Sunday, December 18, 2011
Only a few dozen of the thousands of women who survived sexual enslavement by the Japanese army during World War II are still alive, more than half a century later.
Now in their 80s, Filipino survivors of these experiences are often calledlolas, which means "grandmothers" in Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines. The Japanese soldiers who raped them during the years of Japan's conquest of the East Asia region (1937-45) euphemistically called them ianfu -- "comfort women."
New York artist Chang-Jin Lee's installation "Comfort Women Wanted," now on view at Spaces gallery in Cleveland, outlines their horrific story, presenting the faces and voices of survivors in an effort to increase public awareness of crimes that remain largely unknown in the United States.
This is despite the 2007 passage of U.S. House Resolution 121, which states that Japan should acknowledge the realities of World War II-era military forced prostitution and make reparations.
The Spaces show is timed to coincide with the 1,000th weekly protest since 1992 by the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women held Wednesday worldwide.
Chang-Jin Lee's video projections at Spaces show these grandmothers from the Philippines, the Koreas, China, Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia singing songs they remember from a brutally interrupted girlhood, and speaking -- sometimes haltingly, sometimes fluently -- about their experiences as sex slaves.
Most official documentation of the vast military prostitution network was deliberately destroyed by the Japanese immediately following the war, so that estimates of its scale vary and details about its organization are sketchy.
Most historians agree that at least 200,000 women from the occupied territories were involved. It's thought that as many as three-quarters of these died of disease, overwork, starvation or violence.
But unlike the victims of many other World War II-era atrocities, the voices of these victims remained nearly silent for decades, muted by shame and cultural attitudes toward sex abuse.
Finally, in the early 1980s, a belated groundswell of international public discussion stirred by feminist scholars and the women themselves gave rise to a series of protests, lawsuits and petitions for international censure.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Chang-Jin Lee trained at the Parsons School of Design. Her art explores the boundaries and textures of personal identity, as in her 2005 installation "Homeland Security Garden" at the World Financial Center Winter Garden.
For that work, she solicited "survival kits" from 200 New Yorkers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, consisting of hundreds of items that related to their own ideas of safety -- work gloves and duct tape, board games and paper clips. She then worked each of these into coherent compositions, displayed on Astroturf-lined pedestals as a surreal garden maze evoking a complex, personal dimension of security.
Her show at Spaces opens with a display of poster-sized images, each showing one of the ianfu against a flat field of bright gold, like an icon's gold-leaf background. In a darkened gallery beyond, three digital video projections vie for viewers' attention.
It takes just under an hour to see everything, and it requires determined concentration.
At over 35 minutes, "Comfort Women Survivors" is the most effective, superimposing text translations of five women's stories over still images.
The shorter "Former Japanese Soldier" is also riveting, screening the sometimes-confessional testimony of a man who remembers the "comfort stations" during his youth in the emperor's army. Another brief three-channel video shows scenes from different former comfort-station locales.
Chang-Jin Lee says those sequences are "about the history and memory of place," but the channels distract from each other and lack telling details.
"Comfort Women Wanted" -- which includes two kiosks with ianfu portraits and a billboard displayed in busy downtown locations -- conveys an important message almost too succinctly. The presentation could have benefited from the intensely personal associative efforts seen in some of the artist's earlier works.