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Ken okiishi: A model childhood / review

By Ellie Lerman

‘Condo 2019’ is a collaborative exhibition by 52 galleries across 18 London spaces, which aims to encourage more visitors to commercial galleries. It was following the Condo map of six galleries clustered around West London that I stumbled upon ‘A Model Childhood’. Tucked away in a side street near Oxford Circus is the unassuming former leather showroom, now commercial contemporary gallery, Pilar Corrias. ‘A Model Childhood’ is Ken Okiishi’s second solo exhibition in the UK- his first being in Pilar Corrias in 2013- and he uses his relative anonymity to his advantage; boasting a large range of media including readymade, photographs, and video. Okiishi’s work hovers between the digital and political, exploring  relationships between memory, technology, and emotion; while simultaneously invoking his deep family history of Hiroshima-Japanese culture, and experiences of living in America. ‘A Model Childhood’ uses Okiishi's personal experience to shed light onto larger issues that can be felt and understood on a wider level. The exhibition demonstrates the evolution of personal to universal, emphasising issues of migration, culture, and family identity.


The absence of any information desk or waiting area throws you into the installation immediately, creating an instantly immersive experience. Considering the limited size of the gallery space, the amount of labour that Pilar Corrias have put in to execute this exhibition is apparent. Rows of neatly organised boxes and bric-à-brac containing Okiishi’s entire childhood belongings fill the floor of the rectangular gallery space, and the visitor is able to freely weave through the objects without directional suggestion. In conjunction with these belongings is projected footage of the artist’s road trip from Iowa to Los Angeles (with childhood belongings in tow). Additional items in the exhibition include a video documenting every object in the Okiishi household, and a billboard-size photograph of Okiishi’s father on his first Boy’s Day Celebration in 1940 Honolulu surrounded by 50 dolls modelling the life of a warrior. The accompanying text explains that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Okiishi’s Grandfather threw the entirety of the family’s relics from Japan into the  ocean; situating the exhibition within a narrative of deeply complicated and traumatic family history.


The array of childhood objects scattered across the gallery range from meaningful to meaningless. As we consider the belongings, we see objects that we recognise or resonate with, laid out in an easygoing and humorous fashion: tennis rackets, a phone number written on a napkin, a school certificate, and a mockup of the Swiss countryside complete with soil and  miniature cows. The long, thin layout of the room seems ill-equipped to comfortably hold an entire childhood, and the objects are purposefully squeezed together evoking themes of identity and belonging. Okiishi’s belongings interact with and enhance the projected footage which is thrown onto the objects, causing obstructions and patterns on the screen. Projection is essential within the installation. It immerses the viewer into Okiishi’s narrative by projecting their shadow onto the screen and allowing them to move amongst and within, and become part of the installation itself. The road-trip video is both poignant and personal; the viewer is transportedinto Okiishi’s place as the camera shakily pans across swathes of never-ending dusty landscape. It becomes clear that the footage is documenting the old site of the Topaz concentration camp- a WWII internment camp for American-Japanese families- imbuing the video with past history of imprisonment and segregation. Okiishi uses the idea of the awe-inspiring sublime American landscape to juxtapose against the harsh realities of being a Japanese immigrant during WWII. A sublime landscape represents incomprehensible greatness, whereas those actually living within the Utah landscape were suffering from humiliation, “loss of self-respect” and shame after enduring racial prejudice and being regarded as traitors.

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In terms of practicality, the exhibition falls slightly short. Instead of labels, a handout of accompanying text is supplied full of unexplained terms and winding sentences. Personally, struggling to decode the indecipherable text was the most frustrating aspect of the exhibition. It led me to question whether Pilar Corrias was aiming their exhibition at an elite academic audience, or if they simply didn’t expect anyone to pay attention to their text. However, an upside to hosting in a contemporary commercial gallery is that Okiishi’s personality is strongly felt throughout the entire exhibition, more so than in a large public gallery. It is as if you have just stumbled into Okiishi's bedroom or read an excerpt of his diary. The exhibition feels especially ephemeral, showing for only one month with very little publicity and advertising, purposefully done so that viewers pay close attention to the themes and ideas presented. It has been specifically curated to emphasise how Okiishi’s personal experience can shed light on wider global issues such as family, immigration, and culture. Through exhibiting an immersive installation with intensely intimate objects Pilar Corrias have managed to curate an outstanding and influential exhibition.


My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.

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