Bruce Yonemoto’s “North South East West” aimed to explore and expand on the histories we learn from books and our elders. Just four works spread over two gallery floors conveyed the complex set of familial relationships, international exchanges and national identities that guided the exhibition’s revelation of hidden histories.
Yonemoto’s previous solo work and collaborations with his brother, the artist Norman Yonemoto, in film, video and new media have been shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in the 1985, 1987 and 1993 Whitney Biennials, among many other international institutions, and have been awarded numerous grants and prizes, including funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Maya Deren Award for Independent Film & Video. Of Japanese descent and raised in California, Yonemoto’s investigations into the intersection of American pop culture and contemporary pan-Asian cultural and racial identity were showcased in this small retrospective. Clean lines and simple images dominated succinct installations of rapidly blending but still divergent cultures.
While the two works from the 1990s on the lower floor made use of accessible metaphors—a clock standing in for time, flowers for youth—they also hinted at deeper concerns of memory skewing reality. Asexual Clone Mutation (1995) is a living red carnation with a single gold leaf, displayed in a thin vase on the wall—a reference to the brothers’ deceased father, a botanist. The Time Machine (After Mapplethorpe) (1999) conveys the rush toward death with a ticking clock, onto which is projected a video of an iris blossoming and withering. Occasionally the clock stalls, temporarily freezing the flower’s existence. Yonemoto controls the record of this bloom’s life before the viewer’s eyes.
The two works upstairs touched on race and culture as insufficient substitutes for identity. A digital video projected onto the back wall of the gallery established a background for a hand-sized scale model of Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain theme-ride that was attached to the right-facing wall. The video opens with a rapid-fire animation of the construction of the object in a prototyping machine. As an audio track plays enthusiastic screams of passengers on the clamorous ride, the video gradually dissolves into slow-motion home movies taken from social-media websites of families strolling the path toward the made-up yet real-life mountain of Disney’s invention. Entitled Simulations (2009), the piece reflects Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 essay of the same name in which Disneyland’s function as falsifier and mythmaker of American society is discussed. Yonemoto furthers this point of the slipperiness of identity by making the real fake, and the fake real. Just as the word Disneyland is related to notions of the United States, so are the Alps and the Matterhorn with Switzerland, yet neither says anything substantial or universally true about being either American or Swiss.
Also upstairs, Yonemoto’s “NSEW” was a series of digital C-prints from 2007. Large framed photographs and smaller ones in miniature, 19th-century cases depict somber-faced Asian men posing straight-backed in outfits from the vintage Hollywood studio supplier Western Costume. These actors hold vapid expressions common to formal Civil War-era photography. Here, too, Yonemoto controls how history unfolds. The contributions of Asian soldiers to the American Civil War were eradicated from official texts, but the artist reinserts them—perhaps another tribute to his father, drafted to fight in World War II. Like Simulations, “NSEW” is constructed and re-created, but not untrue: it presents a new history, better for the confluence of media from which it has emerged.
“North South East West” attempted to cover a huge amount of territory, which inevitably left the viewer wanting more from Yonemoto’s four spare ruminations on the universal preoccupations of life, time, death and entertainment. Taken as a new collection of cultural memories, Yonemoto’s work highlights a potential mapped but not yet fulfilled.