Letter by Yukiyo Kawano, edited by Lindsay Potter
My name is Yukiyo Kawano, I am a U.S. based visual artist, born and raised in Hiroshima. I am sending you an email to talk about the inflatable sculpture that Mr. Pedro Reyes has been installing in many cities including NYC, in Times Square in June, 2022 (https://www.alonzocoburn.com/
I trust that the artist spent time studying the Hiroshima/Nagasaki discourse and that his intentions are good; however, I do worry about the normalization of such an image. Also I am hoping to make a specific argument for the need of a critical analysis that hasn’t yet been incorporated into the anti-nuclear movement as it has within other movements.
Art pieces often work as a public’s unraveling of various social and environmental issues. Today’s artists are constantly being asked to see and question what is at stake: Who is telling the story? Who is silenced in the process? What is the nature of history? Who is assumed to be the viewer in a given context? In this case the installation of an inflatable sculpture that depicts the colossal, visual effect of an atomic bomb explosion, commissioned by anti-nuclear organizations based in the U.S., and sector of the Mexican government.
The question that we must ask ourselves is whether the artist is exempt from the need to scrutinize the project on its own terms, and in its larger context of, for example, the ICAN/ the TPNW? Can the artistic intention to redeem or transmogrify succeed with any symbol associated with historically contentious events, not to say atrocities? I think that the symbolic image archived on the artist’s website shows that we all react with different degrees of intensity to potent images depending on our frames of reference, for example, what we know about their references, whether we know anyone who has been impacted.
The first image (the symbol) on the website taken from overhead, gives a birdseye view that coincides with the image taken by a U.S. military aircraft from the sky of the mushroom cloud rising from the Nagasaki atomic bomb. Is it an image that instantly offers viewers a space to safely assume that the photographer/military personnel has all the possible means to escape to minimize their exposure to radiation? Such a view was never offered for people who were at the ground level in Nagasaki (or Hiroshima) on that critical day. People who’ve been working from this ground-level perspective, such as a scholar and writer Yuki Miyamoto (Beyond the Mushroom Cloud 2011), have been projecting this specific viewpoint of ground zero (https://www.fordhampress.com/
The U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki instantaneously took the lives of every living being in their proximity. The mushroom shaped cloud that arose from the detonation was an accumulation of ash of the city itself. That Cloud contains our grandparents’ flesh and bones. Again, the question here is what is the framework around the artwork that constitutes historical trauma? How do we address the issue to be respectful of the difficult and often painful feelings that arise from this artwork so as to avoid reinstating the violence?
I am currently working on a protocole that looks at how we can democratize knowledge for artists and activists.
I would like to invite Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as well as other ICAN supporters to engage in a discussion of ways we can ensure equity around artwork that deals with historical trauma germane to a specific place, specific common-history, and generations that have been affected. What is the artist’s responsibility when addressing a hypothetical /probable global-based future using the evidence of what has already happened in these communities? A good start to this discussion would be a piece by Lilly Adams of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which looks at how we can work with impacted people in ways that are inclusive, diverse and equitable (https://www.nuclearvoices.org/post/working-equitably-with-nuclear-frontline-communities).
Also to be considered among contemporary art practitioners is how the material condition gives rise to specific art objects, namely, the polyethylene film that was used for the inflatable sculpture along with the 12,075 rocket-shaped balloons which were handed out at the venue to onlookers. This opens another set of considerations about how art, seeking to address an issue, can be unaware of the politics of its very production, ignoring how its production and dissemination contributes to the climate crisis.
From a singular “woman of color” perspective, I would recommend an examination of the “authorized righteousness” of a large portion of the movement who believe it to be their voice, their moral duty to decide how these images are purveyed regardless of reinstating trauma.
It takes tremendous will for women of color to voice our concerns in a world where we suffer from many forms of violence. Asian-Americans are “encouraged” not to speak out, which causes self-censorship. We are pressured by a large percentage of people in our community who want to keep the status quo. The American response to these issues is difficult for Japanese nationals to understand. People who have not had an opportunity to question their circumstances, never given an escape route from aspiring whiteness, are hostage to this normalization in which they constantly suffer systemic violence.
Response from Union of Concerned Scientists:
On behalf of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to write this letter (“A letter to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”) and share it with us and others in our community. We know that writing about trauma and personal experiences of nuclear harm can be painful and draining. We see this letter as a gift, which has allowed our team to consider new perspectives, engage in deep self-reflection, and start an important discussion. Your letter is a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing conversation in the larger nuclear NGO community about equity and representation. We are also glad to see the dialogue already underway between you and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Through our long association with the Bulletin, we’ve come to appreciate that they consulted with and included some impacted communities in the event. We recognize that Hibakusha and other impacted communities are not a monolith, and there are likely a diversity of reactions to this kind of art or event. Regardless, speaking only for ourselves and as participants in this event, we apologize for our own lack of consideration about the implications for frontline communities. We wish we had thought more carefully about what the imagery and event itself would mean for impacted communities. We apologize for any trauma or inequities that our participation perpetuated for you or any others. More generally, we have realized oversights and gaps in our efforts to address equity, justice, and support of frontline communities in the nuclear space, and are still learning about these issues and shifting our programming to be more responsive.
We are actively engaged in discussions about how to do better, and we hope we can continue to have those conversations with you, other artists and frontline community members, and others who work in the nuclear weapons community. Our conversations are just beginning, but in direct relation to this letter, we are undertaking the following actions:
• Reviewing our imagery and language across our website and other digital media and
working to replace images that portray nuclear harm from the “victors” perspective
with perspectives and voices of sufferers. We would welcome your, and other
frontline community, partnership and guidance on this effort.
• While we have long-standing work with frontline communities, it’s clear that we still
have a lot to learn. We commit to deepening our work with these communities,
seeking their guidance, working to elevate their voices and perspective, and
supporting them in having a role in decision making on nuclear policy.
• Specifically, we have worked with hibakusha and around the anniversaries of the
bombings in Japan in many ways over the years, for example through blog posts,
various social media and multimedia projects, and community wide initiatives. We
are interested in reviewing this work and also receiving input from you and others on
if it has felt harmful or offensive to impacted communities.
• More broadly, we aim to ask questions of all our work, not just that directly related to
or with frontline communities, including the questions you posed in your letter:
o Who is telling the story; who is silenced? What is the nature of the history?
How do we avoid reinstating violence?
• Supporting continued conversation on these issues in the larger community that
works in the nuclear weapons space. This could involve creating additional
opportunities for frontline community artists to share their perspectives.
We are doing this in conjunction with broader program and organization-wide anti-racism, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, which our team is committed to continuing, recognizing that this work must be life-long and ongoing.
Finally, we welcome feedback on these action steps and everything we have written here.
The Global Security Team at the Union of Concerned Scientists