With fanciful imagery and poetic narration, theater artist Kimi Maeda’s new show, the ephemera trilogy, ponders the journey of her family — past, present, and future — and her own Japanese-American cultural identity. Using two forms of visual storytelling — shadow puppets and sand sculpture — Maeda delves into vast subjects including the Japanese-American internment, immigration and acculturation, memory, art, and loss, via a personal connection.
In her first piece, “The Homecoming,” Maeda tells a dreamy, folktale-type story about memory, body, and home with narration, sound effects, and shadow puppets. In “The Crane Wife,” Maeda turns her attention to tradition, motherhood, and legacy, focusing on her mother’s journey from Japan to America. Using shadows of herself, objects, and projected silhouette illustrations, Maeda compares her independent, feminist mother to the not-quite-traditional tale of a Japanese wife who sacrifices herself to support her husband and family. The final piece of the trilogy, “Bend,” addresses Maeda’s father, Robert, and his struggles with dementia. The story moves fluidly between the present day and the 1940s, when a nine-year-old Robert was interned in the Poston Japanese-American concentration camp in Arizona.
The first two segments are graceful but gentle inquiries that on their own leave an indistinct impression. But the final piece proves the densest, strongest, and most visually provocative. Between clips of film footage, an overhead camera projects Maeda’s sand sculptures, which she simultaneously arranges on the floor. With brushes, blocks, and her hands, she draws the camps, skyscrapers of Chicago, and images of her father, Uncle Sam, and airplanes filling the sky. Mimicking the sandstorms of the camps and the shifting nature of memory, the medium holds each image for only a moment before Maeda sweeps her slate clean.
The sand (a nod to Japanese Zen gardens) is a hypnotic show unto itself. It’s so beguiling to watch Maeda work that it’s hard to focus on the tremendous amount of information being communicated: On top of the historical audio material, there are recorded conversations with her ailing father, as well as actors voicing Robert as a boy and several other characters. It’s difficult to know who is speaking as these voices get woven together, and so the power of the juxtaposition gets lost in the cacophony. Maeda also attempts, throughout, to draw parallels between artist Isamu Noguchi, who was also a Poston internee, and her father, but their relationship is so tenuous as to be unclear.
Maeda calls upon a remarkable visual craft, but the trilogy could use some narrative tightening to make the themes she raises in each part resonate collectively. There are concepts that drift across the segments — politics, protest, lack of control, changing fates, sacrifice — but in the work’s current form these threads disappear too quickly and rarely intersect. Given a more focused approach to how the stories are told, we could better appreciate Maeda’s complex ideas regarding borders, memory, and history — and the unusual media she uses to communicate them.
the ephemera trilogy
By Kimi Maeda
The Paradise Factory
64 East 4th Street
Through March 12