Michiko Suzuki: Hope Chests
At the Burnaby Art Gallery until June 12
Lovely and contemplative as it appears, Michiko Suzuki’s ongoing Hope Chest project was inspired by horror. Some years ago, she was shocked by a documentary on the trafficking and sexual exploitation of Cambodian children in the decades following that country’s savage civil war. Through her church, Suzuki also met a young Cambodian girl who had been adopted by a Canadian minister.
These encounters, and the dawning understanding about how vulnerable girls and young women are, led her to create an ambitious, mixed-media installation that spoke generally of hope rather than oppression. She searched out eight teens, four Japanese and four Canadian (including the adopted Cambodian girl), on whom to base her extended body of work.
Within this project, she told the Straight during an interview at the Burnaby Art Gallery, she has employed beauty as a way of countering the negative and conveying hope for the future of each girl. She has also used white silk as a symbol of purity. In this context, purity seems to mean “uncontaminated by exploitation and brutality”.
Trained as a master printmaker in her native Japan and based since 2005 in the Vancouver area, Suzuki has created eight tents out of white silk. Each tent bears a large, black-and-white photographic portrait of a teenage girl, printed on the vertically divided fabric front (which resembles Japanese doorway curtains, or noren). Within each tent, which you enter alone and reverentially, almost as if entering a shrine, the artist has placed a table and, on that, a kiri box.
Each shallow box is lined with kimonolike fabric and holds another print of the girl, this one on Japanese paper. Used in constructing the containers in which kimonos are traditionally stored (part of a Japanese bride’s hope chest), kiri wood protects against insects, humidity, and fire, Suzuki says. The sense of protecting something precious—a young woman’s future—is metaphorically reinforced here.
The ink-jet portrait on the front of the tent in Hope Chest for Sokna shows the young Cambodian-Canadian woman smiling beatifically and looking upward, as if toward a peaceful and fulfilling future. Within the tent, we see small images of Sokna in a slip dress, posed with a skipping rope. Images of rabbits and monkeys, borrowed from Shinto art, are superimposed, somewhat incongruously, on the portrait of Sokna laid within the box.
Hope Chest for Kahoruko depicts another sweetly smiling teen, included here because she lives in the Fukushima region of Japan, the area devastated by the massive earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak of 2011.
The dark subtext below the sunny surface of these two portraits, as Barbara Ziegler notes in the exhibition catalogue, is that “Discrimination on the basis of gender increases the vulnerability of women and girls in emergency, post-disaster, and post-conflict situations.” Despite the conditions from which these girls have emerged, they are depicted as happy and—as is essential to this project—hopeful.
The installation also includes framed and wall-mounted ink-jet and photo-etched portraits of the girls, along with the lids of the kiri boxes, embellished with Japanese calligraphy. Many of the prints are deeply romantic, and include collage and photo-montage elements, drawing from a range of pop-culture sources, past and present. Video interviews with the girls and their parents are also an aspect of the project, but don’t provide much insight into their lives or their dreams for the future.
If there is a criticism here, it is that the images are overly sweet and feminine, skewed by Suzuki’s belief that the teens depicted are precious because they will be the mothers of a future generation of babies. What? Not precious because they will be the future leaders of Canada and Japan?
Still, as Ziegler has written, the installation “gives us hope that these girls and indeed all girls will be able to lead lives of equality that are free of suffering and violence”.