April 2011: Mike Saijo @ Bleicher/Caporale Gallery


 Mike Saijo, A Dream Deferred
Wax, Ink, Toner on pages of “At the Edge of History”
by William Irwin Thomson, on wood; 65 x 62 in
Courtesy of the artist and Bleicher/Caporale Gallery

 

Mike Saijo: A Dream Deferred
Bleicher/Caporale Gallery
355 N La Brea
Los Angeles, CA
March 23 through April 5, 2011


Japanese-American artist Mike Saijo, who grew up in San Marino, a small affluent city in Los Angeles County known for its Huntington Library, didn't feel accepted in the primarily white neighborhood. Being raised Christian and wearing baggy pants turned the mixed media artist into an easy target of the San Marino community to which he could only defend himself with the support of his friends, a group of Chinese gang members. Saijo's current exhibit A Dream Deferred at Bleicher/Caporale Gallery is linked to his personal experience, conveying his strong feelings about racism and discrimination. The exhibit received its title from a poem by African-American writer Langston Hughes, who became known during the Harlem Renaissance for his jazz-inflected poetry style, expressing the writer's experience as a black person before the Civil Rights Movement.

To sensitize his viewers to the subject matter and to shed light on the situation of immigrants in the United States during the conflicted time of the 1940s surrounding the participation of the US in World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the violence during the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles, and the political tensions after the US dropped nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Saijo focused on the neighborhood Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles during the same time period. Boyle Heights in the 1940s was a true example of the American melting pot, with a large number of Jewish, Japanese, Mexican, Russian and Yugoslav immigrants, co-existing peacefully together. Yet in order to simplify the subject matter Saijo, who started with his research in February 2011, decided to focus on the three major ethnic communities -- Japanese, Jewish and Latino.
 


Mike Saijo, Exodus
Wax, toner on pages of Hebrew text found by the artist, on wood panel; 86 X 110 in
Courtesy of the artist and Bleicher/Caporale Gallery

The exhibit opens with a diptych Exodus on the gallery's right wall close to the entrance door. Its left panel shows an image of the Breed Street Shul (the largest synagogue in the western U.S. from 1915-1951), and its right panel a Passover Seder. The Breed Street Shul was a centerpiece of the Jewish community in Boyle Heights, where many businesses formed around it, such as Canter's Deli, which is now on Fairfax, and Mount Sinai Clinic, a forerunner of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Both photo images are superimposed on the pages of a prayer book in Hebrew. It is perhaps worth noting that these pieces are displayed near the steet-facing windows in a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of the city at the start of Passover season.

The exhibit continues with America Goes to War, depicting three soldiers, with a Japanese and a Latino soldier smiling optimistically into the camera and a Jewish soldier appearing nonchalant. The three soldiers symbolize the three major ethnic groups represented in the exhibit. Regarding the context of the show, this work proposes that although the immigrant soldiers dressed like their white American fellows and were fighting for the same cause to defend their adopted country, they were discriminated against and exploited -- an issue that is still not resolved. Saijo uses the same technique as in Exodus by appropriating imagery and superimposing old photographs on pages of an historical book.

A construction piece Orpheum Theatre of War was created like a theatrical performance with two red curtains on each side, and depicts a 1943 incident in downtown Los Angeles, where Mexican-American men were pulled on to a stage by the LAPD and military servicemen, who stripped them and urinated on their clothing. The aggression was prompted by some of these men being dressed in so-called Zoot Suits. The theme of discrimination against people of other ethnicities during wartime is represented again in a mixed media and collage piece Executive Order 9066 that emphasizes the relocation and internment of about 110,000 Japanese-Americans who lived along the Pacific Coast of the United States in 1942. A Dream Deferred shows a Japanese-American prisoner at the Manzanar internment camp, on top of pages of the book The Edge of History by William Robert Irwin. The image projects a strongly critical sentiment, since it shows the sometime-hypocrisy of the American ideal of freedom and equality.


Mike Saijo, Otherness
Graphite powder on tracing paper, acrylic, pages of “Regarding the Pain of Others” by Susan Sontag;
Approximately 70 x 42 in
Courtesy of the artist and Bleicher/Caporale Gallery

One of the other major works of the show is a paper suit made of pages of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, the last book she published before her death in 2004. It talks about the role of war photography, showing images of pain, horror and atrocity, both pointing out their importance but also their limitations. The buttons of the suit are made out of pennies, hinting towards the man with little money in a society that values wealth. The word "otherness" is painted in black oil across the suit. However that precise form of that otherness is pointedly left open to the viewer's own interpretations and projections.

The show ends with another construction piece Evergreen, including nine silver spoons each carrying a letter of the title, representing Evergreen Cemetery -- the oldest cemetery in the Los Angeles area. The cemetery has historical importance, as many noteworthy people have been interred there, including the first Jewish community leaders from the Boyle Heights neighborhood, Mexican laborers and pioneers such as Lankershim, Van Nuys and Japanese Isseis. The silver spoons, presented in three different sizes have symbolic meaning of their own. Besides the "silver spoon" being a symbol of inherited wealth, shallow American-style metal spoons were new to the Japanese immigrants; and in their variable scale they suggest the generations of people buried at the cemetery.

Although the exhibit does not depict outright discrimination against the Jewish immigrants inside the US, instead using indirect references and assuming prior knowledge of the events of WWII, it succeeds as a whole in sensitizing the viewer to unfamiliar aspects of the wartime immigrant narrative in America -- and cannot helped but be viewed in the context of the resurgent harshness of the post- 9/11 era of global economic and political crisis.



Mike Saijo, America Goes to War (Japanese/Jewish/Latino American Soldiers)
Graphite, toner on pages of  “America Goes to War” Published by the American Theatre Wing; 65 x 62 in
Courtesy of the artist and Bleicher/Caporale Gallery



Mike Saijo, Executive order 9066 (from the Series)
Mixed-media, collage; Series of 10, 18 x 11 in each
Courtesy of the artist and Bleicher/Caporale Gallery



Simone Kussatz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has written numerous articles in the field of the arts for international and national magazines published in Germany, the US and UK, China, Iceland, and Switzerland. Kussatz was born in Asperg, Germany. She holds a Master's degree in American Studies, journalism and psychology and received her education from Santa Monica College, UCLA and the Free University of Berlin. In 2004, she produced and hosted three TV-shows under the title "Metamorphosis", where she conducted interviews with Jewish artists in regard to the Holocaust. Kussatz has also worked in theater in the position of stage supervisor and manager in the plays “Talley’s Folly” and “The Immigrant.” She has taught English as a Second Language and served at Xiamen University in China, as well as EC Language Center in London.

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