikaze hit the ship on April 11, 1945 during the battle for Okinawa. Although the deck of the ship is flat, Nakahashi’s resulting work is almost like bas-relief, buckled and distorted with fissures and gaps. These imperfections mirror the distortions of the historical process, which reveals gaps in knowledge as it is transcribed.

The exhibition at SF Camerawork features three video pieces and a sound installation. One time-lapse video shows the construction process of the Kaiten at SF Camerawork. Another documents Nakahashi’s day-long shoot on the USS Missouri on December 7th, 2006. The third is an interview with Yoshiteru Kubo, a Kaiten pilot who miraculously survived two missions. It is Kubo’s Kaiten that Nakahashi has chosen to recreate in the exhibition. In addition to the three videos, there is a sound installation that allows visitors to hear various recordings of personal war stories that Nakahashi has collected.

An issue of the esteemed publication, Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic Arts, accompanies the exhibition to provide an in-depth exploration of Nakahashi’s work. It is available for $8.00 at SF Camerawork.

Katsushige Nakahashi: The Depth of Memory is on view now through March 22, 2008, Tuesdays through Saturdays, Noon to 5 p.m. at SF Camerawork, 657 Mission St., Second Floor. Admission is $5.00; $2.00 for students and seniors; free to Camerawork members. For more information, the public should visit www.sfcamerwork.org or call 415.512.2020.

Katsushige Nakahashi: The Depth of Memory is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork encourages emerging and mid-career artists to explore new directions in photography and related media by fostering creative forms of expression that push existing boundaries. Its exhibitions are nationally recognized as a focal point for innovation, a pacesetter for new trends in the medium and a launching pad for the careers of young artists. With three galleries and an education center at its new centrally located facility, SF Camerawork is the only non-profit organization in the Bay Area with an exhibition space and educational programs focused exclusively on contemporary photography and related visual image media. It is an accessible venue for people to view exhibitions, meet artists, participate in educational programs, peruse photographic publications, and gather for lectures, screenings, portfolio reviews, and discussions.

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