Camouflage, Photography and [In]visibility: Yamashiro Chikako's Chorus of the Melodies series (2010) and Beyond
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Okinawa: Between Japan and Independence
Yamashiro Chikako (山城知佳子) was born in 1976 in Naha, Okinawa, and graduated with a degree in painting from the Okinawa Prefecture University of the Arts in 1999. When Yamashiro was born, Okinawa was only recently (1972) returned to Japanese rule after 27 years under US occupation. Originally known as the independent Ryukyu kingdom, Okinawa and its archipelago were gradually annexed by Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries and formally became part of Japanese territory under the rule of the Meiji Emperor. At the end of the Second World War, Okinawa was the site of fierce battles between Japanese and US forces, all occurring in the midst of a civilian population. As the Battle of Okinawa raged, it gradually became clear that the tide of war was tipping in the Americans’ favor. In response, Japanese military personnel forced Okinawans to commit suicide en masse, or led them to kill each other by frightening them with warnings of the unspeakable atrocities US forces would commit against them and urging them to avoid the shame of defeat. Civilians were encouraged to jump into the sea from towering cliffs, to detonate hand-grenades in huddles of people, or to explode blasts in crowded caves. Contemporary readings of these horrendous events emphasize their racist undertones, as most Japanese imperial army soldiers did not see Okinawans as equal Japanese citizens. Their loyalty in question, Japanese forces suspected and feared that locals would disclose military and other sensitive information to conquering American forces. The events surrounding these mass-suicides were at the center of major controversies and lawsuits pitting the Japanese historian Ienaga Saburo and the Nobel Laureate Oe Kenzaburo on one side, against government agencies such as the Ministry of Education on the other. The lawsuits pertained to Japanese history textbooks’ representations of the Battle of Okinawa and its attendant tragedies.
Yamashiro’s video art is an exploration of topics relating to her Okinawan background. Her first video project, Okinawa Tourist (2004), consists of ironic images, such as herself eating ice cream next to a US base fence in Okinawa (Like Okinawa Sweet, 2004) in a send-up of Japan's policy to provide "sweet compensations" to local citizens for the presence of US military bases in the territory. The work titled Trip to Japan (2004) shows the artist demonstrating in front of the Diet building in Tokyo against policies promoting Okinawa as a tourist destination. Between 2004 and 2007 Yamashiro created the Graveyard Series featuring ceremonial Eisa dance, which is traditionally performed for the dead but is now part of a marketing campaign for Okinawa’s tourism industry; a similar critique is contained in her 2007 Connivance Shore series. However, in Seaweed Woman (2008) she adopts a more personal vision, represented by a woman floating on the ocean covered with seaweed concealing and revealing parts of her body, a theme that she further develops in her current project discussed below.
Inheritance Series (2008-2010) also marks Yamashiro's ongoing engagement with political issues pertaining to Okinawa - not just on the levels of identity politics and Okinawa's relations with mainland Japan, but directly confronting the painful memories of the Battle of Okinawa through her relations with survivors and relatives of the dead. This later work is an emotionally charged project about memory and the struggle against power politics. The series culminates in Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat (2010), which offers close corporeal relations between the artist and the survivors, their stories and her body. I would especially like to discuss Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat in relation to Yamashiro's Chorus of Melodies (2010) installation project.
This text brings forward a discussion of two seemingly unrelated practices: photography, especially still photography, and camouflage. It discusses these two practices through their relation to varying regimes of seeing and viewing, and explores how the viewer's gaze is related to issues of invisibility, disruption, and dissimulation. My initial argument relates to Yamashiro's Chorus of Melodies project, in particular its relations to practices of camouflage, the unseen, the hidden and concealed. Methods of concealment and camouflage used in the project to obscure the subjects of her images, are an important aspect of her work. An examination of these methods can expand the understanding of Yamashiro's strategy of representation into a critique of the Japanese central government’s policies towards Okinawa, and of the government’s continuous refusal to recognize historical traumas.
My discussion engages with classical writings on animal camouflage and military practices of concealment. I draw upon important passages from Darwin, Thayer, and Deleuze and Guattari to show how their discussions of vision in the natural realm become relevant to Yamashiro's practice and political stand towards Japanese politics, the practice of photography, and the shaping of the gaze.
History, Memory and Representation
First, I would like to discuss Yamashiro’s video Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat, as it is an important precursor to her work Chorus of Melodies, made the following year (2010). When elderly citizens of Okinawa learned the government was planning to omit mention of the events of the Battle of Okinawa in school textbooks, they decided to speak up. After decades of silence and shame, elderly survivors realized that their own deaths were approaching, and that if they did not speak out on this matter, the truth about the atrocities that took place at the end of the Second World War in Okinawa would be lost to history. The government, they felt, was actively seeking to expunge information about these events from the historical record.
In her project Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat (2009), Yamashiro found herself closely identifying with the painful memories of the elderly who were unable to forget the pain suffered during the war years. To convey her emotional identification with the victims of the Battle of Okinawa, Yamashiro endeavored to become "the throat and mouth" of the survivors, figuratively and metaphorically helping the old men and women voice their memories and criticize the Japanese government for its poor handling of this sensitive issue.
After 60 years of silence, many elderly Okinawan survivors could no longer repress the trauma of having been pushed to suicide and murder by fellow countrymen. To these people, Yamashiro lends not just her artistic abilities but also her body, her face, her skin, and her talent to enable them to express their memories and rage against the violence they experienced and the attempt to erase those experiences from public memory. The urgency of their plea, their old age, their burning memories and trembling voices are the vital heart of this project.
Yamashiro began visiting daycare centers for the elderly and recording interviews. It became a documentary project where the content and meaning of the memories recounted were more important than any artistic expression. Yamashiro was struggling for some time with decisions regarding the suitable manner to handle the documentary footage before she arrived at the current format. She chose to superimpose the images over her own face in order for it to serve as a "screen" for the stories revealed in the interviews with the survivors. The projection over her face creates a lingering effect of convergence: the young face of Yamashiro, her cheeks wet with running tears, merged with the elderly, wrinkled features that float upon her visage, creating a ghost-like haunting vision. The most powerful aspects of this project are the voices, the stories, and the telling of the events, the suffering, which is slowly conveyed, gradually revealing a personal point of view of this horrific episode, the memories of which the Japanese government seeks to alter, obscure, conceal, and delete.
Yamashiro's project Chorus of Melodies was a commission of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (otherwise known as Syabi), which requested that she produce a series of still shots to be exhibited in the Radiant Moments: The New Snapshot exhibition during the winter 2010 exhibition session. When the museum commissioned Yamashiro for the project, she had little experience in still photography, as she was practicing video art exclusively. Chorus of Melodies is, therefore, Yamashiro‘s first photography project. It was completed over the summer of 2010, producing hundreds of images from which she selected a collection for display at Syabi during the Radiant Moments exhibition.
There is an important gap in the conceptual framework between her previous works and the Chorus of Melodies. Prior to this work, Yamashiro‘s video art examined history, memory, and the politics of Okinawa. In Chorus of Melodies, the tone is lighter and joyful, presumably distancing herself from the contentious issues and painful memories contained in her previous work. Therefore, the only resemblance still at play between the video work and the current still-photography project is the formal, visual language of layering and juxtaposing of two different strata, one on top of the other, a strategy I pay special attention to.
The commission’s instructions to Yamashiro explicitly requested that she put aside the painful thematic material and transmit instead "the joy of life and happiness of living in Okinawa." Yamashiro thus chose to photograph a group of her friends, men and women, young and older, playing, laughing, and resting in a forested location. Her camera is positioned high above her subjects in a treetop and is trained upon individuals lying on the ground. The image is disrupted by shadows and dark areas. Leaves and branches partially block the sun’s rays, creating an array of broken patterns of sunlight and shade, dark and brightness. The effect is similar to the superimpositions employed in past projects: in Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat, it was the projection of the speaker's specter masquerading her face; in Seaweed Woman (2008) she used actual seaweed to wrap and conceal her body floating through the sea water; in Graveyard Eisa (2004) she had dancers mask their faces with white paper bags, creating a visual language of layering and mounting, of different strata of existence and meaning superimposed one atop the other. In Chorus of Melodies, the superimposed layer is abstract, mainly consisting of dark shades and amorphous patches that disrupt and obscure the clarity of the facial presence and bodily contours of the subject.
Photography and Camouflage: Invisibility and the Gaze
By manipulating light and shade, Yamashiro creates a layer of invisibility corresponding to camouflage strategies, reconstructing the formation known in military jargon as "disruptive coloration." This method was pioneered by Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), an American painter considered the father of the camouflage concept and "disruptive coloration" in particular.
In his 1909 book, Protective Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, Thayer argued that the common design of dark patches and black lines often found on animals’ skins or feathers, or bold color patterning over coats and furs is suited to conceal the animal against a mottled, irregular background of shapes and contrasting shades, of light and shadow. Thayer offered an abundance of examples to clarify how, for example, contrasting colors disrupt visual perception, breaking the outline of an animal or figure in space and helping it merge with its surroundings and disappear from the gaze of a potential predator.
Thayer uses numerous amusing and amazing images that can help clarify Yamashiro‘s practice. The zebra is one such example, extensively discussed by Thayer in his writings. The example shown here evidently reveals how the effect of a herd of zebras flocking together creates a visual disturbance and a disruption in the continuity and clarity of the single animal‘s contours. For Thayer, however, this was just the beginning, as his ultimate goal was to employ the patterning on large objects. After years of criticism and ridicule, he was eventually successful in convincing the British Navy to apply his camouflage concepts. Later, he also persuaded Franklin Roosevelt, secretary of the US Navy at the time, to experiment with his "disruptive patterns" (later known as "dazzle camouflage") on US Navy vessels.
It is important to note that even in the woodland family of camouflage designs, color schemes do not imitate specific leaves of other vegetation. Rather, they represent an average of the coloring in a specific environment, with the additional insertion of black patches that indicate the presence and intervention of shadows and unlighted areas in the forested environment.
Likewise, in Yamashiro‘s work, black shadows cut into the portraits and figures, activating the surface in a manner similar to the systems of disruptive coloration and woodland patterns. With this in mind, it becomes clear that Yamashiro‘s work is active on several levels. Beyond the direct, material reference to the disruptive patterns that obscure the coherent presence of the subject, Yamashiro‘s portraits lead into a conceptual territory of mystery and codification. On the one hand, these portraits echo her previous project, Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat, in the visual presence of shadows. This layering effect was first produced through the projection of speakers' faces onto Yamashiro‘s own face, but in the current work, this effect is transformed into a shadowing of layers of dark patches that disrupt and interrupt the coherence of the image. On the other hand, Yamashiro incorporated several abstract patterns of the branches and shadows on the ground that approximate Thayer‘s own description of the effects of disruptive coloration.
Yamashiro‘s abstract images of shadows, leaves, and the ground create a flattened surface, achieving the precise effect of concealment: a successful camouflage is realized by the amalgamation of three-dimensional objects into the even background. Hence, the effort invested in disruptive coloration is targeted at the reduction of volume and disruption of contours, while the end result captures the viewer‘s gaze unable to detect the subject's shape within the background patterns.
This elusive-evasive presence brings to mind Roger Caillois’s ideas of mimicry and camouflage. On the psychological level, camouflage refers to the problem of the subject's presence in space. In his article Mimicry and the Legendary Psychasthenia, Caillois indicated that mimicry and camouflage go beyond the initial physical need for protective coloration in the visual field, into psychological territory. According to Caillois, the way animals, especially insects, are able to disappear into the background is also a reflection of a state of mind, which he calls "psychasthenia," a term borrowed from psychiatric discourse (but not in use anymore), that can be categorized under the broad range of schizophrenic conditions. One could explain this phenomenon as a process of losing the borderlines of oneself, escaping individuality and the rigidly determined distinction of self and the world. For Caillois, the idea of camouflage is the idea of a malleable or plastic sense of self, with a possible flow between self and environment, self and surroundings. Caillois refers to a yearning to merge into nature and disappear in it, not just on the protective level, but also as a mode of existence. His argument affirms that this state of mind transcends the materialistic, protective, survival purpose attached to it by Darwin or Thayer. Caillois attaches to this quality a deep, Pantheist desire to become one with space or blend into the world, an experience of merging beyond a momentary occurrence of concealment. It represents a desire to lose the borderlines of individuality and become part of the environment.
In their text A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari elaborate on the idea of becoming-imperceptible, which parallels earlier thoughts on the process of camouflage as the end result of simulation through the process of becoming. Deleuze and Guattari define becoming-imperceptible as the highest goal in the chain of becomings:
“The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming.”
Becoming everyone (“devenir tout le monde”) marks the subject’s eradication from the background, by blending, dissolution, and disappearance into everything else, thereby losing uniqueness, separateness, individuality, originality, and subjectivity. This is the moment of camouflage — a process of becoming everything through the technology of mimicry: resemblance to the world, loss of boundary and dichotomy.
Camouflage becomes the equivalent of imperceptibility, as it is based on the anticipation that the viewer would misinterpret the visual field. It is not a question of not being seen, but rather, of not being interpreted; a moment of disappearance due to the viewer’s misconception of what is being looked at, or what is expected to be misperception of that which is viewed. Deleuze and Guattari use the term becoming to denote a constant moving and altering of positions. It is a pivotal concept in understanding camouflage as a transient process that produces constant alterations of self, location, or, when applied to Yamashiro’s work, the position of the photographer and the plethora of images produced. Yamashiro's flirt with the invisible contributes a new layer of interpretation: her play with camouflage strategies is a repetition and a performance of the painful experiences of the story she tells. Her approach to camouflage is somewhat analogous to the government’s attempts at concealment and silence regarding the atrocities in Okinawa. Repetition here becomes a procedure of showing, of telling, of screaming and not giving up; the truth must be told, at all costs, even if it cannot be told directly. Deleuze and Guattari also articulate a difference between mimicry and becoming: if camouflage is defined as a blend into a background, then becoming is embodied in the need to constantly alter the surfaces of the viewed object in relation to that background. Therefore, camouflage is the process of becoming, since it reflects the abstract average values of a given subject that can adapt to the constantly changing visual qualities of the backdrop, eventually arriving at the final moment of becoming-imperceptible.
By closely relating Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat to Chorus of Melodies, a possibility of self-disappearance arises. Yamashiro‘s self-disappearance under projections of elderly faces in Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat is continued and duplicated by the disruptive patterning practiced in Chorus of Melodies, as both projects create a memorable sense of loss of self, integration into the other‘s story, or even absorption into the background. Yamashiro's becoming-imperceptible is part of a greater consciousness and of her becoming the agent that delivers the memories and pain of the elderly.
Finally, military camouflage is intended for the protection of soldiers, who, one must remember, are armed and prepared to kill. By contrast, the camouflage suggested in relation to the Okinawans’ "cheerful" play in the forest emphasizes their vulnerability, weakness, and defenselessness in the face of military power, as was the case in the regrettable events of the Battle of Okinawa. A soldier's act of dissimulation through camouflage has a tactical purpose as part of the war machine, whereas the Okinawans' camouflage is an inadequate way to try and escape violence and war. The camouflage in these images overturns the "joy" sought in the museum’s commission and exposes an enduring painful truth about Okinawa’s past.
By way of Conclusion: Through The Dark Sea of Trees
Analyzing Yamashiro's choice of a forest as the location for Chorus of Melodies raises the question: do forests hold a universal meaning, an enigmatic and mystic significance shared by all humans in a trans-cultural experience? Alternatively, is there a specific role and meaning for the forest in the broader context of Japanese culture, as it is being reworked in Yamashiro's photographic project? A hint comes from the literary work of Matsumoto Seicho, whose text The Dark Sea of Trees (kuroi jukai 黒い樹海) (1960) is a narrative of a young couple that commits suicide in Aokigahara Forest (青木ヶ原) at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Since the release of the popular novel, Aokigahara Forest has earned the distinction of being Japan’s most popular site for people to commit suicide. The Dark Sea of Trees became synonymous with suicide and death in Japan. Thus, Yamashiro’s images of bodies lying amid trees connect with this prevalent association, evoking death and suicide in wartime Okinawa.
The question is, to what degree is this sort of association relevant to Yamashiro‘s Chorus of Melodies? At first, the women and men, the young girls and the children in the images all seem happy and relaxed. The title also directs the viewer into an audio experience of music, singing, whistling, and giggling. However, the texts in Yamashiro‘s videos, as well as other documentation of the collective suicides that took place during the Battle of Okinawa remind the viewer that many survivors described how whole communities were pushed into the forest by Japanese soldiers, handing them live grenades with which to commit collective suicide. Hence, despite the serene atmosphere in Yamashiro‘s Chorus of Melodies, the hanging shadows of the past and the specific connotations of the forest are present. Memories of collective suicides and death associated with forested locations in Okinawa, the extended meanings of camouflage and military visuality, as well as the image of the forest as a location of death and suicide, all result in a sense and experience of hidden threats, hanging shadows, and danger waiting around the corner. Although Yamashiro's project was originally commissioned with the intention to bring forward a sense of joy and happiness, the purported joie-de-vivre of Okinawans, Yamashiro instead offers ambivalence, where darkness and light, visibility and obscurity, happiness and tragedy, photography and camouflage play in a blend that reveals and conceals at the same time, positioning a complex game of hide and seek between the images and the subtext of Okinawan life. Yamashiro‘s project, therefore, by partly camouflaging its images, reveals to the viewer, in a purely visual manner, that not all that is told or heard is the truth, or at least, not the whole truth. What is shown is partial and there are still dark secrets about life and death, war and peace, belonging and exclusion hidden within these images and Okinawan life.
Dr. Ayelet Zohar is an artist, curator and visual culture researcher, specializing in Japanese photography. Zohar received her PhD from the University of London, Slade School of Fine Art, in 2007. She then did postdoctoral research at the Asian Literatures and Cultures Department at Stanford University (2007-9), with additional research at the Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC) in 2011, investigating the invention of the concept of camouflage in relation to photography. Zohar was the guest editor of a special issue of the Trans Asia Photography Review entitled “The Elu[va]sive Portrait: In Pursuit of Photographic Portraiture in East Asia and Beyond” (Fall 2011):
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Nozaki 55-60, 102-3. In Okinawa Notes, Oe wrote that Japanese soldiers had told Okinawans they would be raped, tortured, and murdered by the advancing American troops and coerced them into killing themselves instead of surrendering. “The military was deeply involved in the mass suicides,” Judge Toshimasa Fukami said in the ruling of Oe’s trial, citing testimonies of survivors that soldiers had handed out grenades to civilians to use for committing suicide, and the fact that mass suicides had occurred only in villages where Japanese troops had been stationed. See Onishi.
Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) is known to most Americans for his idealized angelic female figures, most of them on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. See: http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/thayer/ (accessed May 2012).
Thayer first used the term “dazzle” in his 1909 book. See Thayer, 219. Others indicate that the idea of dazzle camouflage for the navy was first proposed by John Graham Kerr. See Murphy & Bellamy, 173. However, this text also mentions Thayer’s great influence on Kerr’s thought.
“When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger […] Hence I can see no reason to doubt that natural selection might be most effective in giving the proper colour to each kind of grouse, and in keeping that colour, when once acquired, true and constant. Nor ought we to think that the occasional destruction of an animal of any particular colour would produce little effect: we should remember how essential it is in a flock of white sheep to destroy every lamb with the faintest trace of black […] If, with all the aids of art, these slight differences make a great difference in cultivating the several varieties, assuredly, in a state of nature, where the trees would have to struggle with other trees and with a host of enemies, such differences would effectually settle which variety, whether a smooth or downy, a yellow or purple fleshed fruit, should succeed.” Darwin, 77-78.