Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center, an exhibition that opened last month at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens, examines how the months spent in a World War II internment camp impacted the life of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi.
The exhibition is timely in a twofold manner: It comes on the heels of the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast; and its January 18th opening coincided with the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who campaigned with anti-immigration rhetoric and signed an executive order during his first week of office that banned immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries from entering the United States. World-Architects visited the exhibition at the Noguchi Museum to see how Noguchi's experience is relevant today.
The Internment Camps
Spurred by fears that Japanese Americans were potential security risks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on 19 February 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The order resulted in more than 120,000 Japanese Americans (half of them children) who lived on the west coast being relocated to ten camps in seven states west of the Mississippi River. These camps were remote, surrounded by barbed wire and, in the words of a report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, "Families lived in substandard housing, had inadequate nutrition and health care, and had their livelihoods destroyed."
The Commission's findings led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, popularly known as the Japanese American Redress Bill. It acknowledged and apologized for the fundamental injustice of the forced internments, made restitution to those who were interned (with $20,000 checks), and aimed "to provide for a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event." The last is most relevant today, since the strong anti-Islamic rhetoric that Trump used in his campaign, combined with the executive order he signed on 27 January 2017, makes the possibility of a similar recurrence all too easy to imagine.
Noguchi at Poston
Although Noguchi (born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an American mother and Japanese father) resided in New York in 1942 and therefore was not required to relocate, he did so voluntarily, "to serve the cause of democracy in the best way that seemed open to me," because he "felt sympathy for the plight of the American-born Japanese, the Nisei," and because "relocation offered a pressage [sic] of inevitable social change in which I wanted to take part," as he wrote in an unpublished essay, "I Become a Nisei," commissioned by Reader's Digest (the essay is part of the Self-Interned, 1942 and can be downloaded as a PDF). Beforehand the artist had organized a group called Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy, which worked to counteract what he described as "the bigoted hysteria that soon appeared in the press" following Pearl Harbor. Yet it wasn't until meeting John Collier of the American Indian Service that he entertained the notion of voluntary internment. With the Poston camp on Indian territory and under Collier's jurisdiction, he persuaded Noguchi that the artist might be able to help in the camp's development, both in the layout and design of park and recreational areas, and through arts and crafts workshops.
But when Noguchi arrived in Poston, which had opened on 8 May 1942 and would reach a peak population of population 17,814, he found resistance from the camp officials as well as the War Relocation Authority; they did not share Collier's or Noguchi's idealistic views. Instead, the camp – whose budget for meals was 37 cents per day per person and whose desert climate was inhospitable to little beyond mere survival – was seen by the authorities as neither permanent nor pleasent. Regardless, Noguchi laid out a plan for the camp (top image) and its cemetery, and he led forays into the desert to find materials, such as ironwood roots, for sculpting. Even though he quickly realized his plans would not come to fruition, he found the desert mesmerizing and soaked it in as much as possible. Those experiences of the landscape would influence his work that would follow his release (technically a furlough) from Poston in November 1942.
Noguchi after Poston
In addition to the extensive selection of archival documents, such as "I Become a Nisei," on display in Self-Interned, 1942, Noguchi Museum Senior Curator Dakin Hart brought together more than twenty works from the museum's collection. The sculptures and other artworks date from before, during and after the artist's months at Poston, but much of what is on display falls into the last timeframe, thereby illustrating the impact of the internment and the desert landscape on his later creations. Such works as Yellow Landscape from 1943, "which implicates the entire planet in the toxic anti-Asian stereotyping that swept the United States following December 7, 1941," per the exhibition's introductory text, are abstract yet politically charged. But later sculptures, such as Double Red Mountain (1969), find the influence in the landscape; the same text describes this table sculpture in Persian travertine as a demonstration of Noguchi's "talent for essentializing the way the desert isolates and de-scales its major physical features, an approach that became a blueprint for Noguchi’s later microcosmic landscapes."
Although Noguchi made proposals for playgrounds and other sculptural landforms before World War II, it wasn't until after the war that these "microcosmic landscapes" became a preoccupation for the artist. Some built examples include sunken gardens for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in Lower Manhattan (both 1964), the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (1965), and the California Scenario fountain in Costa Mesa, California (1982). But most famous is the UNESCO Garden of Peace in Paris, the artist's sculptural interpretation of a traditional Japanese garden that was completed in 1958. One need only compare the plan of that garden to the park he designed for Poston (left side of plan drawing at top) to see how the desert was a seed for later creations.
Learning from Noguchi
In the first paragraph of "I Become a Nisei," Noguchi asserts that in "the nation of all nationalities" that is America, "racial and cultural intermixture is the antithesis of all the tenet of the Axis Powers. For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength." The 1988 reparations, though late, signaled a coming to terms with the country's deep-seated bigotry and a more accepting future for people of all ilks, but the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the increase in "Islamophobia" illustrated that fight was far from over. When Trump entered the presidential race in 2015, he called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," what some journalists described simply as "fascism" or as crossing "an uncrossable line of bigotry and xenophobia." That he carried through, to a lesser degree, on this campaign assertion with his recent executive order (crafted by his chief strategist Steve Bannon, it should be noted) makes, to paraphrase Noguchi, a defeat of America's unique personality and strength a scary possibility.
So what can we learn from Noguchi's voluntary internment, an act that, for all intents and purposes, was a well-intended failure? Following the recent immigration ban, the news was awash with protests and friends on Facebook urging each other to call their senators and representatives to reverse the ban. But Noguchi's actions point to a third possibility: infiltrating and improving the system from within. Even though Noguchi was met with opposition once in the camp, it's important to note how he used his fame and connections to actually get inside. While the camps were a precedent for Bannon's and Trump's immigration ban, they were, for Noguchi, an opportunity for change. Here's hoping somebody with the fame, connections and big heart of Isamu Noguchi finds their way into the Trump administration to temper the flames of hate. Until then, keep protesting and making those phone calls.
Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center runs until 7 January 2018 at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens.