Sunday, March 15, 2020

Paul M. Farber's "A Wall of Our Own"

Paul M. Farber is a curator, historian, and educator from Philadelphia. He is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Monument Lab and Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Public Art and Space at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

Farber applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Wall of Our Own: An American History of the Berlin Wall, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The [revision of the Berlin Wall’s] most prominent feature, its outer western wall, consisted of a repeated sequence of prefabricated concrete horizontal slabs stacked into interlocked steel-supporting frames. The result was a wall that approached full standardization only after nearly a decade of existence.

From the perspective of Tajiri and others, the so-called wall was an amalgam of many intersecting structures of border control, on both sides of the divide. For Tajiri, an American expatriate of Japanese descent and veteran who had left his home country twenty years earlier, moving through divided Berlin brought him in contact with traces of U.S.military occupation. As he prepared to begin a teaching post at West Berlin's Hochschule der K√ľnste, the border, in its state of partial construction, was too monumental to ignore. At the time of his first trip to divided Berlin, Tajiri was already an internationally recognized sculptor and multimedia artist who incorporated a wide vocabulary of surrealist strategies into his work. Fashioning small models by hand, he made many of his large-scale sculptural works in his own foundry, located within a rehabilitated castle in which he and his family resided in the Netherlands. His works included intricate bronze fortresses and towers poured into carved brick molds, large metal war machines with giant legs and protruding weaponry, assemblages from metal drippings, and oversized hardened fiberglass and polyester knots. Many of his sculptures from this period constituted reflections on the relationship between violence, militarism, and technological advancement during the Cold War. As an artist in what he deemed a "self-imposed exile" from the United States, he viewed his country of origin from afar, with a posture of engaged and wary critique.”

Specters of American war and division followed Tajiri throughout his life. The son of Japanese immigrants, with Samurai ancestral traditions on both his mother's and father's sides, Taiiri was born in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on December 7,1923. He turned eighteen on December 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Less than a year later, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the removal of 117,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes, the Tajiri tamily were living in San Diego within a designated civilian “exclusion zone.” With the executive order, the Taiiris were subject to forced relocation and criminal charges if they refused.
Page 99 of A Wall of Our Own: An American History of the Berlin Wall is the second page of a chapter focused on Shinkichi Tajiri, a Japanese American sculptor who taught as a professor in West Berlin from 1969 through the end of the Cold War. Tajiri is world renowned for his monumental sculptures. In West Berlin, he used photography to document the reconstruction and revamping of the Berlin Wall, his own way of grappling with both the physical and social divides he found throughout Berlin.

Tajiri’s work coincided with a period in which international visitors, especially Americans, found divided Berlin as a space of haunt and home, political trauma and of artistic possibility. There were state-driven resources – like those offered by the DAAD and programs at the Amerika Haus. Others went to Berlin through detours, to seek refuge in a city outside of the scripts of official control.

For Tajiri, whose family’s home was stolen during the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and who gained his own freedom from an internment camp by fighting for the American military as a Nisei solider, divided Berlin and its allied American Sector was many things – but it certainly signified a confrontation with American geopolitical power and presence. As he documented the revised boundaries of Berlin, he often included signage of the American Sector amidst other building blocks of division.

The Page 99 test works, in that it offers a vantage on Tajiri’s approaches and life experiences leading him to divided Berlin. One goal of the book was to expand the American story of the Berlin Wall beyond the well-known echoes of “Ich Bin ein Berliner” and “Tear Down this Wall,” to include other voices and figures who dealt with division in American culture while in Berlin.

This page sets up some of the reasons Tajiri was there, how encountering the Wall impacted his artistic process, and what it meant for his own personal history in ways that signified on other points of division in America. Tajiri, like dozens of others, including photographer Leonard Freed, activist/writer Angela Davis, and poet Audre Lorde, are among the “American Berliners” featured in this book. Divided Berlin, for each of these figures, and others who made a pilgrimage to the divided city, spent time in Cold War Berlin to better understand and represent social division in America.
Visit Paul M. Farber's website.

--Marshal Zeringue