Kimi Maeda’s ‘Bend’ explores relationship between memory and identity for Day of Remembrance

A black mat blanketed in a thin layer of sand covered the stage at Balch Arena Theatre this past Sunday as part of a performance by artist Kimi Maeda for Tufts’ Day of Remembrance. Wooden blocks, arranged carefully on the stage, formed the images of a house and a car. A wooden rack to the side of the mat held a variety of tools, like a broom and a paintbrush with an extremely long wooden handle. Two large speakers were placed on either side of the mat, with a suitcase and projection screen depicting a live feed of the sand and the blocks on the mat positioned at the back.

At the beginning of “Bend,” the final part of the Epherma Trilogy, Maeda entered the stage barefoot and packed the wooden blocks into the suitcase. A prerecorded narration of Maeda’s voice began to play on the speakers: “Have you seen the movie about my dad called Bend? My dad hasn’t either, but he’s pretty sure it’s playing next Thursday. He doesn’t know where, just like he doesn’t know where he is right now.”

As the recording played, Maeda began to draw in the sand, but she never spoke during “Bend.” She silently arranged the sand into beautiful images and shapes with precise, well-choreographed movements. The images Maeda conjured were paired with archival film footage, personal voiceovers and audio interviews with Maeda’s father, Robert Maeda. These varying forms of media combined to tell the story of Robert Maeda’s experiences in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

According to an event sheet from last year’s Day of Remembrance, the day is “an annual observance of Executive Order 9066 the presidential mandate that ordered 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to be imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. This day is a reminder of the need to protect civil rights and also to honor all who have fought and continue to fight for freedom and equality.”

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the executive order that called for the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. The U.S. government would hold those 120,000 people for four years in internment camps for no reason other than their race, in cruel conditions that mark one of the darkest moments in American history.

Robert Maeda arrived at an internment camp at the age of nine. At the camp, he encountered the successful modernist sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who had voluntarily entered himself into the camp. Maeda watched Noguchi, as he worked on his sculptures and later credited the artist as one of his main inspirations upon becoming an art historian with a focus on the art of east Asia. Maeda often lectured on Noguchi’s work and began writing a book about him but was unable to complete his work before the symptoms of dementia set in at the end of his life. As the disease began to take away her father’s memory, Kimi Maeda was inspired to start exploring the ways Noguchi’s life story intertwined with her father’s.

Kimi Maeda’s use of sand as an artistic medium in “Bend” was particularly potent. In a matter of moments, Maeda created incredibly detailed pictures in the sand, such as a portrait of her father as a child. Maeda destroyed these illustrations almost as quickly as she created them; with one sweep of a broom, each image disappeared forever. Doing so left the audience with a moving statement about the ephemerality of human memory, touchingly appropriate for a performance that explores the life of a man suffering from dementia.

The music used for “Bend” was equally compelling — all the songs within the performance are connected to Japanese culture. In one striking recording during the performance, Isamu Noguchi’s ex-wife sang a melancholy tune with a voice that was high, clear and beautiful. The song’s close connection to the performance’s subject matter had a powerful impact on the audience.

Maeda incorporates film clips from the 20th century into the performance. One clip that was especially unsettling to the audience was taken from an episode of the Three Stooges titled, “The Yoke’s on Me.” The extremely racist clip depicts Japanese Americans in an internment camp as violent and savage. As the video played, Maeda stopped drawing in the sand, turned to face the screen and watched it along with the audience. This moment created a refreshing uneasiness in the audience, as viewers were forced to consider the racist history that informs American culture and pop culture to this day.

Maeda’s performance, sponsored by the Asian American Center, Japanese Culture Club, Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora, Asian American Studies Minor, AS&E Diversity Fund and Department of Drama and Dance was ultimately a compelling, moving piece. “Bend” prodded the viewer to reflect on the fleetingness of memory, the importance of history and the ways these subjects intertwine.

Edit: The pervious version of this article did not specify the sponsors of this event. The article has now been modified to include that information.