/ARCHIVE — 2012
GHOSTOWN combines object-based work with installation, audio and video to recall and memorialize the internment of 22,000 persons of Japanese descent during the Second World War. Two hundred and twenty miniature tarpaper models in the installation refer to the cramped shacks hurriedly built by Japanese Canadian workers for their own incarceration.
Called “ghost-towns,” the camps had lasting effects on the internees and their descendants. This work comments on immigrant experiences and issues of human rights, displaced populations and racism, and is intended to provide a focus for remembrance made crucial as the event passes out of living recollection.
“An entire past comes to dwell in a new house.”1
When I first met Steven Nunoda we were studying sculpture at the University of Calgary; I was casting miniature concrete houses and he was constructing wondrous anamorphic view boxes of interiors. We were both interested in the house as an archetype for memory, consciousness and the imagination. That was 20 years ago. Today Nunoda revisits these themes in Ghostown, an intertextual constellation of object and media works that is a personal poetic reflection on what constitutes home and how it shapes us. Returning him to Western Canada, it delves into family and community histories to construct an image of a place he never knew, but which formed him nonetheless.
Row upon row of die-cut, scale-model tarpaper shacks evenly line Stride Gallery’s worn floorboards to become the central image in Ghostown, a place only known to the artist through narrative and the imagination. Nunoda recalls his Japanese-Canadian grandparents specifically describing life in the ghost towns; WWII internment camps that were sited in abandoned mining towns or hurriedly built by Japanese-Canadian work crews in isolated places like Popoff, New Denver, and Rosebery, British Columbia. Under the guise of national security following Pearl Harbour in December 1941, approximately 22,000 persons of Japanese descent, many whose families had been in Canada for several generations, were stripped of any property they couldn’t carry, forcibly relocated from a 200-mile buffer zone on the west coast of British Columbia, and interned in makeshift camps comprising one- and two-family shacks. 2
Although Ghostown makes specific reference to the Japanese-Canadian internments, and Nunoda’s families’ in particular, the work resonates with ongoing dialogues about immigrant experience, xenophobia and human rights. En masse this melancholic landscape of dark sleeping huts evokes universal themes of memory, loss and displacement. Their arrangement could refer to almost any camp in which the architecture is as generalized as the humans they house are meant to become when stripped of their identities, autonomy, and free will. Yet oppression is only part of this story. Ghostown also celebrates cultural perseverance by retelling family stories about the experience of making a home in the camps, and it examines the lasting effects of these stories on those who remain.
Thus personal and socio-cultural histories of home intersect in this exhibition. Ghostown performs a type of topoanalysis, a theoretical exploration discussed by French theorist Gaston Bachelard in his famous book The Poetics of Space, which uses phenomenology, Jungian psychology, and psychoanalysis to develop a topography of the self by analyzing sites from our intimate lives.3 In it, domestic space and life become a metaphor for humanness. Bachelard speculates, “…the house image would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being,” even “…a tool for analysis of the human soul.”4 Perhaps then, Ghostown could be understood as a map of the artist’s formation in miniature. These huts might even mark a son’s conflicted desire to return home through the memories and lived habits left to him by his passing mother and a father who is all but lost to dementia. Here, the hut might stand in, as it does in dream analysis, for a refuge or, as Heidegger posits, a place of contemplation about the foundation of one’s life or life’s work.5
The hut is but one in a lexicon of signs in Ghostown that reveals the persistence of cultural memory in objects and domestic practices. Rice Sled (2011) and Rosebery Single (2010-11) evoke memories of makinga home and memorialize Nunoda’s families’ experience in the camps. Rosebery Single is a scale model of the Oya Family internment shack in Rosebery, B.C. that emanates the domestic sound of washing rice, a Japanese staple that feeds the soul as much as the body. Lovingly crafted, it stands as a monument to cultural perseverance in the face of racial segregation. In Rice Sled two tin buckets balance on an antique wooden sled run aground a 20 lb drift of rice (a monthly ration for a family of four). It recalls an anecdote the artist’s mother used to tell about hauling water in the camps during winter, a meditation on determination or even optimism, given one can imagine the bucket half full. Recognizable, yet alienating, sounds pan between the two buckets; the sound of cold laboured breaths, of sloshing water, of feet crunching snow, of ice cut by metal runners. A whiff of tar still lingers in the air. Here, cultural memory is understood as a practice, an intimate, embodied experience shaped by the senses and the process of making.
Nunoda’s artistic practice, like cultural memory and identity, is iterative; incremental translations shape the work over time. He consistently uses the maquette to think through formal compositional problems, but it also becomes a central metaphor for cultural and aesthetic constructions addressed by this work. In Pont japonais (2009) and Black Birds (2012), European modernism’s appropriation of Japanese aesthetics (Japonisme in French Modernism) serves as a metaphor for other forms of misappropriation and cultural homogenization under assimilationist policy. Pont japonais refers to a scale model of Monet’s iconic rendition of a Japanese bridge at his home in Giverny. Although based on a traditional Japanese moon bridge, in which the semi-circular arc would combine with its reflection to create the illusion of a full moon on the horizon, Monet flattened the arc of his bridge to improve its function regardless of aesthetics. In an attempt to restore the bridge’s arc to its original radical aesthetic form, Nunoda supports his model bridge with offcuts from a single piece of wood from which he carved nine chairs, one for each of his living family members who were interned. A tenth, upturned chair marks the recent passing of his mother. A similar homage is paid to cultural, aesthetic and familial predecessors in Black Birds where a staff of nine maple-carved birds suspended on bamboo skewers rhythmically disperse in radical asymmetry across a panoramic expanse. Working within a predominantly assimilated culture, Nunoda seems hopeful that he can reclaim fragments of his cultural ethnicity by practicing the way of Japanese aesthetics.
In a playful reversal, Hopefuls (2011) pays homage to a different set of masters, while calling the origins of the artist’s own mastery into question. Fragments of earlier, unfinished woodcarvings are reclaimed from the artists’ studio to become finished maquettes of quasi-figurative modernist sculptures and a sculpture of a Celtic hairpin. A gesture to Japanese aesthetics joins the two and signals the ongoing process of cultural and aesthetic translation within the artist’s practice.
It would not be dismissive to suggest that Nunoda is a bit of a dreamer. He comes by it honestly: he is an artist who is the grandson of Japanese immigrants, who dreamed the impossible dream. Clichéd sentiments about the immigrant experience are hard to put to rest; optimism serves a purpose.6 In Ladder to the Moon (2012/maquette 2007) Nunoda builds a monument of hope for his own children. But this Ladder to the Moon comes with a warning about its own attendant risk. Nunoda’s ladder construction references the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, a dark image of a family torn apart by suspicion and violence. Solidly built and rendered in forced perspective to create the illusion of height, Nunoda’s ladder does indeed reach his mulberry paper moon. On it two overlapping images of the moon collide, slowly, almost imperceptibly, phasing in and out of each other. The final image seems somewhat incomplete, but it still holds promise.
As if awakened from a long sleepwalk, Nunoda has put his dreaming to good use in Ghostown to imaginatively reconstruct a cultural narrative that is at risk of fading from our consciousness. Far from being solely about the past, Ghostown makes visible specters of an ongoing process of Japanese-Canadian cultural integration that has enduring consequences for future generations. Assimilation is not benign: Dreams do come with their associated nightmares in Ghostown.
1Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places (1958), trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994) 5.