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The Artist Abroad

Hiroshima: Surviving fire and ice

/ 01:01 AM August 16, 2016

HIROSHIMAVisiting this port city on August 6th, the 71st anniversary of its being the first city to be A-bombed, my body threatens to liquefy, for it is intensely hot. The sky is brilliantly clear and the sun is unforgiving. It must be in the mid-90s Fahrenheit or about mid-30s Celsius. But this discomforting heat is nothing compared to the heat that those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of that nuclear weapon felt in the nanosecond before they perished: 2000 degrees Celsius, or 3632 degrees Fahrenheit. This is some consolation; I may be sweaty but there is no question I will survive. But the extreme heat released by the bomb I find unimaginable, and hope never to experience, or for anyone else, for that matter.

Enola Gay, the U.S. B-29 bomber dropped the ironically named, four-ton “Little Boy,” at 8:15 in the morning, which went on to explode 600 meters above the city, instantly creating a monstrous fireball, a miniature sun, and a mushroom cloud that bloomed, a malignant flower of death and destruction never before seen in the history of “manunkind,” to use E.E. Cummings’ perfect tweak of the word.

Ninety percent of the city was obliterated. Out of an urban population of 350,000, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 died instantly: Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Southeast Asians, and American prisoners of war. (I wonder if any Filipinos were among the Southeast Asian victims.) By year’s end, 140,000 people had died. Many literally became shadows of themselves: at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, one unforgettable artifact is the shadow of a person imprinted on stone.

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Outside, at the northern end of the Peace Memorial Park, is the steel frame of what has become known as the A-Bomb Dome. Never reconstructed, it is the only visible wartime edifice in what is an otherwise green and spacious city park—a powerful and eloquent symbol of how the world might end.

One of the most poisonous effects of the A-bombing was radiation sickness that affected many of the survivors, or the hibakusha. Death for a lot of them came later, often in the form of different cancers. But it wasn’t just the physiological aftermath that was devastating, but the psychological trauma as well. Lives were irrevocably altered for the worse.

The ceremonies held to mark this catastrophe were short and simple, with remarks by various dignitaries, including by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui, stressing the imperative of a nuclear-weapons-free world. Mention was made of President Obama’s visit to the memorial this past May—the first by a sitting president of the country that dropped the bomb here and a second one, “Fat Man,” on Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.

Though he did not apologize, nor was he expected to (there would have been a firestorm in the States had he done so), President Obama did declare that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them.”

Hearing those words and knowing that the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces has the power to unleash a nuclear war on a scale horrifically larger—each of the world’s more than 15,000 nuclear weapons is much more devastating than what was used on Hiroshima or Nagasaki—I shudder to think of how the notoriously thin-skinned Donald Trump might be tempted to push that button should the nightmarish scenario of a disastrously unqualified candidate being elected president come true. He who hates losing would make all of us, including himself, losers.

One of Robert Frost’s great poems “On Fire and Ice” expresses metaphorically and beautifully the devil’s dilemma that we face as humans. It is worth quoting in full:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

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From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

On a related note, my wife Midori and I then visited the Aichi Triennale 2016 held in the city of Nagoya. Two of the participating artists were Baguio-based father and son, filmmaker Eric De Guia a/k/a Kidlat Tahimik, and painter/sculptor Kawayan de Guia. Eric’s classic ‘70s indie feature, Perfumed Nightmare, was to be screened as part of the art fair’s film component, while Kawayan’s sculpture 24 Frames: A Paradigm in Four Acts, was installed prominently, just inside the main hall of the Aichi Arts Center.

His sculpture of four large black horses in varying poses, each on a pedestal, could easily have been titled the Four Horses of the Apocalypse—not horsemen, for each of the four is riderlesss. What has happened to the riders? Or are these horses untamed and untamable? They are figures of foreboding. What renders them unique is that they are essentially made of 35mm film spools shaped as tiny trumpets, the torotot so familiar to any Pinoy kid celebrating a holiday such as the New Year.

Inside one of the horses is a viewable digital loop of bits and pieces of different commercial films, originally consigned literally to dustbins in Tondo—and of course to the dustbin of history. This is sculpture as film and film as sculpture.

De Guia’s work attempts to reclaim popular history, so often ignored. These films may be viewed cinematically as “garbage” but in garbage an amazing amount of truth can be found. The work also alludes to the Filipino propensity towards both cultural and historical amnesia, to keep papering over our tangled and complicated relationship with our roots for the easy gain, the cheap thrill—a theme explored humorously and sensitively by his father Eric in the late ‘70s, in Perfumed Nightmare. Taking a cue from the film, our national perfumed nightmare is to keep reliving the past as though it never existed.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2016

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TAGS: “Fat Man”, “Little Boy”, “manunkind”, “On Fire and Ice”, 24 Frames: A Paradigm in Four Acts, Aichi Triennale 2016, atomic bombings, E.E. Cummings, Enola Gay, hibakusha, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Kawatab de Guia, nuclear warfare, Nuclear Weapons, Robert Frost, U.S. B-29 bomber
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