ON SPECIAL EXHIBIT
ROOTED AMONG THE ASHES: HIBAKUJUMOKU / A-BOMBED TREES
Photography by Katy McCormick | On view March 31 – October 1, 2023
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum
ABOUT THE EXHIBIT
For over a decade Katy McCormick has explored Japan’s two Atomic-bombed cities: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rooted among the Ashes portrays the survivor trees or hibakujumoku, subjected to the first use of Atomic bombs in 1945. Standing in school yards, temple grounds, and city squares, the A-bombed trees are living memorials, rooted among the ashes just below the surfaces of now-thriving cities. Predicated on “walking and remembrance,” the exhibition invites a promenade through space and time, memory and history, urging reflection upon how the past haunts the present—warning, teaching, urging care.
Presenting portraits of A-bombed trees in a manner reminiscent of scrolls, McCormick’s bamboo prints “breathe” and rustle with the passage of visitors. Unprotected by glass or frames, they are entrusted to viewers’ care and preservation as some of the last living witnesses to nuclear catastrophe. Complementing the photographic images, a video reveals alternative views of the trees, allowing viewers to sense their scale and vitality. A soundscape transports gallery visitors to the sonic environments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, alluding to the quotidian life obliterated in the disaster of war. Excerpts of written testimonials accompany the visual works, giving a sense of what was happening on the ground in the hours, days and weeks following the bombings.
McCormick writes of her first trip to Japan:
First visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2008, I was unprepared for the impacts I experienced attending the August 6th and 9th commemorations in the A-bombed cities. What shocked me most about “being there” was the degree of my ignorance about the effects of radioactivity on the survivors. Unable to shake the impressions of that first encounter, I adopted documentary ethics, returning to both cities four times between 2013–2019. I examined documents, environments and spoke with survivors and their children, relying upon the kindness of Japanese translators and guides, leading to lasting friendships. Working as an empathetic and historically-implicated artist, my project aims to bring Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the present to compel critical reflection on our own histories and futures.
Bearing the scars of heat, blast and fire, and forever altered by exposure to radiation, these trees signify the persistence of life in the face of total destruction. For survivors, they are living links to a history hidden in plain sight. In Nagasaki, the A-bombed trees are loosely identified by signs listing their species and distance from ground zero. In Hiroshima, a registry of A-bombed trees has been created by the municipal government. Many of the trees serve as touchstones in elementary school peace education programs. Over the years, elderly “explosion-affected people” or hibakusha have gathered children around the A-bombed trees and spoken to them about those dark times—and the hope brought by the trees in the face of so much death and destruction.
McCormick’s work asks viewers to consider the impacts of Little Boy and Fat Man—weapons exponentially more powerful than anything used up to that point—dropped by single planes on civilian cities “out of a clear blue sky.” Today, nuclear-saber rattling has awakened the world to the ongoing threats posed by nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert. In light of the UN adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on January 22, 2021, it is clear that the issues are pertinent not only to our past, but to our present and future. The survivors issue a warning to citizens everywhere of the horrors to come if nuclear weapons, infinitely more powerful now than in 1945, were to be used again.
ABOUT KATY MCCORMICK
Katy McCormick is a photo-based artist born in Kansas City, Missouri, whose work examines commemorative sites, revealing narratives embedded in landscapes. Since 2014, she has been a member of the Atomic Photographers Guild, an international group of photographers who critically represent the nuclear age. Rooted among the Ashes: Hibakujumoku / A-bombed Trees, begun in 2008, was recently on view at the Quaker Heritage Center in Wilmington, Ohio. Her work is included in Through Post-atomic Eyes (2020) and Place Matters (2022), both published by McGill-Queens University Press. McCormick is associate professor of photography and the interim chair of Image Arts at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University. Learn more at katymccormick.com.
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“In Hiroshima the role of green is linked to peace.”
— Chikara Horiguchi, Hiroshima Tree Doctor