A Night of Elephants

“A Night of Elephants” at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art 2005

“Is there any radiation left in Hiroshima?”
“Is the city of Hiroshima still in ruins from the bomb?”
Living away from Japan I often encounter questions like these. For many, Hiroshima is known only as the city that was burned to ashes by the atomic bomb sixty years ago. Peace activists around the world praise the name, “Hiroshima” as a symbol of peace. However, within the city itself, the memories of the atomic bombing are gradually fading. The numbers of Peace Education classes that are taught in elementary schools are decreasing, and Hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) are growing old. In the course of time, their presence and their living testimony will be lost to us. Although, the word “war” has become part of our everyday lives. Is the actual Hiroshima forgetting “Hiroshima?”An atom-bombed city, Hiroshima is my hometown. Being born in Hiroshima, Peace Education was mandatory in my elementary school. We saw much horrific imagery, but now it is in my past. I had not thought about this until recently seeing the 9.11 terrorist attack in New York with my own eyes and observing the Iraq war, I realized my strong reaction to war. Since I was young, I had a strong conviction that war just comes and takes things. I never forgot that to this day.In the West there is a saying, “Elephants never forget.” Elephants remember their experiences in great detail, much as humans do, a quality not found in other animals. Also, they are known for returning to their birthplace by memory. The idea of “never forgetting,” expressed through the motif of elephants, is used to represent “Hiroshima” in my work.In the graphic novel, “Buddha” by Osamu Tezuka, Buddha often expressed the human spirit, using animals as examples. In the following scene, an agonized Prince who was going to war comes across Buddha.Prince: “Oh, Buddha! I never thought that I would see you here.”
Buddha: “Say, it looks as though you are going to war. Are
you going to Kapilavatthu to destroy the Sakya tribe?”
Prince: “My father, the king has asked me to defeat them for his sake. The king is my father and he detests the Sakya tribe. He has ordered me to ruin them. A son must obey his father, mustn’t he?”
Buddha: “Do you believe in everything your father, the king orders you to do?”
Prince: “No, I don’t, but if I don’t obey my father, my son will not believe in me either. For my own son I obey my father.”
Buddha: “That’s nonsense. No matter who it is, whether it is the king or Brahman, if you don’t believe in the order you should not obey it. You must walk like an elephant even by yourself relying on your feelings and believing in your own dignity. That will set a good example to your own son more than anything else.”
——-From “Buddha” by Osamu Tezuka (Kibou Comics)From this scene, the elephant I envisioned is stamping his footprints into the earth, step by step; its sturdy and magnificent figure inspired me to express Hiroshima.In June 2005 I headed for India to observe elephants, where they are revered as the deity called “Ganesha.” For two and a half weeks in India, I relied on my instincts to do and see just what I felt like doing at the moment, and I wanted to pour this flexibility without logic or obsession into my artwork. By the end of the trip, I ended up at the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in India, a home to many wild animals, including elephants. With the help of the Tamilnadu state government and an elephant researcher from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature I was able to visit the elephant camp. I also managed to observe wild elephants at night.
I was told I would not be allowed to document the animals, but I brought drawing materials to the camp anyway. Going into the forest, the elephants were throwing the sand on their heads with their trunks, stomping back and forth, and towering above me. I felt happily surrounded by the vital energies of their mysterious sound. The elephant caretaker was curious about why I wanted to see the elephants, and after hearing my response he allowed me to get closer. Standing next to them I realized their tremendous girth. It frightened me to see their eyes staring at me knowing the power of these large creatures, but I also felt a delicate sadness in their eyes. Seeing these elephants, my eyes lit up, and the caretaker said, “Looking at you, I can see your love for elephants…you can draw a little bit and I won’t tell anyone.” I immediately started drawing. Over and over, I drew their feet, the slackness of their stomachs, the movements of their wrinkles, their hair, their humps, their muscles, their outlines, and their charming buttocks. I learned the graceful and enormous bodies of the elephants.
With memories of the elephants fresh in my mind I returned to my hometown, Hiroshima, to weld a steel framework into a cage-like structure in the shape of an elephant. I was planning to represent the memories of Hiroshima by gathering objects from the time of the bombing and piling them into the elephant/cage. I started collecting objects. I searched for these objects by placing an advertisement in the newspaper and by word of mouth. Among these invaluable found objects I collected; a leather backpack that belonged to an elementary school girl who died in the bombing; wooden walls from a gymnasium that no longer exists; a woman’s skirt still showing yellow stains from the ointment used to treat her burns; and a little boy’s sock with a hole in it. Through the process of collecting I met many people, and had the chance to hear interesting stories about these Hibaku objects and their lives. One of the things that struck me most was a comment from a donor, which confirmed the importance of my project: “Even those who never experienced war should still work for the cause of Hiroshima, then they can learn from the process.”

While I was gathering materials, I frequently visited Mr. Yuso Takesawa, Vice director of Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, who has been studying the expressions of Hiroshima. One day we had a discussion about the trees that have survived the atomic bombing, the so-called Hibaku trees. Then, suddenly I vividly imagined the trees becoming the flesh of my elephant.

I heard that the Hiroshima Botanical Garden held an exhibition of Hibaku trees and I called them right away. Through the contact, I discovered that the International Peace Promotion Department of the Hiroshima City Council manages all the city’s Hibaku trees. The council told me that the Hiroshima Naka-ku Civil Engineering Department had mature and overgrown Hibaku trees on One Hundred Meter Road (Peace Road) that might need pruning. But the final decision to prune any Hibaku trees needed consultations by the tree doctor, Riki Horiguchi.

The Hibaku trees experienced the atomic bomb, so they are a silent expression of survival. Their humble silence resonates through the past, present, and future. Mr. Horiguchi has been researching these Hibaku trees independently for many years, but his work inspired the city of Hiroshima to develop this as a peace-related project. He assists the city of Hiroshima to observe and care for all 150 Hibaku trees in Hiroshima on a daily basis. Mr. Horiguchi’s attitude towards the trees is exemplified in his words: “Listen to the trees.” I was inspired by the profundity of Mr. Horiguchi’s work, which manifested no political ideology, similar to the quietude and vitality of the trees.

When I met Mr. Horiguchi, I immediately understood that my elephant would be filled up with these trees. He appreciated the intention of my work and called the International Peace Promotion Department. That very same day he accompanied me to the Hiroshima Naka-ku Civil Engineering Department with his consent to prune the trees.

With the help of Mr. Horiguchi and the City of Hiroshima, a truckload of branches from Japanese Hackberry trees, Kuroganemochi trees, and Muku trees (all from One Hundred Meter Road) were collected. I dried the branches for two weeks. Then I filled the branches and leaves, one by one, into the cage-like structure of the elephant’s body. The different-colored pieces grew out through the openings of the elephant/cage as if they were the elephant’s wild bristles, giving the piece a dynamic, living quality.

To represent the different memories of Hiroshima, I placed the other objects I had collected in shadow at the back of the exhibition space. The elephant filled with Hibaku trees lay illuminated in the center of the room. The dried Hibaku leaves filled the space with their herb-like scent.

In Japanese, the word “to listen” not only means to hear a voice or sound in the ear, but it also means “to smell.” While the scent of the Hibaku trees resonated potently we “listened” to the mysterious strength of their survival.

Tonight, the elephant that walked for sixty years
is exhausted
and lies down.

This elephant of Hiroshima exists in silence.

What kind of morning will this silence become?

Metal framework in the shape of elephant stuffed with leave and branches of the trees that survived the atomic bombing in Hiroshima
“A Night of Elephant” Hibaku Tree branches and leaves, metal, metal sheet, ceramic and found objects 12 ft x 12ft x 3ft 2005

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