Never forget. Those words are repeated after each incident, and yet there appears to be a whole lot of forgetting going on.
Nuclear devastation and forgetting was a theme of “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” the 1959 New Wave classic by Alain Resnais about the aftereffect of the atomic bomb as experienced by two lovers, but here we are at the close of 2017 and what do we remember when it comes to the threat of nuclear war?
The Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School is exhibiting “Shadows and Ashes: The Peril of Nuclear Weapons” through Thursday, December 7, with a reception and panel to discuss “A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons Today, Tomorrow, Forever?” on Monday, November 13, at 4:30 p.m., moderated by Princeton professor Stanley N. Katz.
The panelists are Bruce Blair, a former U.S. nuclear missile launch control officer and winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Award for his work on nuclear arms control; professor Sharon Weiner from American University, who held White House responsibility for nuclear weapon budgets during the Obama administration; and Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez, who led the negotiations in 2017 of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
After Donald Trump was elected president, “I became gravely concerned about the likelihood of deterioration in U.S.— international relations, especially regarding nuclear issues,” says Bernstein Gallery Co-Director Mary Hamill. “It was my good fortune at that time to meet Zia Mian and then to work afterward with him and Alexander Glaser and Tamara Patton to develop an art exhibition that would raise awareness about the peril of nuclear weapons. The infographics, video, and text panels that they have made for the exhibition demonstrate why these matters are so important and how citizens can make a difference.”
Artwork by Marion Held, photographs by Gary Schoichet, and drawings by child survivors that convey the horror of the devastation from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings “are meant to be intellectual and emotional catalysts to awaken people to the dangers and to motivate them to make the world safer,” continues Hamill. “To prevent the catastrophe of a nuclear war, the powers of reason, imagination, and human empathy are all critical.”
Video and wall displays by the Program on Science and Global Security provide up-to-date information on the risks from nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, the local and global long-term effects of the use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization plan and its expected costs, and the current effort to eliminate these weapons, including the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed upon at the United Nations in 2017.
The Hiroshima Children’s Drawings were contributed by All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., where in 1995 a box was discovered at the home of a parishioner containing 48 colorful drawings made by children. The artwork was in thanks for gifts received from the church 50 years earlier.
In 1945 the church’s pastor, shocked and enraged by news photos of the bombings, inspired his congregation to collect school supplies for the children of Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima who had survived the bombing but lost 400 of their classmates and teachers. In December of 1947 school supplies and other gifts were delivered to Hiroshima.
In gratitude those same children sent a collection of drawings to the All Souls parishioners. The drawings in brilliant color conveyed the children’s memories of better times and their hopes and dreams for the future. They depict scenes of beauty and joy — self-portraits, a cityscape, festival flags and kites flying against a bright blue sky, children on a playground, cherry blossoms in bloom, city traffic on a bridge, a girl in a beautiful kimono.
Certainly, for children, forgetting is a healthy coping mechanism. There are no pictures of sadness, no trauma, no fear. None of the pictures reflects the horror that these children had endured less than two years earlier when a bomb like no other was dropped and detonated above their homes. Though surely they never forgot.
Applauded in 1948, the pictures disappeared from view over the years until rediscovered in 1995. Conserved and stored in a vault, the pictures were brought to Hiroshima in 2010 and reunited with their makers, then in their 70s. The reunion of the artists and their artwork was documented in a film that reflects on the artists’ early lives amidst the rubble of their destroyed city and the hope their shared artwork created.
“I think I wished that these things existed, which is why I drew them,” says one of the artists, who was 8 years old when she lost her entire family to the bomb. She was raised in two different foster homes, and her drawing of a schoolyard full of children playing on a merry-go-round and a slide is what she wished for. She grew up to become an elementary school teacher and newspaper writer in Hiroshima.
In commemoration of the human catastrophe in Japan, multimedia artist Marion Held has made ceramic masks, as well as evocative kimonos of organdy and paper. The artist, who lives in Montclair and was the subject of a retrospective at the Hunterdon Art Museum in 2009, invokes memory and loss and compares her work to old bones, referencing the passage of time. Viewers won’t find answers, only questions.
Held’s studio space is in a series of garages behind her home. Her husband has a woodshop in one where, at press time, he was putting the finishing touches on shelves on which Held’s masks were to be displayed. The couple has been in this home and studio for about 30 years, and have taken out walls to open up some of the connecting garages. In past years it was featured on Montclair studio tours. There is a drawing studio, a sculpture area, a storage area, and another space dedicated to making photographs. Yet another area is where she sets up installations, and her clay studio is in the basement.
Held traveled to Hiroshima two years ago and was so “infected” by visits to a peace park, seeing monuments and memorials, that she created the series of masks. “We saw objects pulled after the bombings and skeletons of buildings. I felt a kind of responsibility that my country did that. It’s very hard to deal with, and making art is my way of dealing.”
The garments she has made, transparent and ghostly, have been printed with drawings that suggest body organs. She started making garments about 11 years ago as a tribute to her mother, who liked to sew, and continued to make them as commemorative garments. Gallery director Hamill saw them at Medialia…Rack & Hamper Gallery in New York and selected them for “Ashes and Shadows.”
She says the masks, made for “Ashes and Shadows,” “commemorate what I saw at Hiroshima, what’s left of a person who survived such a thing.”
Born in Manhattan, Held grew up in the Bronx and when she was in eighth grade moved to Toms River with her parents, who took over operating a chicken farm. “My parents decided they wanted to get out of city — it was something people did in those days.”
Until graduating from high school in 1957, Held remembers her family collecting eggs every day, candling and packing them. “It was interesting going from the city to a rural community, out in the sticks. I loved the woods and walks in nature, though school was cliquish with a small-town feel — that was the hard part.”
As a child, Held always liked to draw. “My mother told me my kindergarten teacher said I made a turkey look like a turkey.” And that was before the poultry farming.
She majored in art education at NYU, then earned a master’s of fine arts at Montclair State. Over the years she has taught at East Brunswick High School, Piscataway High School, and Montclair Kimberly Academy, and continues to teach at the Montclair Art Musem.
Does the threat of nuclear war keep her awake at night? “I think everyone has been listening and should be afraid because what is going on in North Korea is terrifying. People should be thinking more about this, including our government. This show is very important.”
Having traveled the world, Held believes others should travel, that visiting other countries teaches openness to other customs. “I think people have to be more accepting of other people, other ways of life, but we’re going in the opposite direction, pulling inward. It’s sad what’s happening here now. Our leader is sowing contention and it’s horrifying. He uses nuclear war as a threat. He should not be going there.”
Photographer Gary Schoichet rounds out the exhibit with portraits and reflective comments of Hiroshima survivors, as well as documentary photographs of the 1982 Anti-Nuclear Rally in New York City. “The actual effects of it were with these people for the rest of their lives,” Schoichet says. “Families were lost, and histories lost, so maybe if people start to feel for other people, something will happen.”
Shadows and Ashes: The Peril of Nuclear Weapons, Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall, Princeton University. Free. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. wws.princeton.edu/about-wws/bernstein-gallery.
Panel discussion Monday, November 13, at 4:30 p.m., moderated by Professor Stanley N. Katz.