On Thursday, October 15, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture put on by the Smithsonian-Mason MA in the History of Decorative Arts, which is part of the Smithsonian Associates. One of three in a "Lunchtime Lecture" series, the talk was titled Objects in Cultural Crisis and was given by the Smithsonian's Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Dr. Richard Kurin. Dr. Kurin is a former Fulbright fellow who earned his doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and taught at The Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He oversees a majority of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums, as well as many of Smithsonian’s research and outreach programs, including the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Asian Pacific American Center. As Dr. Kurin’s biography states, after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Dr. Kurin led a U.S. and international project to rescue Haiti’s cultural heritage—this network of specialized agents ended up saving almost 35,000 artworks, artifacts, and archival works, and in addition to assisting with their combined specialities, they also trained 150 Haitians and established the Cultural Conservation Center at Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince. This is only a brief synopsis of their work.
The lecture itself was enlightening: as it turns out, helping other nations is not as easy as it seems—there tends to be multiple drudging and tedious bureaucratic processes that can create a labyrinthine nightmare which only the staunchest and tactful can maneuver. The nuts and bolts of the lecture was that, nationally and internationally, we need to have a better system for organizing disaster prevention that not only is beneficial to peoples, but is beneficial to sacred artworks and artifacts of those peoples. Cultural identity is a crucial element to the existence of communities, and often it is what we seek comfort from in times of crises. As Dr. Kurin identified, a good example of this need for comfort can be reflected by the need to revitalize broadway after September 11th in the United States. Broadway is a deeply important and faceted niche of American culture. The integration of the performing arts back into the city was a steadfast method to help our society stay sane.
Another critical point that he addressed was this: making art after a disaster, whether the disaster itself be natural or human driven, can be an imperative tool to allow people to process information and emotion that might have been neglected during a catastrophe. After the Haitian earthquake, the Smithsonian curated works from the children of Plas Timoun (The Healing Power of Art: Works of Art by Haitian Children After the Earthquake) as an example of the importance of psychosocial structure that encourages expression and emotional mending. If you look at most recent disasters, you will find that channeling this connection to one’s own culture and within oneself can produce tumultuous, wrenching results in art.
This last spring, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston held an exhibition called In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11. The exhibition focused on the response of the photographers on two events: the tsunami itself, and the resulting accident at Fukushima. All following images are courtesy of the artists and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
LIEKO SHIGA, RASEN KAIGAN (SPIRAL SHORE) 45 FROM THE SERIES RASEN KAIGAN (SPIRAL SHORE), 2012
Photograph, chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist. © Lieko Shiga
NAOYA HATAKEYAMA, 2013.10.20 KESEN-CHŌ FROM THE SERIES RIKUZENTAKATA, 2013
Photograph, chromogenic print. © Naoya Hatakeyama, Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI, FROM THE SERIES SHAKYŌ RŌJIN NIKKI (DIARY OF A PHOTO MAD OLD MAN), 2011
Photograph, gelatin silver print. © Nobuyoshi Araki / Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery
While we cannot prevent disaster, we can become better adept at predicting it and preparing, as well as more efficient in our tactics to respond to these emergencies. Even with the best prevention strategies, the best methodologies to save elements of our peoples and cultures, some degree of fallout is still expected. For this very reason, art made in the aftermath can be poignant and a necessary coping mechanism. It can reach across borders to citizens of different nations, different ideologies and religions, of different ideological perspective; it can humanize the chaos of disaster; it can allow victims to become participants again and relate once more to their cultural identity.