Masumi Memories

Four area institutions celebrate the work of the Cleveland artist shot and killed last year by her neighbor in a dispute over noise.
Time has not dulled the shock of artist Masumi Hayashi’s death more than a year ago. She entered this world at the epicenter of an ugly chapter in American history and left this world through an act of senseless violence. Shot by her neighbor in a dispute over a noise complaint, Hayashi left an enormous void, especially in the Cleveland art scene.

“She was spectacular,” says Susan Channing, outgoing director of SPACES Gallery, where Hayashi exhibited her work, and served on the board for “seven dedicated years fighting for artists’ rights, against censorship, for peace and human rights.”

While Hayashi’s politics are embedded in her art, Channing says she created “morally serious work that also succeeded
This is no small feat. Hayashi’s work is paradoxical. Her photographic treatment of repugnant places made them beautiful. Her lyrical, panoramic views of specific locations belie their often horrific past. She rendered the killing fields in Cambodia into lovely, benign landscapes of hills and trees. Her series on EPA Superfund sites is equally beguiling: beneath a veneer of green are mountains of poison. The images she created from abandoned prison psychiatric units are hauntingly graceful. Wherever she focused her camera, she captured places that bear the hard stamp of human history.

In a rare partnering and show of community spirit, four area institutions mount nearly simultaneous exhibitions of Hayashi’s work later this month. The newly reopened Akron Art Museum, SPACES Gallery, Cleveland State University Art Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland will devote space in their galleries for different stages of Hayashi’s work.

Hayashi, who was born in a Japanese American Relocation Camp in 1945, made location a central focus of her work. Some of her most profound works are the images taken at the relocation camps — or what’s left of them. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, internment camps for people of Japanese ancestry were created from Idaho to Arizona.

After World War II ended, Hayashi was raised in the Watts section of L.A. and received her B.A. and M.F.A. in art from Florida State University. When she arrived in Cleveland in the 1980s, the city was in a state of abandonment — the Warehouse District and the Flats were ghost towns. The remnants of Cleveland’s busy industrial past were everywhere. It was a perfect artist playground. Urban pioneering artists lived above SPACES Gallery in the Bradley building on West Sixth Street. Hayashi was part of this small but thriving art scene.

Cleveland’s postindustrial landscape inspired her mature work. Fittingly, SPACES Gallery will show eight pieces from this era, made between 1986 and 1992, including one never shown before. These pieces set the foundation for the rest of her life’s work. In them, she places row after row of individual photographs arranged in a panoramic view. By creating a nearly seamless, 360-degree view — a whole view unattainable by the human eye — she reconstructs and reimagines landscapes and thus reshapes time and space. None of these early works has a single person in them, a trope she would continue until her final work.

Hayashi was greatly inspired by the Panopticon, a late 18th-century building design for prisons in which a single guard tower is surrounded by prisoners’ cells in a circle. The guards are in the empowered position.

Knowing this, Hayashi’s solemn and lyrical works take on another layer of meaning: They become about power, who has it and who doesn’t, and Hayashi places herself in the empowered position, moving her static camera around a central point.

It was inevitable that Hayashi would make her way back to her place of birth. The former internment campsites are not on any map, so Hayashi needed on-the-ground help to find them (read more about her story on Gila River and the other internment sites have only bones left: sewers, building foundations, cemeteries. Wind, rain and time have done their damage or magic.

Yet these images are the most personal in all of her work. Five of them can be seen at MOCA in a show called Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: Remembering Injustice, curated by Megan Lykins-Reich. What began as a personal pilgrimage turned into an eight-year project. Hayashi began collecting audio interviews with Japanese-American internment survivors; these audio clips accompany her work at MOCA.

Though she traveled a great deal, Hayashi was a professor in the art department at Cleveland State University for 24 years. Among the four institutions, Cleveland State University’s Art Gallery provides the largest cross section of her work in a show called Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: The Memorial Exhibition, a retrospective survey curated by Michael Gentile. The show will include a very early piece from the early 1980s to some of her final work. Throughout her years of teaching, Hayashi mentored and inspired a number of students, and their art appears as an ancillary exhibit, co-curated by her former studio assistant, Suzanne Adams.

Finally, the reopened Akron Art Museum mounts Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: Two Pilgrimages, curated by Barbara Tannenbaum and situated in the museum’s new showcase for photography, the Bidwell Gallery.

Two Pilgrimages addresses the artist’s personal, political and spiritual quests. The show includes nine large-scale pieces: more of the Japanese internment camp images and Hayashi’s most recent work of sacred sites such as street scenes in Asia, particularly India, where she traveled on a Fulbright scholarship.

“The two series in this exhibition were not just Hayashi’s last major projects, they were also her most personal work,” says Tannenbaum. “They were not just artistic projects but also spiritual pilgrimages, one exploring a long-suppressed pain and the other offering opportunities for spiritual healing.”

In these final pieces, her work includes the human figure more prominently. While all of her work addresses what humans have wrought — shamefully, naively or with the sole purpose to harm — these images include usually a solitary figure, facing the camera or busy surviving. They are still intriguing, often lonely landscapes, but the inclusion of a person speaks of a kind of hope.

The images are quiet, but powerful. They are metaphors for memory and time. The exhibit at SPACES, called Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: Heartland, also includes a more recent work from 2004. “She always preferred the symbolic, stark nature of an unpopulated space,” says Channing.

In looking at her work again, it’s clear that although she put herself in the position of power, we don’t see evidence of her — except in the Japanese camp images. In these blighted, windswept landscapes, scalded by the sun, we can see the shadow of her tripod against the ground, as if to say I was here. And she was, and her images won’t let us forget.
If you go
Akron Art Museum
Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: Two Pilgrimages
Oct. 27 – Jan. 27  |
See her works of Japanese relocation camps and her final work from Asia.
Cleveland State University Art Gallery
Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: The Memorial Exhibition
Nov. 2 – Dec. 15  |
This exhibit will feature a broad spectrum of Hayashi’s work.
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland
Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: Remembering Injustice
Nov. 2 – Dec. 30  | 
Focusing again on Japanese relocation camps, this exhibit will also have accompanying audio of survivors.
SPACES Gallery
Masumi Hayashi, Meditations: Heartland

Nov. 16 – Jan. 4  |
Featuring early postindustrial work
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