In May 1942, Isamu Noguchi voluntarily entered Poston, one of ten euphemistically-named ‘Internment Centers’ authorized by Executive Order 9066. Not long after, the sculptor made My Arizona (1943), one of a series of abstract lunar landscapes created in response to his experiences in the desert. The sculpture features a hot pink Plexiglass plane hovering over a white desert landscape, its fluorescent cast glowing hotly over the abstracted forms of conical mounds and valleys below.
Noguchi’s work speaks to the powerful connections between material objects and their creators’ lived experiences of trauma––including the physical places and broader cultural landscapes in which they occurred. Likewise, the artist’s evocative description of his “memory of Arizona”––which he later described as a “moonscape of the mind”––speaks to the problem of remembering when one is denied “the actual space of freedom” in which to imagine. The problem can become even more acute, and far-reaching, when a community of memory never quite forms, as happened for many survivors.
Drawing inspiration from Noguchi, Moonscape of the Mind explores the hidden legacies of the Japanese American incarceration––“hidden,” that is, in plain sight, in the rich and complex landscapes of mid-century American culture. Survivors of internment created some of the architectural, artistic and design hallmarks of mid-century cultural life, embraced as “American,” “democratic,” and definitively “modern” in all senses. Yet their authors’ experiences as citizen-detainees were rarely acknowledged in that post-war world, even by the survivors themselves. The broader history of incarceration has been marginalized, and is “marked” by [long] silences and strategic forgetting.”1
This symposium asks what singular objects of art and design might teach us about those experiences, and the broader impacts and significance of incarceration. How have such works given expression to the central conflicts of identity and exclusion experienced by the Japanese American community during the war, and helped their creators to navigate between hopelessness and action? What new meanings did they take on in a post-war period of “rebuilding” and “re-integration,” shaping social identities, and carrying (or perhaps suppressing) collective memory? And how can they help us think in new ways about the ongoing legacies of incarceration and racial exclusion decades later?
Moonscape of the Mind is part of a larger research and archival initiative based at Washington University in St. Louis. WashU was one of a handful of institutions that accepted Japanese Americans as students during the internment period. About 30 attended the university, and four of them––Gyo Obata, Richard Henmi, George Matsumoto, and Fred Toguchi––went on to be architects of note. Their work and experiences will be featured in Beauty in Enormous Bleakness, an on-site exhibition during the conference.