Boxing Memories [Tanaka’s current body of work] is comprised of mixed media objects utilizing photography, text, and found objects to explore the intersections of time, mass culture, and personal history. As an Asian-American woman, I work from the margins of America, mapping a family geography of immigration, assimilation, and internment. I use artifacts and records of the personal and the popular within photo/textual contexts, producing new records of memory caught and catalogued, of time passing through, and recorded in the visible. My work is, to a great extant, about appearance and what might or might not reside behind it. I was born in Chicago and grew up Japanese-American in an otherwise Caucasian suburb. I grew up feeling like I was like everyone else inside, but with a face that made me different.
Loss, the reconstruction of history, and memory play an important role in Tanaka’s work. The stories she inherits from her own families internment in World War II concentration camps become her own and continue to frame her social and personal identity today. Emotional Baggage, a sculptural piece consisting of assemblage, collage, photography, and text examines duality and inherited memory. The use of the actual newspaper, the Nichi Bei Times, from 1942, combined with engraving and typed text moves the viewer from the past to present to past, both metaphorically and actually. She writes: The text underneath each block is language representing emotion, typed on a typewriter. With two mechanical means of reproduction from the time – typewriter and line engravings, combined with the actual newspaper of the moment past, the piece mixes the past and present, the fact and emotional response to the fact, the vague and the definite, the two dimensional/three dimensional physical world with the floating world of the psychological. An approximation of my experience of the experience of my parents and their families as transmitted to me – those emotions and memories are reproduced here.
Ten Years of Sustained Growth explores the act of growing and cutting my hair. It displays two consecutive stages of “growing” periods covering the last decade of the 20th century. This piece is about physical appearance and the nature of personal growth. The physical growth of the hair produced an artifact. Does it signify an invisible inner growth having taken place inside me? Is growth to be measured by the visible products of the person or by some intangible set of psychological attributes? Time passes, hair grows, the world changes. But what really happens? And if personal growth does occur, how does anyone know but me? The piece also explores the microcosmic/macrocosmic. What were any of us doing in 1991 when the Gulf War started? Did it affect us? Should it have affected us? What is that personal/political intersection about?
It is also about identity, culture, and self… the cutting of my hair is a metaphor for cultural assimilation/obliteration, and/or an assertion of individuality. I present the cutting of my hair as a shedding of something visible in relation to something invisible; a small death within a life; the death of the immigrant’s culture when assimilated into a new culture; the death of a once living body, now useless, a trace of something, a totem to honor one’s own past; an offering to the dead as described by the American chronicler of Japanese life, Lafcadio Hearn: “…But she who resolves to remain forever loyal to the memory of the lost yields up all. With her own hand she cuts off her hair, and lays the whole glossy sacrifice–emblem of her youth and beauty–upon the knees of the dead.”
The Cutting Edge complements my other pieces concerning the cutting of my hair, and incorporates the scissors shown in Emotional Baggage. With the display of the physical object that enacted the event of memory, we are summoned to do as the text suggests, to remember the event. We travel back into the invisible, now made visible again in our memory. We go back to what time has cut off by cutting off the present and the future to engage the past. Just as the two braids are the tangible evidence of the past, so are the scissors the tangible evidence of the act of severing the present from the past, of cutting off the future, of causing a death, a stop in time which then restricts that life to live on only in words, images, and in our own memories. As the viewer sees her/his own face reflected in the mirrors within the box, a memory might be jump-started as one views the look of one’s own changing and ultimately vanishing mask of the moment.
The Cutting Edge also raises questions about life and death. In Greek mythology, the third goddess of fate, Atropos, cuts the string of life/fate granted by the other two goddesses. As the strings of life are cut all around us we rely on memory to hold to what has passed into the invisible. Then as we confront our own inevitable transformation into the unknown world already occupied by our predecessors, we anticipate a place where past, present, and future must meet. But here, while time passes and our bodies age, we wonder where do we go, what does our fate hold, what kind of metamorphosis will we undergo as the scissors slowly close? Ya las horas afilan sus navajas (The hours sharpen their blades.) – Octavio Paz
Gayle Tanaka was born in Chicago and received her BFA from the University of Hawaii and her MFA from San Francisco State University. Her work has been shown in San Francisco at venues including the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens, the Jewish Museum, and Olga Dollar Gallery; in Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Center and ARC; in NYC at A.I.R. Gallery; and at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Rice Media Center Gallery at Rice University in Houston, and the Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center in Santa Cruz, CA. Camerawork and Artweek have published her work. Gayle was awarded a Kala Fellowship in 1994, a Puffin Foundation Grant in 1996, and was an artist in residence at the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia in 2000. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.