Foreign Exchange

A short time after Paul Davies had conceived his Radiation Room installation, he showed me a series of journalistic photographs depicting the aftermath of the A-bombing of Hiroshima. One photograph in particular caught my attention. It shows a teenage boy carrying a child, perhaps a younger brother, on his back. Both boys show signs of radiation burns and on their faces is a look of shock.

This photograph had an emotional content not often found in journalistic coverage of the atomic bomb drops that ended World War II in Asia. Film documentaries available in North America usually focused on such topics as the triumph of technological innovation demonstrated by Oppenheimer and his team, the U.S domestic politics surrounding the dropping of the bombs, or the role of the bomb in bringing the war to a quick end. This photograph of the two boys indicated to me that a critical aspect of the dropping of the atomic bomb had been left out -- what it was like to be a victim.

I envisioned myself as a schoolboy in Hiroshima on Monday, August 6, 1945. I would be at school, or on my way there, perhaps with a friend. The war would almost seem unreal to me -- before the atomic bomb was dropped, Hiroshima had not been attacked by conventional bombs. At 8:10 that morning everything would be fine; buildings would be standing and my family would be alive. By 8:20, buildings would be demolished and masses of people would be dead.

The contrast between the naiveté of the children in the Hiroshima photograph and the violence of the new superweapon is overwhelming. The lives of the two boys were changed immediately and profoundly because of a decision made by one man, on the other side of the planet, to approve the dropping of the bomb. Their lives were changed because of the work of a team of scientists the boys had never met. Their lives were changed because some strangers thought that by removing Hiroshima from the planet, evil would be stopped in its tracks. How can one explain this to these boys?

Japan today contains a rather unique, homogeneous society. Although the Japanese are fascinated by the products, styles and technologies of other countries, they seem to need to modify imported goods and ideas to give them a distinct Japanese flavour. Somehow, the Japanese are able to assimilate the Form of things foreign without often understanding their Substance. The rest of the world is kept at "armís length".

This is evident in the Japanese language. An entire separate syllabary exists for writing foreign words. Imported words do become part of the Japanese language in a sense, but the foreign status of a word is always apparent any time it is written.

Foreign Exchange, the artwork, consists of a fixed image of the two boys in Hiroshima. Onto that image is projected a series of questions. The questions inquire about the meaning of English nouns that relate to the production and use of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The questions are displayed in Japanese followed by an English translation. Synchronized with the projection, a voice speaks the Japanese form of each question.

Foreign Exchange, the expression, is rife with connotation. The U.S. government and the Japanese government are constantly flailing accusations back and forth over issues such as balance of trade, payment for the Gulf War, currency value, and U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Bond scares have replaced bomb scares.

As the collective attention of both the U.S. and Japan turns to financial matters, the sad fact remains that although both these countries contributed to the death and suffering of innocent civilians during the 1940s, neither country seems to feel any regret.


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