Japanese American National Museum
Los Angeles, California
May 31-September 14, 2003
Sights Unseen, The Photographic Constructions of
by Karin Higa, Curator.
Masumi Hayashi's panoramic photo collages explore the incongruity between
appearance and reality in the American experience. She does this by creating
photographs of contested sites: abandoned prisons, post-industrial landscapes,
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Sites, and the remains
of American concentration camps. Yet, the resulting panoramic photo collages
exhibit tremendous beauty, laced with both precise detail and abstraction.
Without overt or critical commentary, they explore both the surface and
the reality behind such places, whether they be panoramic landscapes or
This is especially the case with Hayashi's series on EPA Superfund Sites,
which reminds us that another reality lurks literally beneath the surface.
When she first encountered these locations, Hayashi was surprised by what
she found: "The site looks everyday: bucolic, pristine and pretty.
The irony is that you cannot see the pollution." EPA Superfund
Site 666 (1990) depicts a picturesque autumn landscape of blue skies
and ethereal clouds reflected in a pool of water; only the title suggests
something sinister. But the surface beauty of the image contrasts with
the basic record. From 1950 to 1969, LTV Steel Company of Elyria, Ohio,
used this quarry as a disposal site for acids among other things. The
result was a hazardous waste dump requiring substantial federal funds
to clean and isolate. The eerie number of the site registers another stunning
fact: Elyria was 666th on a list of more than 1,000 toxic waste sites
identified by the EPA.
Hayashi continued her exploration of stories hidden in the landscape
by turning her attention to an intensely personal subject. In 1990, she
began a decade-long project of photographing the physical sites of the
mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. From 1942
to 1946, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were subject to detention and
housed in concentration camps in ten primary locales. Many of these sites
became instant population centers, often dwarfing nearby free communities
in sheer number of people. Yet today, little remains to suggest that the
largest removal and incarceration of civilians in twentieth-century American
history occurred there.
Hayashi inaugurated the series at Gila River, Arizona, the place of her
birth. Armed with her birth certificate and a copy of the infamous Civilian
Exclusion Order of 1942 that required "All Persons of Japanese Ancestry"
to report for incarceration, Hayashi traveled to the Gila River Prima-Maricopa
Indian Reservation* to photograph the site. The resulting photo collage
shows the desolate remains of concrete foundations set against a large
expanse of sky. This scene recalls aspects of Hayashi's post-industrial
landscapes, except here the contrast between the remnants of the camp
and the barren landscape seems especially stark. As if to anticipate the
questions about who lived there and for what purpose, Hayashi includes
the copy of the Civilian Exclusion Order in the photograph. This is a
rare insertion by the artist into the landscape, as Hayashi generally
photographs the sites as she finds them, though the shadow of her tripod
often appears as a specter of the artist's presence.
A key characteristic of Hayashi's work is the fact that her photo collages
refrain from overt commentary. She creates work of tremendous beauty and
simplicity, even though the landscapes she selects are primarily sites
of conflict and contestation. Her work does not preach or condemn. Rather,
it entices the viewer to learn and question through attraction to the
physical, and often haunting, beauty of a site-whether it be the inherent
beauty of the landscape or that which results from the transformations
of her artmaking.
To create her panoramic photo collages, Hayashi's process is both systematic
and open to change. She begins at the horizon line, shooting approximately
two dozen photographs in a horizontal circular rotation until she ends
up where she began. She then angles upwards, then downwards, continuing
until she has fully captured the landscape around her. After she returns
to the studio, she collaborates with a printer to produce the component
photographs and begins the final phase of assembling the collages. Rather
than submit to a rigid framework, Hayashi plays with the discrete images
to determine what might make-first and foremost-a convincing work of art.
The resulting photo collages range from a 100 degree to 540 degree rotation
and include as many as 140 individual photographs or as few as five.
Hayashi's use of multiple images underscores the insufficiency of a single
photograph to capture complex experiences and realities. Viewers must
simultaneously process the individual component parts as they try to make
sense of the vertiginous perspectives produced by the circular rotation.
This is especially the case in Hayashi's photographs of interior spaces,
where the camera distorts what the eye and brain naturally process. In
Tule Lake Relocation Camp, Stockade (1992), the photograph makes
a dizzying one-and-a-half revolution. The stockade was constructed as
a prison within the prison of Tule Lake. Several hundred Japanese Americans
were held there without hearing or trial for up to nine months after a
peaceful demonstration by inmates was treated as a security threat. Although
the photograph is enhanced by such historical information, it does not
require it; it manages to convey the aura and tumult of the site through
its formal rigor and artistic expression.
For this exhibition, Hayashi presents-for the first time-a series of
five portraits of Japanese-North Americans who collectively represent
both exceptional and ordinary actions by people subject to the vagaries
of world war: Fumi Hayashida (whose photograph by the War Relocation Authority
became an emblem of the indignity of the mass exclusion), community activist
Yuri Kochiyama, author Joy Kogawa, artist Miné Okubo, and World
War II veteran Eji Suyama. Here the photo collages function in a different
way. Instead of using the rotational perspective of her landscapes, the
format of the portraits is much looser. The multiple perspectives underscore
the impossibility of representing a person and their life through the
act of conventional portraiture.
Hayashi notes that "by working on the [camp] series, I was able
to satisfy some need, some frustration about dealing" with the legacy
of incarceration that affected her family in such difficult and tragic
ways. It is interesting then, that her most recent work has shifted to
a different kind of highly charged locale: that of sacred sites, which
often relate to ancestor worship. Traveling to Japan, India, and Nepal,
Hayashi has produced a new body of work that captures spiritual depth
and atmospheric detail. Here the landscape is reverentially depicted,
yet the photo collages retain Hayashi's hallmark approach, which results
in art of simplicity, beauty, and resonant places.
* Gila River and Poston (Arizona) were two War Relocation
Authority concentration camps located on Indian reservation land. While
the camp at Poston was initially administered by the Office of Indian Affairs,
Gila River was not. Furthermore, the federal government sited the camp there
without obtaining the consent of the Pima-Maricopa Tribal Council. For more
information, see Arthur Hansen, "Gila River Relocation Center"
in Rick Noguchi, ed. Transforming Barbed Wire: The incarceration of
Japanese Americans in Arizona during World War II (Phoenix, AZ: Arizona
Humanities Council, 1997) 7-9.