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Visiting Japan, June 2001

Since the Pacific War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are about “peace.” Hiroshima has its Peace Memorial Park, Nagasaki has its A-bomb Museum. The devastation caused by the two atomic bombs on 6 and 9 August 1945 was so massive that it is hard to truly comprehend, but all agree that it should be remembered. Hiroshima provides a route for such a commemoration. Some foreign visitors feel uneasy about this itinerary, because the Peace Memorial Park is about the horror of nuclear weapons but is neglecting Japan’s role in the Pacific War. The historical perspective of “Hiroshima” has been replaced by the city’s significance as metaphor for the future.
This is the starting point for the project “Visiting Japan” by the Dutch artist Hans van Houwelingen. He has manipulated nineteen photographs, taken in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb explosions, by giving himself (and occasionally his son) a place in all of them. Where the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima invite visitors to retrace the steps of the victims of war, Hans van Houwelingen has taken empathy to a level that surpasses ethics and quite literally placed himself in the position of those we commemorate. These pictures question the morality of remembrance. Are they in bad taste, the latest manifestation of virtual disaster tourism, or do they confront us with a visualisation of what goes on in our minds when we see the original photographs? Or both, perhaps? Does the artist have the right to manipulate historical documents, or did he make himself a more straightforward witness of a human disaster than those who tend to turn their heads?
Incidentally, the photographs show how Hiroshima and Nagasaki have ingrained themselves in our collective memory. Van Houwelingen’s interventions in the post-blast landscapes trigger our recollections not only of the original images but also of any scene of destruction that we have come across in the media.
Meanwhile, these manipulated photographs underscore how unreliable images can be as historical data. They are obviously ‘untrue’ because of the artist’s presence in them, but they also call to mind the countless other examples of manipulated memories. History is not only what we choose to remember, but also how we remember it. In that sense this series of photos can be seen as a truly political artwork. Those who know other works by Hans van Houwelingen will realise that he is motivated, not by a facile urge to shock, but by an infallible intuition for identifying the often painful but unspoken questions that lurk behind our actions of goodwill.
“Visiting Japan” is a journey undertaken by means of contemporary technology and one which begs the question to what extent we allow ourselves to identify with victims or even use them for political reasons.

Source: Ivo Smits, clarification for the exhibition Hiroshima Art document 2001