Financial Times on Hiroshima panel
photo by Cecilia Mezulic.

The Hiroshima Panels, Pioneer Works, New York — ‘history is given a moral weight’

  • Financial Times, November 23, 2015
  • Ariella Budick

The sunshine that ricochets off the waters of New York Harbour strafes the low-rise flatlands of Red Hook, Brooklyn, filters gauzily through a grid of windows, and lights up scenes of unthinkable suffering. Six long panels, painted by the husband-and-wife team Iri and Toshi Maruki, depict Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear attack in August, 1945.

At Pioneer Works, they unfold along three sides of a basilica-shaped hall, a Civil War-era ironworks repurposed into a gallery and high-minded art lab. There’s something harmoniously discordant about the way refined draughtsmanship and blossoming patches of vermilion illustrate scenes of documented horror. Skin melts, birds gnaw at irradiated bodies, the sky blackens, captured American flyers are tortured in revenge — and yet in the high-ceilinged nave these pitilessly narrative paintings project a decorative calm.

The Marukis married in 1941 and arrived in Hiroshima days after the attacks, hoping to locate living relatives. Instead they found the hellscape that would nurture their art for the next 30 years. Iri was trained in Japanese ink brush techniques, Toshi in western oil painting, and together they developed a style in which the two traditions intertwined. Renaissance Last Judgment imagery thunders through some panels, where muscular bodies writhe in agony and are enveloped by infernal flames. Elsewhere, great washes of ink bleed from watery grey to impenetrable black, like abstract floods of pain. In the most harrowing segment, crows swarm so fearsomely that you can practically hear the deafening chorus of caws.

The Marukis were connoisseurs of tragedy, and the times they lived in supplied plenty of material. Over the years, Iri, who died in 1995, and Toshi, who followed in 2000, expanded their range from Japanese suffering to the Rape of Nanjing, Auschwitz and fears of nuclear power. These topics may seem to demand the ruthless clarity of photography rather than the aestheticising powers of paint. (The Pioneer Works show also includes a documentary about the artists and a small display of photos and artefacts from Nagasaki.) But with their textured brushstrokes and graphic flair, the Marukis’ panels give history a point of view, a moral weight. There is no room in their detailed depictions of cataclysm to think of it as the work of nature or impersonal historical forces. Specific humans visited these horrors on other humans, and only human hands can properly record the facts.

A concurrent exhibition, A Body in Fukushima, picks up the Marukis’ apocalyptic theme. Thirty one photographs by William Johnston show the dancer Eiko Otake (one half of the duo known as Eiko and Koma) variously curled, crouched and splayed in spots near Japan’s damaged nuclear reactor. Eyes closed, shoulders hunched, long hair whipped by a potentially toxic breeze, she expresses the loss of dead, abandoned land. On the day I visited, Eiko danced a riveting slow-motion solo, using the immense gallery as her stage and the Maruki panels as her set. It was as if she had materialised, not just from Johnston’s photographs, but from the crowds of painted victims, animating their miseries with physical grace.

These claustrophobic works get plenty of air around them. That’s hard to come by: in a city where square footage is measured out in coffee spoons and art is a gambler’s game, few environments could accommodate a single, not-for-profit project in such ample, uncrowded space. The darkness of the Maruki panels is sharply at odds with the lightness of the setting. A vibe of laid-back virtue and shaggy affluence suffuses the building, from the polished concrete floor to the open timber rafters, from the landscaped garden with the vintage Airstream out back to the second-floor office for a resident astrophysicist.

The brainchild of artist Dustin Yellin, who imagined it as a sort of upscale commune for creative types, Pioneer Works opened in 2012 and is now fuelled by a global sensibility and low-key good taste. You can get married there, attend a talk on privatised travel to Mars, learn Japanese woodworking techniques and computer animation, or sprawl on cushions for a gamelan concert. In other words, it is quite possibly the most Brooklynish place in Brooklyn.

What that means is that here socially engaged art can be reunited with its educational mission. Every generation forgets the previous generation’s obsessions, and for the young who wander in for a dose of hipness, Hiroshima is a vaguely remembered blot. They will leave this exhibition with clearer ideas.
To December 20, pioneerworks.org
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