A ¾-scale model of a V-2 rocket—the first ballistic missile, developed by the Nazis—was at the center of Taro Hattori’s recent exhibition, partially explaining why the presentation was titled “V.” Made of arcing, interlaced sheets of corrugated cardboard, the 30-foot-long mock rocket (all works 2009) was lying on the floor in three separate parts (two additional segments couldn’t fit in the gallery), suggesting a multistage projectile awaiting final assembly and reminding some viewers of the central role that the weapon played in Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow. The association is not far-fetched: both the book and Hattori’s work are meditations on how scientific advances are often put to destructive uses.
Hattori, who moved to the U.S. in 1995 and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, was born into a family of shoemakers in Japan; his grandfather was an engineer in the Japanese military during WWII, which provides an autobiographical, if vague, link to the V-2. “V” drew a compelling analogy between the past and the present, as a North Korea-wary Japan has shown renewed interest in rearmament.
The letter V carries multiple historical meanings, ranging from Winston Churchill’s famous “V for Victory” hand sign to the German designation of Vergeltungswaffe (i.e., “retaliation weapon”), abbreviated as V-2, to the title of Pynchon’s debut novel, V. We are reminded of the bleak psychology that rationalizes payback fantasy as military strategy, grimly evoking recent plans to escalate the U.S. role in Afghanistan. That a greater number of people perished in the manufacture of the V-2 than died as a result of its deployment is a testament to the incomprehensible sacrifices governments continue to extract for expensive military adventures.
Given all its symbolic significance, Hattori’s cardboard rocket model, on display in an art gallery, seems to err on the side of understatement. But the accompanying “1951” series of six photo-collages on light boxes provided some much-needed context. Each of the 20-by-20-inch works is based on a collection of family photographs of or by the artist’s father, who is twice identified in captions as “The Craftsman.” These faded black-and-white photographs were scanned and digitally overlaid with engineering drawings—a combination of vintage German diagrams of the rocket, contemporary explanations of the technology and Hattori’s own plans for his sculpture. That virtually all engineering and manufacturing labor in Japan had earlier been put to the war effort suggests that the individuals in the photos were repurposing their skills to less destructive ends—an oblique commemoration of the rebuilding effort that was well under way in Japan six years after the end of the Second World War.
We might be tempted to interpret Hattori’s exhibition as a nostalgic exhumation of distant post-WWII memories. But the fact that most of the scientific notations in the light-box works are in English reminds us that the talents of German engineers—most notably Werner von Braun, the V-2 architect himself—and countless Japanese immigrants were folded into the service of an unprecedented expansion of American military and economic influence that took place during the second half of the 20th century.
Photo: View of Taro Hattori’s V, 2009, corrugated cardboard, 26 feet long; at Swarm.