"Sign of the Times" is our new series of conversations with Japanese artists who work with the theme of memory and related trauma, touching on the most diverse pages of their country“s history. It is interesting for us to turn to their experience and analyze how different generations of artists interact with the heritage of their country and personal stories. The first conversation took place with Yoshinori Niwa, with whom we decided to continue our autumn dialogue and talk with him in more detail about his attitude to the mistakes of history, the project “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space” and the properties of memory. Niwa”s project is dedicated to the opportunity to outgrow the past of one’s country, ridding oneself of physical attachment to those objects that marked the negative experience of families and individuals.
We decided to slightly mix fragments of the previous conversation with the present one, so that you have the opportunity to form a more complete picture of the project and its specifics.
Русская версия / Russian version
Interview with Yoshinori Niwa
Gendai Eye: “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space” has been running since 2018 and is currently continuing in other cities. What discoveries have you managed to make for yourself during the existence of this project?
Yoshinori Niwa: I had a great experience and reaction from people in all cities where the container traveled. Starting as a commissioned work by the art festival steirischerherbst’18 in Graz (Austria) in 2018. I installed the cloth collecting container at Hauptplatz, Graz, which is located in front of the city hall, and where once was Adolf-Hitler-Platz. The project drew really international attention — actually I got a lot of media interviews more than I expected including the New York Times and got several offers to realize this project or showing the series of documentary videos in Graz, from other countries such as Germany or Switzerland. Offers mostly came from Germany where people think “officially” take responsibility for Hitler. Then, I thought it would be great to travel to “Adolf-Hitler-Platz” in other cities because most Austrian/German cities used to have “one” to activate the imagination of local people and engage with people thinking over the cross-point of “public history” and “personal or family history” which create a question: To whom does history belong? I had a different experience in each city. Because of COVID-19, I could not visit the apartment of anyone in Germany, however, people left messages on the container, they’re mostly ashamed or angry of what I am doing. I think that’s great. I engaged them and they reacted.
In fact, the container has traveled to Vienna, Düsseldorf, Köln and Dortmund. It was put in a public space along with a newspaper advertisement in each local media. I hope the container could travel more to other cities in the future.
GE: Before we move on to our conversation about your project, although we have already partially talked about it in our previous conversation, I would like to talk about your personal experience. Could you say that an analogue of the project “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space” would be possible in Japan? What obstacles might you face if you decided to take on such a project in your home country? And have you ever had such thoughts?
YW: Of course, I have been thinking of the possibility of such a project in Japan. However,I think this kind of project would not work well in Japan. Because it seems like most Japanese people feel no shame or guilt for having memorabilia related to the Empire of Japan. In other words, it seems that most Japanese feel less guilty about being involved in the war in the memorabilia itself. I think the problem is that a lot of time has passed since the end of the war and many Japanese people now think about the war that the Empire of Japan committed as if it was someone else’s problem. So perhaps it should have been changed to a project dealing with questions about the function of the Emperor that still exists in Japan, or about war crimes committed by the Japanese military. This is what I have to develop in the next step.
Although it would be relatively smooth to exhibit the above works in artist-run spaces or private galleries, because they can take a risk on their own. but it gets very complicated when public institutions get involved such as the city government or the Japan government.
In my works, I had been protested by some audiences for “Walk in an Opposite Direction of a Demonstration Parade” because of the violation of their right of publicity. If I were to deal with Japan’s war, I would face more harsh protests from audiences. In the case of exhibitions at public institutions, it may be difficult to continue the exhibition. Just as the group exhibition "After "Freedom of Expression?” that included some artworks about the Japanese Emperor, organized for Aichi Triennale 2019, was attacked by many right-wingers and the exhibition had to be temporarily closed.
The Japan Foundation, an independent administrative institution (but it’s a type of legal body of the Japanese government), organizes exhibitions of many Japanese artists outside Japan. Last year, the Japan Foundation organized an online exhibition “11 Stories on Distanced Relationships: Contemporary Art from Japan”, in which Yuki Iiyama“s video work ‘In-Mates’, which used records about Korean patients living in Japan left behind in mental hospitals, was canceled due to the organizers” decision. In recent years, public institutions have become so sensitive to audience reactions and tend to self-censor and avoid sensitive issues.
GE: Obviously, the topic of the consequences of the Pacific War is still quite a sensitive spot for Japan, especially for its neighbors. Can you please tell us about how this topic appears in your life, whether it concerns your family and whether you have a personal opinion or experience in this regard.
YW: I have realized a couple of works of mine such as “Selling the Right to Name a Pile of Garbage” in Manila and exhibited them. In conversations between artists, we sometimes talk openly and calmly about war and war crimes as well.
Many people in everyday life in Japan seem to subconsciously avoid talking about the Wars. Simply because they do not want to cause a conflict of opinion. I can hardly remember talking about the war with my family either. I only heard from my mother that my grandfather went to school in Manchuria somehow due to the war. However, it would be very interesting for me to explore my family story with a little information that still remains. Rather, I am interested in how younger generations who haven’t experienced the war understand the war.
Not only in the Pacific War, Japan had a war with China and Russia and colonized many areas and countries in Asia. It is rather the relationship with those countries that is the topic of discussion. Negative opinions are raised by other countries about official visits by Japanese politicians to places such as Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the war dead. This is because it could lead to Japan glorifying the war. I think that such a facility enshrining the war dead is necessary, however, I think that instead of politicians' visits to the shrine, more information of truth should be given to the younger generation, who did not experience the War.
The younger generation is obviously against the war and there’s a regional movement of protest. However, it seems like they’re a bit passive and take a certain distance to the issue of Yasukuni shrine itself. I think that the Japanese government is trying to distract attention from past war crimes and political problems by keeping a capitalist system where people are highly driven to earn money every day.
GE: How difficult can it be for you to cope with people’s reactions to your projects? Has there ever been a threat to your safety, and how does the fact that you are in the position of an “outsider” save or hinder this?
YN: Most of the time, they get angry because I am a foreigner in the country. In other words, people who have negative feelings about my work are angrier because they think I have nothing to do with their land or its history. In fact, I got a lot of angry emails from FB, messengers etc. One guy said he would shit inside of the container, but he didn’t do it. Some said they were proud to be German and that they would attack Japan’s culture if I keep doing the kind of work I did in Graz.
GE: Tell me, last time we talked about the fact that some made a claim that they say “you are Japanese, how can you deal with our topic?!”. If you look at this situation from the other side, what advantages in this situation could you highlight for yourself? Does this detachment allow you to look at the historical context in a different way, to empathize with it, based on the experience of your country?
YW: When people say to me, ”You are Japanese”, I always reply to them, jokingly and half-seriously “I don‘t know why I am Japanese". As I have already spent 6 years in Austria and I have always been categorized as a foreigner here, I needed to apply for a permission to stay from the local government. No matter what idealistic opinion of the world-citizen without any border you have, it”s just a reality of your life. I have a passport issued by the Japanese government, so I am treated as Japanese. Yes, probably I am Japanese and that’s right. As far as nationality is concerned, the Japanese government embraces “right of blood’, a child can acquire Japanese nationality if either of his or her parents is Japanese. A curious question then arises to me. When did my parents and ancestors become “Japanese”? I began to wonder whether nationality is a system that no longer fits the times. This is the background to the above joke.
In the work “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space” carried out in Graz, the most interesting question was “To whom does history belong?” I don’t believe that the history of Nazism belongs only to the Austrian or German people. Rather, world history should be open to all peoples of the world. Therefore, I do not think that the history of Japan belongs or is the responsibility of the Japanese people alone. Nationality should be more fluid.
GE: The project traveled to Austria, Germany, Slovenia. Can you elaborate on the differences that accompanied showing or discussing your project in these countries? What does the collective experience of these countries mean?
YW: The project was actually realized only in Austria and Germany. In Vienna, additionally a public discussion was also held on whether to dispose of memorabilia related to the Nazi era. In Slovenia, I only exhibited a video documentation of my work and the container.
I mentioned that it is not meaningful to describe in detail the different reactions in Austria and Germany. Because It might create a wrong image of the countries. Of course, reactions to the artworks differed from city to city. Some put angry messages on the containers, others sent me messages trying to persuade me to cancel the project, or asked me to donate all memorabilia in the container. What they all have in common is that although they are private Nazi-era memorabilia and even private property, they cannot escape association with a “historical object”. This means that people and the community see a common ground that needs to be shared and discussed in every single home.
GE: You had to communicate a lot not only with the project participants, who brought different things, but also with passers-by, who could have different attitudes towards your undertaking. Did you manage to develop some kind of internal user guide, according to which you answered and explained to people the importance of your project? How to tell people about the truth that they may not like?
YW: For the project in Graz, newspaper advertisements were placed in the form of “new service offer”. A service to dispose of memorabilia related to Nazism. I tried in this way to sneak such a message into the existing public media and to reach a wider and different generation of audience. I started the project without an internal user guide and without any specific arrangements on how I would talk to people, but it was still enough for me to talk about my motivation and the purpose of my project. And it’s always been the best way to talk, whether they like the truth or not.
GE: The people who brought the items into the container were from different generations, what do they think of their fathers/grandfathers? Do they justify them, do they try to understand the personal and historical, to separate or unite these categories?
YW: The project was designed to allow people to anonymously dispose of Nazi memorabilia at any time, even at midnight. Therefore, the container was installed in the public space. So I do not know the details of the people who actually threw the memorabilia in the containers. I have visited the homes of some of them. An old man in Vienna showed me Hitler“s book ‘Mein Kampf”. It bears the mayor’s signature and the name of his friends. At the time, it was a gift that the city sent to his friend when they got married. He wanted to donate the book to me if I wanted it, instead of disposing of it. It is important to note that many of the people I spoke to were people who had already decided to “get rid of their memorabilia”. There is a bias here. And Nazi-related memorabilia always have a point where personal and public history meet.
GE: I would also like to ask about the peculiarities of storing these items, some group division: there are families whose relatives could be on the side of the executioners, and there are those who kept these items and were victims. What is the difference or commonality between their motivations for preserving items?
YW: Most people who wish to preserve Nazi-related memorablia do so due to personal memories about family members. I have heard that some people kept their memorabilia because their grandfathers were involved with the Nazis, so that they could know about their involvement and trace their personal history through the memorabilia. I understand that this can be a kind of “healing” process. On the other hand, my guess is that if their grandfather was Jewish, they might keep their memorabilia as a purely personal memory from the victim’s point of view with the “never forget” expression. However, at least in my project, I never met anyone who wanted to keep Nazi memorabilia because their grandfather was Jewish.
GE: When I looked through the stories of your interlocutors from the project “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”, I thought about the fact that in countries that fought against Germany during World War II, there were many people who brought and kept such things not for reasons memory and nostalgia, but out of trophy motives. What do you think of this aspect of this phenomenon, when opponents also retain the memory of it through these objects?
YN: It’s interesting that people, even in enemy countries against Germany, take some objects as trophies. I guess it’s because of our human desire of remembering something very strongly through some objects, but then a question arises; Is it possible that we can only keep our memories and feelings through something material?
I made this Hitler project because I was also very interested in the way that these memorabilia are transformed into new personal meanings within their families and cannot be thrown away. It may be that beyond the state and political system as a community, all memorabilia is attributed to the individual at the very end.
GE: Tell me about the process of getting rid of these items. What does it give, in your opinion, to the project participants and their families? Can it turn away from the mistakes of the past?
YW: The memorabilia thrown into containers are shredded by a special company. Only physical objects are destroyed. The project traces the process of denazification in Austria and Germany, in which Nazism was regarded as an absolute evil and also erased Nazism symbol or sign from the public sphere. However, the past remains unchanged. Moreover, there is the dilemma of destroying memorabilia, because it may lead to the erasing of an opportunity to testify to history. Only the owner of the memorabilia can make that decision.
GE: Did you find any common pattern in people’s attitudes towards memorabilia in the projects “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space” and “Looking for Vladimir Lenin at Moscow Apartments”? What is common and what distinguishes the nature of storage of things from different ideological sides?
YN: Some in both projects think old memorabilia from the past would become expensive in the future, so they would be able to make money out of it — that’s the reason why they keep memorabilia. I think this is a common pattern under our capitalist society — everything can be a “product” that has a certain value and is exchangeable with money in the market.
As for “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”, In Graz, many people asked me what’s inside of the container of “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space”, people are very curious about it. Some say Yoshinori Niwa wanted to make big money from what he is collecting. Some think this is a great idea to denazify our society. As the project was designed to shred all memorabilia in the container, some think we should not destroy all of them, but donate it to the museum to store the historical object as social memory to hand over to next generations. This became a focus of criticism.
As for “Looking for Vladimir Lenin at Moscow Apartments”, because the project was not designed to destroy their objects, but borrow them for the period of the exhibition, so people are happier to show and talk about their feelings towards Lenin, some have a personal feeling to him that defined their personality and life.
GE: How do you build the logic of presenting this project in the exhibition space? What is your priority and what elements (objects or video) do you focus on?
YW: The object itself is not important at all. In fact, the memorabilia is only visible in very limited scenes of the video. The project is meaningful in the process itself, as the owners of the memorabilia worry about whether to dispose of them or donate them to a museum. In other words, it is a conflict between prioritizing personal memories and public justice. For this reason, only a series of documentary videos is presented at the exhibition. I believe that the message of this work will be meaningful enough to the audiences outside Germany and Austria as well.
GE: How to avoid the idealization of the past, all these nostalgic journeys to the “better times”, that once were and will not come?
YW: When people seek nostalgic feelings, I understand that it’s a certain reaction from how we feel with the current situation; we’re not satisfied with the current condition. Indeed, in many cases it has an aspect of escaping from reality and suffering, it’s harmful. It’s powerful and it may alter the historical description if leading politicians are under nostalgic feeling. Therefore, I think there’s only one solution for us to avoid this nostalgia, to always keep updating the current condition for the better and developing new values — of course that’s very hard indeed.
GE: Why do we neglect historical experience and repeat the same mistakes? How much hope do we need?
YW: Although some dictators would still repeat the same mistake, there’s always hope indeed. I believe that the most important key is developing a better education system in order to raise “new people”. All dictators always take their education system under control first. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any way to instantly transform history into a perfectly good and great world. As human beings have built societies over a long period of time, we are to provide the next generation with the means to build a better society as much as possible.
Sign of the Times:
Sign of the Times # 2. The Trajectory of the Family Past by Aisue Kondo
Previous Interview: Looking. Yoshinori Niwa