On Roger Shimomura, Mathias Poledna, and the Epistemology of Memory
As an expression of human creativity, individuals utilize art as a tool to document ideas, record time, and substantiate memory. Paradoxically, by using this recorded information, art also has the ability to transcend time. Questioning history, memory, and identity, Roger Shimomura is an artist revisiting traditional Ukiyo-e printmaking style and the Pop Art movement that arose in the 1950s. Mathias Poledna, a second artist revisiting historical processes, uses old school Disney animation techniques to invoke profound nostalgia in the viewer. By using historical and nostalgic processes to question and research concepts of identity, history and memory, both artists take the viewer back to another time and cause concerns about the epistemology of memory.
Memory itself is ephemeral. The best mode of preserving it is through documentation. Photography is praised for its accessibility to the truth and reality. Writing lends way to preservation of introspection, discovery, and growth that occurred during a period. Expressive visual arts communicate experience, the very feel of an event. Humans create art in order to petrify time and memory in its truest form.
Memory, however, is subject to dilution and is malleable. Most notably, a study conducted by cognitive researchers Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter demonstrated the vulnerability of memory by implanting memories in research participants. The researchers met with individuals to discuss whether or not the individuals had committed a crime in their adolescence that involved police contact. After merely three interviews, 70 percent of the participants believed they had been involved in prior criminal activity when they had no such behavior (Shaw & Porter). As humans desperately try to preserve memory through documentation and art, it may be beneficial to question the epistemology of that memory, and how far it has come from the truth.
Philosophers have dealt with this concern for years. A major philosophical theory used to understand episodic memory, i.e. memories that are recalled in a more cinematic format as opposed to memory of a learned skill, is the Representational Theory of Memory (RTM). The theory “claims that the object of your immediate awareness in memory is a representation or image, and that it is in virtue of your now having that image that you are now able to recall the event you are remembering” (Senor).
While this may seem straightforward, previously mentioned concerns regarding the epistemology of memory arises almost immediately. Other cognitive processes, primarily perception and imagination, may also create representations in one’s immediate awareness. Within the philosophical consideration of the epistemological problems of memory, it has been suggested that the differentiating factor between true representation of memory and an representation of the imagination is that a true memory will be accompanied by the feeling of “belief that it is true” (Senor). As was observed in the Shaw and Porter study, however, belief can be instigated with familiarity. The participants were invited in several times to discuss their misconduct in order to create familiarity with the event. Thus, a fine line is drawn between memory and imagination, a fine line that artists often have the ability to erase, manipulate, or substantiate.
Roger Shimomura and Mathias Poledna are two artists who are working with memory in the contemporary art field. Their work, however, is especially pertinent to the discussion of the epistemology of memory, as both artists question memory in their work. They consider the differences between the way memory appears, the way it is portrayed, and the way it was experienced, in terms of both collective and personal memories.
Much like the Shaw and Porter study, Shimomura and Poledna fabricate memories by invoking familiarity. By reverting to historical processes, the artists are utilizing motifs that are already memory laden and invoke a type of nostalgia in the viewer. The artists manipulate and reconstruct the process, adding new, perhaps more accurate, information about the past, the memories they believe to be true. Manipulating a nostalgic process alone creates for epistemological problems concerning memory, and creates work that may serve as a memory implant device. For example, if one of Shimomura’s prints was hung in a gallery of historical Ukiyo-e art, one would not know the difference.
Roger Shimomura studied art at the University of Washington, Seattle, and later received his M.F.A. at Syracuse University. Shimomura has now gone on to have had over 13 solo exhibitions and received numerous awards, such as the College Art Association Distinguished Body of Work Award, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painting Award, and the Kansas Governor’s Arts Award. In 1969, Shimomura began teaching at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and in 1990 held a visiting professorship at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. In 2004 he retired from teaching and started the Shimomura Faculty Research Support Fund, an endowment to foster faculty research in the Department of Art (“Roger Shimomura Biography”).
By using memory, both personal and collective, Shimomura’s work reflects on identity, otherness, and sociopolitical issues of ethnicity. Shimomura’s relationship to his own identity is beautifully demonstrated in his process, as he juxtaposes two culturally significant styles of art making to create a hypothetical history. Shimomura is greatly influenced both by the traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e method of printmaking and the bright, comic-like Pop art that surrounded him during his formative years.
The 18th century marked growing urbanization in Japanese cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo and rapid developments in printmaking led to the availability of printed images. Perhaps the most notable of developments during this time, known as the Edo period, the Ukiyo-e style of printmaking ushered in a breath of life. Meaning “pictures of the floating world,” Ukiyo-e developed as a celebration of life, a suggestion of the transience of human life, and the ephemerality of the material world (Gardner & Kleiner 526). Stylistically, the prints tend to have black outlines separating distinct color areas and are manufactured using a woodblock printing technique (Gardner & Kleiner 528). The subject matter often included landscapes, contemporary affairs and fashion, and alluring courtesans (“Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style”).
This is in stark contrast to Shimomura's subjects. In a recent exhibition at the Law Warschaw Gallery, Shimomura’s Mistaken Identity uses the historical Ukiyo-e style, dark lines and the woodblock technique, to construct a hypothetical history based on the research from his grandmother’s diary, public archives, as well as his own family photos. The pieces depict the dismal conditions, the landscape of the camp, and the merry-making that occurred in the camp apartments.
On display at the exhibition, Shimomura’s piece Memories of Childhood consists of several prints compiled into a storybook, constructed using the traditional woodblock method and dark line of Ukiyo-e prints. This collection is an accumulation of Shimomura’s personal memories of his time at the Minidoka Relocation Camp in Idaho. As Shimomura describes, “because I was so young at the time, the memories I have are very few, but those that I have maintained are still quite vivid” (Shimomura). By melding personal memories and a historical process, Shimomura successfully constructs a history that can be empathized with by a collective group.
(“Memories of Childhood, 1999”).
Shimomura has a keen eye for geometry and the woodblock technique of Ukiyo-e prints lends well to the development of hard lines and geometric shapes. As seen in figure 1, the grid pattern of traditional Japanese house walls creates hard lines and clean geometry. This grid pattern is used throughout the series and is often contrasted with the linear barbed wire as a piercing comparison.
Layering, both literally and conceptually, is additionally apparent in Shimomura’s work. Interleaving pages of the book, as seen in figure 2, are printed on a translucent Japanese Goyu paper. By doing this, Shimomura creates a literal layer obstructing the image, alluding to the fog of memory. Conceptual layers occur in the juxtaposition of traditional Japanese motifs and American. Such as the depictions of stylized Japanese homes, portrayed in traditional Ukiyo-e imagery, inhabited with subjects that are always found in American garb. Shimomura’s layering constructs a questioning of identity and inconsistencies in memory.
To further consider and represent his dual cultural identity, Shimomura refers to another more recent movement, though nonetheless nostalgic, Pop Art. The Pop Art movement arose as a response to the then current notions of art and consumer culture. The work featured bright and recognizable imagery such as products and television icons. As the influential Pop artist Andy Warhol said, “the Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second, comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles, all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice” (Arnason & Mansfield 472).
Acknowledging that comic books were a major influence on his style, Shimomura often juxtaposes the block printing technique of Ukiyo-e prints with pen and ink comic strips. The seamless melding of the two movements not only bends time, but also serves as a beautiful metaphor for how Shimomura understands his own identity. In an interview with the Smithsonian Art Museum, Shimomura stated, “I realized that the only difference between Minnie Mouse and one of Utamaro’s beauties was race” ("Diary: December 12, 1941").
Shimomura’s Kabuki Play melds Ukiyo-e and Pop Art. The word “kabuki” is a derivative of “kabuku,” meaning to be out of the ordinary or “bizarre theatre” (Bowers). The characters engaged in this bizarre theatre include both traditional Kabuki players and the iconic Donald Duck. Although Shimomura worked with the juxtaposition of traditional Japanese figures and iconic American characters in previous paintings, Kabuki Play is his first print in Ukiyo-e fashion.
(“Kabuki Play, 1985”).
As Donald Duck feeds a blonde bombshell a pearl, a Japanese fighter plane flies overhead, referencing the attack at Pearl Harbor. A sword intersects the work, perhaps to decapitate the Kabuki player in the bottom. For Shimomura, these icons offer a representation of the dehumanization he experienced by being considered foreign in his own country (Shimomura).
Aside from exploration of his own memory and identity, Shimomura inquiries about the memories of his ancestors. As mentioned, Shimomura exasperated his memories of the Minidoka relocation camp in Memories of Childhood. Thus, as his own memory often prohibits him from recollecting more of these experiences, Shimomura gathers information from older generations through diaries, records, and conversation.
Shimomura gathered inspiration from his grandmother Toko Shimomura’s diaries for his painting Diary: December 12, 1941. Raised in Japan, in 1921 Toko Shimomura moved to the US as a picture-bride, a bride often from one’s home country, who is selected by a matchmaker for an immigrant in the US. Subsequently, Toko Shimomura kept detailed accounts of her time at relocation camps and experiences surviving as a Japanese American. It is through these accounts that Roger Shimomura is able to reflect and “empathize with another generation’s experience” (White).
(“Diary: December 12, 1941”).
Shimomura takes these fragments of his ancestors’ memory, reconstructing them to fill the canvas. A particular excerpt from Toko Shimomura’s diary reflects on the period soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese Americans were viewed as enemies. As a result, Japanese Americans’ bank accounts were frozen to inhibit travel and limit commerce. Toko Shimomura wrote,
“I spent all day at home. Starting from today we were permitted to withdraw $100 from the bank. This was for our sustenance of life, we who are enemy to them. I deeply felt America’s largeheartedness in dealing with us” (Diary: December 12, 1941).
The historical information then becomes a melding of time through process (White). Roger Shimomura utilizes the traditional Ukiyo-e style of printmaking in juxtaposition with the newer American Pop Art. In Diary: December 12, 1941, a Japanese woman sits in traditional dress, the iconic superman peers through the rice paper walls. Superman, Shimomura states, is the symbol for the largehearted Americans, whom the Japanese Americans trusted but were betrayed by. By melding qualities and characteristics of two culturally saturated processes, Shimomura’s pieces have the ability to invoke deep feelings of nostalgia.
(Imitation of Life, 2013).
Mathias Poledna is another notable artist who is inspired by and uses nostalgic processes to reconstruct memory. Representing Austria in the 55th Venice Biennale, Poledna’s Imitation of Life is of specific interest. The three-minute, hand-drawn animated film depicts a Disney-esque crew of singing animals and whimsical scenery. Similar to Shimomura’s practice, Poledna reverts to historical and memory laden processes and techniques, such as the reconstruction of show tunes with a full orchestra and hand-drawn, stop motion animations, in order to fabricate and reconstruct memory.
For the viewer, Poledna’s Imitation of Life invokes fond memories of youth and a better time until further examination. The content of Poledna’s animation is far from the lightheartedness of a traditional Disney story. With attention turned to the film’s musical score, a re-recording of “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’” produced by a full orchestra in Warner Brother’s LA studio, the viewer’s fond nostalgia soon turns to dismay when they realize the lovely birds are singing about the perils of the Depression Era (“Imitations of Life”).
Research suggests that music in particular is useful in evoking emotional episodic memory. Often referred to as the “Darling, they are playing our tune” phenomenon, music has an uncanny ability to evoke highly emotional episodic memory when those memories have been associated with that song. By re-recording a score from a classic and well known film, Poledna taps into a viewer’s emotions associations with memory (Juslin).
Beyond the implemented techniques regarding the auditory stimuli of the film, Poledna’s attention to the classic animation techniques is absorbing. The backgrounds are painted in classical watercolor Disney style, reminiscent of the beautiful woods and forests that viewers became familiar with in Disney cartoons years ago. Each slide is hand drawn, often by former animators from Disney (Didero).
The character content in Poledna’s film is also of interest. The main character is a singing donkey dressed in an old school sailors uniform, dancing with a can. The donkey could refer to other cartoon characters of childhood memory, such as Eeyore the donkey. Additionally, it could refer to the concept of the donkey. Perhaps it is a metaphor for individuals living during the Depression, working like donkeys and being used for grunt labor.
At the Whitney Museum of Art, I had the pleasure of seeing Poledna’s Imitation of Life. With no prior context upon viewing the film, I was fondly interested as the work indeed reminded me of a Disney cartoon. I began to consider what cartoon it was, as it looked like every Disney cartoon I had ever seen. Although the visual aspects of the film were familiar and even the quality of the score, a friend urged me to listen more closely and the uncanny realization that the cartoon was in fact a confabulation overcame us.
Through his confabulation of history and process, Poledna questions the epistemology of memory and the truth of nostalgic response. Imitation of Life illustrates a multitude of convergent histories, “the avant-garde and popular culture, politics and propaganda, capitalism and collapse, and an artistic medium that has been part of our collective consciousness for almost a century” (Didero).
In many ways, memory constitutes and gives a framework for our sense of identity, both personally and collectively. When one begins to question memory, they begin to question identity, and visa versa. Both Shimomura and Poledna question aspects of memory, identity, and its epistemology. By exploring nostalgic and historical techniques, their work bends time, existing in a space between then and now. In doing this, the artists have the ability and tools to reconstruct memories or to create hypothetical histories. With high attention to process, technique, and history, Shimomura and Poledna leave the viewer in a place of consideration and questioning - is that really how it happened?
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