Japanese video artist Meiro Koizumi is obsessed with memories of wartime strife. Whether documenting Japanese WWII kamikaze pilots or American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Koizumi trains his lens on vivid and harsh battlefield recollections. Those memories are the subject of a newly commissioned piece on view at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Battlelands. Collaborating with chief curator Tobias Ostrander, Koizumi traveled to Miami to meet with and document the experiences of local veterans as they attempted to readjust to civilian life.
“The first thing I did [when I came to Miami] was ask the museum to take me to a gun range,“ said Koizumi. “As a foreigner it sort of amazed me that you could do this. Even standing next to a complete stranger in a gun range was fascinating to me.”
Though it was his first time working with non-Japanese subjects, the artist has made a name for himself by delving into the psychological history of Japanese society during WWII. In an early work, Portrait of a Young Samurai (2009), Koizumi recorded an actor rehearsing a monologue as a pilot about to embark on a kamikaze mission. After every take Koizumi asks the actor to inject more and more emotion into the performance. The piece not only addresses the performative aspects of certain forms of extreme nationalism, but harks at the romanticized notions of death imbued with Japanese samurai culture.
Switching gears to recalled memories, Trapped Words (2014), centered on the experiences of a 7-year-old boy (now a 77-year-old man) as he was trapped and almost burned alive in a Japanese bomb shelter during a US bombing raid in the artist’s hometown. The subject is shown in black and white, with his eyes closed as he recreates the sounds and sights of the traumatic event.
“Koizumi’s work is always thoughtful, present, and he goes deep into whatever he’s analyzing,” says Ostrander. “In the past it was Japanese history, but this is first project he does outside of the Japanese context.”
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Battlelands, represents a radical departure for Koizumi in both context and form. Working with local veterans, the artist had each subject wear a Go-Pro camera attached to their forehead as they walked through their home or neighborhood, relating the banal aspects of their civilian life. Interspersed with these images, Koizumi edited audio of the veteran’s most salient battlefield memories. The juxtaposition of these traumatic memories with their newly found domesticity highlights the jarring transition most veterans face as they adjust to life back home.
As the possibility of war in Asia increases, with escalating tensions in North Korea and China, Japan's young artists have been increasingly looking toward the past. After the Japanese defeat in WWII much of the shared experiences of the war were culturally repressed and a new generation of artists, writers, and filmmakers have been fascinated with unpacking the shame and guilt associated with these sublimated stories. Koizumi's first attempt at unpacking America's complex relationship with war is prescient, to say the least.
Battlelands. On view at PAMM through August 19 at PAMM, 1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org; Admission costs $16 for adults, $12 for students, children, and seniors.