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Art and “un-forgetting”: How to honor the atomic dead via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Molly Hurley | November 26, 2021

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Though I thrived amid the frenzied surprises of the city, I also found sudden moments of quiet solemnity while sketching inside the many art museums of the Big Apple. One of those museums was the Noguchi Museum, established in 1985 by its namesake Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American sculptor who is also well known for his landscape architecture and modern furniture designs such as the iconic Noguchi table.

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I strolled through the museum five times within a single month, sketched some of the pieces from the exhibit that held my attention most captive, and bought multiple books about Noguchi and his work as I confronted an important question facing those of us studying nuclear weapons today: How will the victims of atomic warfare continue to be remembered and honored in the future? Perhaps “art” is an obvious answer from an art student, but my time in the Noguchi Museum, combined with my first semester in a Master of Fine Arts program, has helped me appreciate how art can help people “un-forget” the legacies of the hibakusha (or “bomb-affected people”) of Japan.

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Noguchi left Poston in November 1942, deeply affected by what he experienced. Though he was outwardly disillusioned and claimed to want little to do with politics from then on, it’s clear from his work that he found it nearly impossible to separate art and politics. After the atomic bombings of Japan, he explored his personal relationship with weapons of mass destruction, as someone whose identity was tied to both the perpetrators of violence and its victims.

In 1951 he submitted a proposal, later to become the centerpiece of the exhibit Memorial to the Atomic Dead, for a memorial to be built in Hiroshima to honor those who died in the blast in 1945. Though the city rejected Noguchi and instead chose a design hastily drawn up by his close friend and colleague Kenzō Tange, Noguchi continued to revisit his own proposed model and once was even in talks about erecting his structure on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

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I often return to the same two questions: What kind of legacy do I hope to leave as an activist and artist? And how might I and others best cultivate and honor the legacies of the hibakusha?

Noguchi very much took matters into his own hands by creating his art and erecting his museum. But because he is no longer with us, the responsibility for his legacy now lies almost entirely in the hands of the museum staff. And so we begin to see connections across continents and generations. Almost like a game of “telephone,” Noguchi’s experiences as a mixed-race Nisei who lived during extreme anti-Japanese sentiment are shared through his art, through his museum and its staff, and now through me to you. Noguchi’s work serves as a link in this chain between his own experiences and those of the people he met throughout his life, such as the hibakusha.

Thinking about all of this, I once again became acutely aware of my presence in a majority-white America as a Chinese-American during a time of extreme anti-Chinese sentiment. Thus far the legacy of COVID-19 is one of worldwide upheaval, and I am processing my experiences, and the experiences of others shared with me online or in real life, through my art.

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In 1945, Japanese photographers worked to document the raw brutality of nuclear detonations, despite heavy censorship by both the Japanese and US governments. Many of these photos were later collected in various exhibits and in the 2020 book Flash of Light, Wall of FireHibakusha themselves have used a vast array of artmaking techniques to assist in their own recovery from traumas, such as those depicted in the photographs, and Japanese schoolchildren today sometimes make their own art as a medium through which to process the collective pain and resiliency lingering over Japan since 1945. All of these works then outwardly function to support educational efforts the world over on the inhumanity of using a nuclear weapon.

The hibakusha narrative has expanded over time to include victims beyond the city limits of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and as far away as the Navajo Nation, which still suffers the radiation effects of uranium mining; the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted so many nuclear tests that, on average, the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-size bombs was detonated every day for 12 years; Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union tested its nuclear weapons for four decades; and other places around the world adversely affected by the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons. Noguchi himself considered the term hibakusha to include the victims of nuclear weapons worldwide; he changed the name of his proposed Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima to the more inclusive Memorial to the Atomic Dead.

I believe my musings on legacies and memorials will continue to gain urgency. The youngest of the first-generation Japanese hibakusha still alive are well into their 80s. When they pass, so too will their stories if we do not take the remaining time we have to listen intently and record meaningfully the firsthand experiences of what could happen if the current near-dogmatic faith in deterrence theory fails.

“Memorials were, for [Noguchi], democratic acts of un-forgetting,” writes Noguchi Museum Board of Trustees member Spencer Bailey. Noguchi himself said, “One does not silently bury the dead building a monument.”

Artists like me are also “building a monument” with our drawings and articles. Hawaiian singer and guitarist Makana was “un-forgetting” when he and filmmaker Kayko Tamaki composed “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” as were the Noguchi Museum curators when they established the special exhibit. Each of us is hoping to pick up the baton from the hibakusha. I wonder what song from Spotify Unwrapped will send me back into rooms of the Noguchi Museum, filled with his legacy and the legacies of those who touched his life.

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