By GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON
The ZERO Project by Katsushige Nakahashi opened in an unusual way, with the Reed College Cooley Gallery staff and volunteers maintaining a quiet rhythm of putting together elaborate arrangements of photographs. The assembly process became the exhibition itself—a rare view of backstage moment, with folding tables stretched out throughout the gallery, and a printout of instructions with corresponding images displayed on a metal board. The registrar walked back and forth in the space, organizing the sets of photos—all 25,000 developed at a local print shop—while cellophane-tape stands stood throughout the space for construction.
The task at hand for Cooley Gallery’s team and any willing participant was to construct Nakahashi’s artwork from these prints, a life-scale Mitsubishi A6M Zero warplane flown by Imperial Japanese Navy pilots during World War II. The sculpture was created from a plane model at 1/32 scale, meticulously photographed with a macro lens in 2 x 3 mm. The negatives were then printed at a standard size. The outcome is a life-size plane existing in three-dimensions, occupying the entire gallery space. The resulting cloth-like plane bends and sags, a wing folding up on the wall, a fighter plane in a flaccid state.
In previous exhibitions, the constructed Zeros have been ceremoniously taken to an outdoor location to be incinerated, leaving a burn mark on the land that over time, heals and disappears with new growth. However, due to environmental concerns and with the artist’s permission, the Cooley Gallery announced a deconstruction and wrapping of the plane on Saturday, February 20th, from noon to 5 p.m. They will develop another community ritual to be announced in the near future.
Nakahashi started ZERO Project in 2000 and retired from it in 2009. The installation at Cooley Gallery, under curator and director, Stephanie Snyder, is the first time ZERO has been constructed without the artist present, though this was Nakahashi’s intention for the project from the beginning—to remove himself from its making, allowing others to take it over in hopes of expanding the impact and dialogue inspired by the project. Snyder’s sensitivity to Nakahashi’s work has remained evident for the duration of the exhibition, apparent in how closely involved in the process she has been and how she has taken into consideration the entire life-span of ZERO.
The individual prints, some out of focus, with a lot of overlapping sections, require meticulous matching, like solving a monumental puzzle. Because of the macro-scale, oftentimes Nakahashi did not see what he was photographing. Feeling his way, almost blindly around the contours of the model plane, Nakahashi had to estimate the sections to photograph.
The prints look strikingly aquatic, cosmic, and organic. Students dedicated to helping on ZERO compared the imagery to stalks of grass. Nakahashi describes his own reaction upon seeing the details of the prints: “I myself was really surprised to realize how beautiful the detail of this artwork is. When I looked through the camera viewfinder, I had no idea which part I was shooting—it was far from the image of an airplane. While I was putting together the photographs, I felt as if I were creating an abstract painting out of stand-alone pieces.”
The nature of ephemerality is a significant consideration for Nakahashi. As photo paper is essentially ephemeral, Nakahashi describes his attraction to using photographs as sculptures: “I had an intuition that photographs might be the medium for sculpture when I once cut many photographs into square shapes, lined them up, and discovered that this group of photographs came to possess a tile-like texture. When gathered in great number, even photographs of very familiar objects looked different.”
Nakahashi’s relationship to the Zero warplane stirs conflicting feelings: the joy of playing with warplane models as a boy with a sense of “boyish heroism”; meticulously studying them while building the models; reconciling the brutal purpose and cultural identity associated with them; and the cultural denial of a traumatic wartime history. Nakahashi’s father was a Zero mechanic with intimate knowledge of the plane’s physicality and witnessed the detonation of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki in 1945.
The conceptual framework of Nakahashi’s ZERO Project creates a collapse of hegemony. Through rigorous repetition and constant tactility, Nakahashi creates the warplane three-times removed from its actual source. Participants recreate a semblance of the plane, compulsively working on its trace, while confronted by the ghost of the object itself—or rather the model of the object.
In Nakahashi’s confrontation with the subject, with his obsessive exploration of its surfaces and the process of its construction and eventual destruction, he transports himself and project participants beyond the Zero’s historical and cultural attachments. The subject shifts from a warplane and its geopolitical place to the greater commonalities of collective history, the communal experience of loss, remembrance, and eventual healing.
The finality of ZERO comes in the ritual of its very disappearance, as Nakahashi describes, a “return to ground zero”: “What I realized upon making the ZEROs many times is that, as the participants get absorbed in the process and come to the construction every day, they start asking themselves how the ZERO shall be exhibited and also how they might feel when it is burned. It is a rare experience to think of the disappearance of an object while making that very object. I think this is a very important hint upon thinking about the war. The burning makes a very strong impact. Also, the remaining ashes possess poetic beauty and speak to our memory. This will teach us how to think of the deceased, and also how to foster that memory.”
Anselm Kiefer comes to mind while contemplating Nakahashi’s work. Though a decade apart in age, both artists were born early enough to have a very intimate experience of World War II. Theirs was an era of recovery, living with the pungent presence of history. Their commonality in art is deeply bound by memory and transcendence.
Cooley Gallery, Reed College
Exhibition Dates: Through February 21, 2016
Saturday, February 20, 12 – 5 p.m.: Ceremonial deconstruction and wrapping of ZERO