by Karl Young, Curator

When the first atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, people within three hundred meters of ground zero were vaporized by the heat, leaving behind nothing but faint shadows on nearby surfaces. Survivors outlined these shadows, and these shadows and outlines have become increasingly important symbols of the evil we cannot allow to endanger our species. Shadows Projects, memorials to the first victims of ultimate evil and warnings against premeditated armageddon, have proliferated around the world during the last decade. In many cities during August people now go from place to place outlining each other as a reminder and as a warning. Related art exhibits, concerts, readings, etc. have also been held to commemorate Hiroshima Day.

Participants have included practitioners of all arts, at all levels. Their main purpose has been to help others understand and imagine the disappearance of life through nuclear war. Participants include artists from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the U.S.S.R. who have used Mail Art as a means of subverting the censorship imposed on them by totalitarian governments. Many U.S. Mail Artists see the genre as a means of circumventing less violent means of censorship. These artists set good examples for us, both as artists and as responsible members of the human community. As well as making devastation tangible, Shadows Projects point out what will be lost if nuclear insanity is allowed to continue. Some of the most moving pieces have been lyrical evocations of children playing or elderly people watching them.

Shadows projects often unite the two dynamic and egalitarian genres of this century, Mail Art and Performance Art. In the U.S., John Held, Jr. has been indefatigable in such efforts. Ruggero Maggi of Milan, Italy has also been particularly active. Closest to most Mail Artists' hearts was the 1988 International Shadows Project Show held in Hiroshima, organized by Shozo Shimamoto, Maggi, Held, and others. This show was international not only in its content but also in its organization and in the number of participants from all over the world who came together for this event.

This show included work from previous shows organized by Maggi, including the Hiroshima Show. Some pieces go back to the beginning of the decade. It would be interesting to chart the course of these older pieces which have circled the globe several times in their course from show to show. Work from a 1989 show in Calexico, on the U.S.-Mexican border, sponsored by Harry Polkinhorn, and a 1990 show under my curatorship were also included. The global postal system established after World War II was a crucial factor in the growth of Mail Art from a limited genre practiced by Schwitters, Duchamp, and others into a decentralized, global, grass roots movement, owing a great deal to the efforts of Ray Johnson. It is interesting that while Mail Art has been expanding, two other movements have followed along similar lines. One of these is crane projects. In Japanese tradition, cranes are symbols of longevity, and anyone who can make a garland of a thousand cranes will live long. This was the belief of a girl named Sadako who tried to make such a garland out of scrap paper as she lay dying from radiation in a Hiroshima hospital. She had not quite made it to a thousand when she died. Her family and friends completed the garland and started making others. This practice spread and today people all over the world make these garlands and send them to the children's memorial in Hiroshima or to other peace groups. Like Mail Art, cranes projects work through the mail. Following another Japanese tradition, Hiroshima survivors have made lanterns with messages for dead relatives written on them to float out into the Ota River and the Ocean on the evening of Hiroshima Day. This, too, has developed into global practice, with participants all over the world making lanterns to send to other people in other countries to memorialize Hiroshima and to promote world peace. Not only do these lanterns go through the mail, they often initiate long term correspondences between practitioners. Last year, a number of crane garlands were included in the Milwaukee Show. This year lanterns were lent to the Kenosha show by Lanterns for Hope. Mail Art, Cranes, and Lanterns have been passing each other in the mail for years without connecting. We are all working from the same impulse, the same need, the same hope. I hope cooperation between these movements can grow in future projects. I had opportunity to lend material from the Milwaukee show to a Dia de los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Dead) Show curated by Russell Bloch in Detroit last fall, suggesting that the shadow was not only a new icon but one that changed the significance of skeleton imagery. I also made photocopies of about forty pieces to be used in a Performance Art Shadows Project organized by Luigi-Bob Drake in Cleveland. Avoiding galleries altogether, the photocopies were used as the basis for posters mounted throughout the city. Possibilities for collaboration with other, unjuried, uncensored, noncommercial events will probably continue to present themselves. At a time when we seem to be moving out of a binary political system where two giant antagonists threaten each other to one in which the dangers of nuclear disaster are more widely dispersed, it is good to increase our efforts at enlarging our contacts with each other.

Press here to go to samples of mail art from the show.
Press here to go to a list of contributors to this show.

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