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On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese armed force attacked Pearl Harbor with a violent air strike. About two thousand five hundred got killed and nearly a thousand were wounded. The bombing led the United States to enter World War II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact a national defense plan against Japanese sabotage and espionage.

The Executive Order 9066 forced Japanese and United States citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to pack their personal belongings with a few days’ notice and move to internment camps across the country. They were sent to deserted and barren areas in California, Colorado or Arkansas.
Today, history is repeating itself. Recent events involving racial and religious profiling, such as the Muslim ban and the separation of undocumented children from their families at the United States borders, seem to recall that unfortunate time.

I came across the story of the deportation and imprisonment of the Japanese thanks to David Horvitz (b. 1984, California). We were driving to the Descanso Gardens, northwest of Pasadena, where he would perform a piece to be installed at A n e m o c h o r y – meaning ‘the dispersal of seeds, fruits, or other plants by wind’ –, his solo show at Château Shatto in Los Angeles.

Only what we would carry
(2018) is an instructional piece whose title is borrowed from a book about Japanese wartime victims containing a collection of first-hand testimonies, letters and poems. The piece consists in stealing a camellia from the Descanso Gardens to then take it to the exhibition space. When the artist is not present, it requires the owner, be it a collector, a gallery or a museum, to fulfill it. No further directions, such as the type of vessel or what needs to be done when the flower dries up, are provided. Everything is open to interpretation.

The camellias growing in the Descanso Gardens have a specific history. E. Manchester Boddy bought them from two Japanese nurseries in the Los Angeles County right after the mass imprisonment of the Japanese was declared effective. They come out of a moment when people got separated from their homes to be displaced thousands of miles away.

Like the most of Horvitz’s work, Only what we could carry is open-ended, coincidence outweighs intention, the idea of movement and distribution is always present and nature is employed to address political issues and to raise questions about migration, oblivion, and appropriation.
The camellia is shown next to a photograph of the stars by David, shot from the site where his grandmother was detained. For Kyoko (2017) was originally commissioned by the Public Art Fund in New York for Commercial Break, a public exhibition on digital screens all over the city, organized few months after the election of Donald Trump.

Inspired by advertising and communication strategies, David superimposed over the night sky a brief text that reads: “I made you a photograph. Of the stars seen from eastern Colorado one night last October. From the site of Amache, the Japanese Internment Camp. I imagine my grandmother looking at them from this same spot, some 75 years ago”. At Château Shatto, the photograph is framed and hung on the wall, while the text is on the back like in a postcard; the meaning is right there, waiting to be found, and the camellia would complement it.

Words and photography
Riccardo Banfi
Special thanks to Elisa Frasca

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