Suitcases, footlockers and steamer trunks – artifacts from the forced journey of Japanese Americans in 1942 – set the stage for Wendy Maruyama’s exhibition at the University Art Gallery. Assembled at the exhibition’s entrance, these history-rich containers have been transformed by the artist into a site-specific installation that initiates a different type of journey: a viewer’s journey back in time. Maruyama’s two recent bodies of work subsequently guide the viewer to consider the evacuation of Japanese Americans from their homes, jobs and schools to the inhumane conditions of internment camp erected by the U. S. government – their government – at the height of World War II. Maruyama leads us to imagine, to symbolically witness the places and events of the mass incarceration of an entire segment of the American population in one of the most shameful moments of the country’s past.
Once inside the Gallery proper, the viewer encounters Maruyama’s impeccably handcrafted wooden wall cabinets and assemblages from her series Executive Order 9066. These spare works, incorporating tarpaper, porcelain shards, an excerpt from the U.S. loyalty questionnaire, photographic imagery of the interment camps and other allusive items, conjure the cruel settings of the Japanese American imprisonment. Primarily horizontal in form, the cabinets in particular evoke the desolate landscape and barren environment of the camps, while making indirect reference to the people who inhabited them. In addition, bamboo fishing poles, left behind when West Coast fishermen were evacuated inland and required to pursue livelihoods separate from the sea, have been configured by Maruyama as a found-object artwork with a broad expanse that echoes her predominant cabinet format.
Further along the metaphoric journey of Maruyama’s exhibition, the viewer enters her large-scale sculptural installation, The Tag Project. Here, the nearly 120,000 individuals who were imprisoned in the camps are expressly and explicitly memorialized. In counterpoint to the wide, landscape-referential works of Executive Order 9066, The Tag Project comprises ten tall, figurative arrangements of strung paper tags suspended ceiling-to-floor. These hanging specters populate the Gallery with the spirit of the people who are commemorated by name, number and camp location on Maruyama’s convincing replicas of internee identification labels – one for each child, woman and man who suffered the indignities of internment.
Wendy Maruyama’s artworks, by courageously addressing the Japanese American internment during World War II, succeed in bringing attention to this far-reaching tragedy. And in doing so, they create an opportunity for education and awareness, which in turn have the potential to engender greater empathy toward and acceptance of all peoples. Maruyama brings the viewer back to the present with a future aim: to ensure that this type of injustice never again occurs. Her goal requires a collective willingness to heed the hard-learned lessons of history that Executive Order 9066 and The Tag Project convey.
Tina Yapelli, Gallery Director
San Diego State University Art Gallery