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ART REVIEW : Installations Tax Memories in Different Ways

November 15, 1990|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Memory may be a fragile instrument, but it is as solid a foundation as we have on which to build our identities, our values, our hopes and our worlds. On a collective level, memory and history intertwine and serve as the scaffolding upon which we construct cities and civilizations.

The nuances between memory and reality, received history and lived experience are at the heart of two video installations at UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery (through Dec. 16). Bruce and Norman Yonemoto's "Framed" offers shifting perspectives on the government-generated documentation of Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s. Barbara Steinman's "Borrowed Scenery" attempts to call attention to borders and boundaries, both real and imagined.

The Yonemotos, brothers who live in Los Angeles and have been collaborating on videotapes since 1976, have produced a work that is at once both oblique and breathtakingly poignant. The intellectual impact of "Framed" relies on some knowledge of the subject, the forced detention of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, beginning in 1942, for purposes of "national security." The work's emotional impression, however, seeps straight through the skin with the slow burn of a lie told about a close friend.

The darkened corridor in which "Framed" is set features a large painted backdrop of a sky on one long wall and a rectangular window on the other. The window must be seen at a distance of several feet, for a wooden railing encloses the space before it in the manner of a witness stand. Through the window, two layers of imagery can be seen: still images projected onto a gauze-like screen and, behind that, government-produced black and white films from the 1940s on a video monitor.

It is stated fairly late in the approximately five-minute cycle of video excerpts that they are set in three of the "assembly centers" used for temporary containment of Japanese-American detainees. But it is made clear early on that these are not candid scenes of classroom instruction, dancing and other leisure activities, for a clapboard with filming notations announces the beginnings of several takes.

The shameful reality of the assembly centers and internment camps fails to mesh with the glorified, sanitized view of life presented by the government in these tapes. The friction between the bitter truth and the honeyed lies stirs resentment, and also fear and curiosity over what other distorted visions have entered the collective consciousness and eventually been embraced as historical fact.

Detainees at the camps and assembly centers were not allowed to keep their cameras, according to the insightful catalogue that accompanies "Framed." (The catalogue was produced by the Long Beach Museum of Art.) Accurate visual documentation of the sites simply doesn't exist to counteract the bulk of fallacious, government-sponsored material.

What Bruce and Norman Yonemoto do to bring out the intimate reality of living in detention is to isolate still fragments of the video images and project these on the semi-transparent screen in front of the video monitor. The faces, postures, details of security signs and spelling lessons reinforce the breach of justice committed during the late war years simply through their blunt, uncontrived honesty.

At the end of the cycle of still and video images, a bright light comes on, directed at the viewer. Suddenly, the window becomes a mirror, and we see our own reflection. The edges of the painted backdrop behind us are well beyond the frame, so we appear to be standing before an unobstructed patch of sky. Briefly, we are framed --falsely so, without warning or our consent--and the Yonemotos' message hits home in yet another, deeply powerful way.

Barbara Steinman's installation has more immediate, visual impact than the Yonemotos', but none of its enduring intelligence or depth.

A large, low wooden trough painted black and filled with rock salt dominates the darkened gallery space alloted to "Borrowed Scenery." Five video monitors with the same continuous image of rippling water can be seen through clearings in the salt, which has been raked, albeit sloppily, in the fashion of Japanese rock gardens, with striations and ripples suggesting the pattern of water. Slides projected from above onto the surface of the salt trough include images of a world map, a labyrinth and various other vague, notational patterns.

Three light boxes with photographic transparencies hang nearby. Each bears a single image and a single word. "Immigrant" captions a photograph, from the 1930s or '40s, of a section of a ship with passengers looking over the edge. "Tourist" accompanies a distanced image of a large luxury liner, and "Refugee," a picture of a smaller boat, filled with Southeast Asians, tossing about in rough water.

Dramatically different intentions, motivations and levels of security define these three categories of traveler. Hierarchies begin to form in the mind as associations with the images and labels emerge. This aspect of the installation is mildly evocative, but its relationship both to the trough construction and to the Canadian artist's stated intent to address the issue of borders is left entirely unresolved.

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