Love Letter to Yukiyo Kawano

In the center of a room, two individuals lie on the ground, their gaze fixed on a massive sculpture, recalling the shape of an atomic bomb, which is hovering just above them. Around the edge of the room, people watch a chilling moment unfold; among them, more vertically hanging sculpture hang.
Yukiyo Kawano, Floating Lanterns, 2019. Newspaper, kakisibu-dye, adhesive, bamboo grass, wire, fabric (polyester), Polyethylene rod, nylon rope. 10 x 5 x 5 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

Suspended from the ceiling, Yukiyo Kawano’s sculptures made everything in the gallery feel insignificant. Not just because the pieces—replicas of the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—were enormous, but because they were heavy with the weight of loss. Kawano, a third-generation hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor), had constructed them in perfect detail from her grandmother’s kimonos and sewn them together with her own hair.

As I stared at the sculptures from across the gallery, another visitor walked between them. That slight disturbance in the otherwise still air of the room caused the bombs to flutter, as though they were made of nothing—gossamer, weightless—as though I had imagined them. It seemed impossible that something that appeared so substantial in one moment could be rendered so fragile in another.

But that is the nature of memory.

Kawano often incorporates Butoh performances, Japanese calligraphy, and Japanese textiles into her work. By mining the specificity of her experience in this way, she reveals a universal truth about how the DNA of grief, violence, pain, and generational trauma are woven through the fabric of the human experience. 

Though I first saw Kawano’s work five years ago, its themes feel even more present today. When I read the latest news articles about structural racism, genocide, or police brutality, Kawano’s sculptures remind me that these events’ effects are incalculable. They cannot be explained using numbers or statistics. They are carried in the bodies of our fellow humans, in every cell and strand of hair, in all of their strength and beauty and fragility.

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