Monument to Heroes by Isamu Noguchi (cardboard, string, wood, bone, 1943). Photo credit: Miko Yoshida

No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarceration is being shown at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York. The exhibit runs from March 16, 2022, to May 15, 2022. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which declared the West Coast of the United States a militarized zone subject to wartime security measures. Leading up to the United States’ entry into the war, plans to surveil and control “enemy aliens” had been put in place—the FBI had already compiled a list of suspects to be arrested during wartime. The result was the launch of a systemic removal of “all persons of Japanese ancestry,” and confining these individuals—many American-born—to detention centers. Except for those paroled for war work and military service, most remained there until Roosevelt rescinded the order in 1944, and the last camps closed in 1946.

Initially, many, even within the government, voiced their opposition to a measure that mimicked the actions of illiberal, totalitarian states of the time like Germany and the Soviet Union. But ultimately, war hysteria and the United States’ long history of anti-Asian politics prevailed. As Democratic Congressman John Rankin famously said on the congressional floor, “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps . . . Damn them! Let’s get rid of them now!”

What followed was the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, two thirds of whom were American citizens, in prisons scattered throughout the United States. Facilitated by the War Relocation Authority, or WRA, of the 127,000 Japanese Americans in the continental United States and 160,000 in its territory of Hawaii, approximately 130,000 men, women, and children were first herded into temporary facilities (often horse stables) or other detainment sites across the country. Most of them were then shipped off to remote and austere WRA “camps” in California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, and Utah. 

It was a calamity, not just for American democracy, but for the Japanese American community that had thrived, despite state and federal laws designed to restrict their economic and legal freedoms. Japanese immigrants and their American children were branded as aliens, uprooted, displaced, and imprisoned. Not only did deportees leave behind their homes and businesses—often sold to whites at fire sale prices—they endured harsh and demeaning conditions during all stages of their incarceration. 

How do you memorialize such a moral, legal, and social catastrophe? In New York City, far from the site of the deportations themselves, the Noguchi museum launched the exhibit No Monument: In the Wake of Japanese American Incarceration in March to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. The exhibit features twenty-one works—from abstract sculptures to photographs—created by Japanese American artists affected by the incarceration and its aftershocks.

The Noguchi Museum was opened by Isamu Noguchi himself in 1985. Originally an industrial building across the street from his studio, the two-story museum also features an open garden and a covered outdoor area. The museum typically displays works by Noguchi—who, during the war, volunteered to go to the Poston WRA “camp” for two months and was detained there for five additional months against his will. 

View of the Noguchi Museum from its garden. In the foreground: The Big Bang (granite, 1978) by Isamu Noguchi. Photo credit: Miko Yoshida

No Monument, contained in one and a half rooms on the first floor of the Noguchi Museum complex, challenges institutional accounts of Japanese American detention—often illustrated with photographs of disconsolate families surrounded by a few remaining possessions—by celebrating personal expression in a time of hardship. More than memory, these unique and specific images are reflections that offer the gift of observation. At a new moment in history when facts are up for grabs, history is being retold, and authenticity is questionable, this exhibit is both a commentary on the present and the past—No Monument offers us a deeply personal expression of how individuals felt and experienced the world around them. 

These abstractions also celebrate the diversity of talent within the Japanese American community, defying generalizations about what constitutes a culture or its creative characteristics. Each of the unique pieces of this exhibit stands on its own as art, as personal testimony, and as a political statement. Like much prison art, they are made from commonplace materials, each one representing the artists’ attempt to use what they had around them to express the inexpressible pain of displacement. 

Monuments, which are often commissioned by the state or an institution, are an attempt at commemorating some version of a favorable collective historical victory or hero. However, these delicate pieces by Japanese Americans explicitly refuse such an overarching vision: an uncertain, quixotic, often surreal representation of the themes monuments usually embody. In these non-monument pieces, the artists of No Monument follow no convention of monumentation or memory. Instead, they intimately explore their reactions to a painful period that each experienced differently. 

For example, Isamu Noguchi’s A Monument to Heroes is made of cardboard, wood, bone, and string. It is small in comparison to the rest of his oeuvre which overwhelmingly consists of heavy, colossal sculptures. But this abstract work from his incarceration is a black cardboard cylinder the size of a tall vase, full of holes. It stands erect, with various pieces of wood and bone suspended through the holes. 

This surreal arrangement, which memorializes “aviators who became heroes,” also encapsulates the memory of unease, fear, and suspension in time and space. A stillness invoked by the string connects and levitates all the pieces, pulling what could be heart strings and rendering this delicate construction even more fragile. And yet the piece also manages to evoke a playfulness. It looks as if it could have been made from pieces discovered during play and was perhaps even inspired by the children Noguchi observed playing at the Poston WRA “camp” in Arizona where he was interned.

Against an adjacent wall is a collection of wooden name plates of various sizes made by ordinary inmates, one of the most personal parts of the exhibit. Used to mark the location of a family within the prison housing blocks, out of context they look awkward, absent the assigned homes and the people to which they were once attached. The plates have various styles: bubbly fonts in an arc, italicized English, and calligraphic lettering in Japanese. One features a bright red hen in the background, while another has a carved mountain which blends into the family surname. 

In this way, No Monument also challenges visitors to reflect on the artists’ experiences, and to participate in a transference of memory that is made possible through art. Every piece requires the attentive observer to move closer, to examine the components and the techniques, and to contemplate what lies beneath the surface.

Similarly, Ruth Asawa‘s Untitled looks like a chain-mail version of a Noguchi akari light—soft lamps that convey warmth and levity. Suspended by a nearly invisible string from the ceiling, the sculpture, entirely made of copper wire, appears to be a floating light, or drop of water, with successively smaller orbs inside. As we move closer and peek up from the center, we see that each successive orb is connected to the previous one. Instead of a series of containers, it is a single layer, folded multiple times, the connections hidden by a visual illusion. 

Untitled by Ruth Asawa (copper wire, 1962). Photo credit: Miko Yoshida

The centerpiece of the exhibit is Kay Sekimachi‘s Ogawa II, a suspended sculpture made of nylon, glass beads, and plastic tubes. The apparition-like body encapsulates the fragility of a moment in which Japanese Americans were under extreme pressure to behave, perform, and ultimately be absent from the national narrative. If we look closely, we can see each individual thread: woven and bound together, they create a figure that looks as though it could float away at any time. The ghost’s shadow is cast unto the white platform below it, and the piece sways gently with the currents of air in the room. 

No Monument also stands as a challenge to the official history of this period. The documented government records are rife with euphemisms, often referring to the forced removal and displacement of an entire people from their homes as “evacuation” and “relocation.” Prisons are called “camps” and American citizens “persons of Japanese descent.” Prisoner lists are “final accountability rosters” (FAR), listing human beings as if they were line items. 

Yet was anyone ever accountable, in the literal sense, for this gross violation? The only official celebration or commemoration of Japanese Americans’ contributions to the victory over fascism hides among military awards and recognition for valor during World War II. The 442nd regimental combat team, comprised of Japanese American soldiers and white field grade officers (which was typical for a racially-segregated military) is to this day the most decorated unit in American history. 

Thus, perversely, Japanese Americans are celebrated only in the context of national sacrifice, and as an ideal, or “model minority,” a deeply harmful stereotype that persists today. A monument in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 2000 allegedly does honor both soldiers who died and those who were interned during the war. Yet the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism conflates the heroism of soldiers and “patient” suffering, outside the context of a history in which Japanese American patriotism was doubted enough to strip them of their constitutional rights. Underlining this, only those who died for the country are named while the imprisoned men, women, and children are relegated to an aggregate number under each “camp” location: Manzanar 10,046; Poston 17,814; Tule Lake, 18,789; and so forth.

In contrast, an exhibit like No Monument imagines what is missing from the patriotic narrative. A series of photographs by Patrick Nagatani captures the absence of the American concentration camps—a model of incarceration also used to confine Native Americans—in modern American history and memory. In one, rusted nails are scattered onto cracked earth, on land where the Topaz War “Relocation” Center once stood. In another, an abandoned foundation of the Minidoka “camp” lies destitute in an overgrown field, unremarkably present yet forgotten somewhere in the southern Idaho plains. Each conveys the aged and deteriorating memories of the once harsh realities of xenophobia and wrongful displacement. 

The physical structures of incarceration are long gone, but the foundations on which they were built and the nails which held them together remain. Here, photographs, which can normally serve as historical primary sources, signify the absence of proper documentation beyond the official record: displaced prisoners were, in fact, denied the ability to record their own history. Cameras were restricted or banned, so there is little photographic evidence of the realities of the camps as its inhabitants understood them. Instead, many images, such as those by Ansel Adams, capture hard working and cheerful prisoners making the best of the situation. 

In addition, the “official” records like the FARs, are full of misspellings and inaccuracies (a project is underway to remedy this). These lists were later used to identify surviving family members for reparation payments in 1990. 

Yet even the memory that reparations were made seems to have disappeared. Congress is still resisting the idea of even discussing reparations for Black Americans whose ancestors were trafficked as slaves: H.R. 40, which calls for establishing a committee to develop reparations proposals, was first put forward for consideration by Congress in 1989. This equally necessary step has been steadily ignored for over 30 years. 

Might art matter to such a project? And how might it impact our national memory, and thus, our history? In No Monument, each piece encapsulates memories of the fear, pain, struggle, and ultimately hope and rebirth that Japanese Americans experienced due to mass incarceration. For example, Leo Amino’s sculpture Composition #8 examines the uncertainty of memories and histories. Amino, whose grandson is the co-curator of this exhibit, foregrounds visibility and invisibility. Made up of small pieces (made of bone and hairlike elements) contained or trapped in a polyester resin resembling gelatin, it has a surreal appearance akin to Dali’s clocks. 

In Deleuze and Memorial Culture, cultural critic Adrian Parr writes, “If the essence of trauma is beyond representation, interestingly the unrepresentability of trauma is also what makes it the prime subject of authoritarian power.” But we must represent trauma if we are to confront the role of memory in shaping the present. Today’s culture wars, in which factions battle over what events transpired and whether they should be taught in schools, remind us that how we remember is linked to what we remember. 

No Monument is a small collection of personal truths expressed in an abstract form. These truths contribute to the greater collective memory of our country’s past, which—for better or for worse—has brought us to where we are today. No Monument, and exhibits like it, are examples of art’s power to historicize our individual and collective truths, truths necessary for democracy to survive. 

It not only reminds us of the pain and joy of our difficult American histories, but also challenges us to think about the future of all our pasts. 

Miko Yoshida is an MA candidate at the New School for Social Research studying Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.