I’ve just come back from visiting Tokkōtai, an exhibition of work by contemporary Australian and Japanese artists to mark the 75th anniversary of the so-called Battle of Sydney Harbour. If you’re in Sydney, I recommend you try to get to see it before it closes on 12 June. It’s in the T5 Camouflage Fuel Tank in Georges Heights, Mosman.
On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines made a surprise attack on Sydney Harbour. Twenty-one Australian naval personnel and six Japanese submariners were killed. Though the exhibition program says the episode ‘left an indelible mark on Australian identity and the course of our history’, really it has been swallowed up by the Great Australian Amnesia except for an occasional newspaper mention, its meaning unarticulated and its impact unresolved. In this exhibition there’s a sense of that night being dragged back into awareness, and not so much as a key event in Australian history as a point of departure for cross-cultural understanding.
Ken Done’s series of paintings, Attack – Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour, is the big surprise. It’s as far from the Sydney Harbour prints that he’s famous for as you could imagine. In fifteen paintings he tells the story of the Japanese men on the subs, from their inculcation into the ethos of self-sacrifice to their burial with full military honours in Sydney in 1942.
There are two pieces of video art. Jennie Feyen’s Sakura and Steel features dancer Kei Ikeda. Miku Sato’s Not the Yellow Submarines is accompanied by a tiny model of a submarine floating in the air, bathed in yellowish light that creates an underwater feel.
For me, Michelle Belgiorno’s A Thousand Stitches of Hope and Sue Pedley’s Orange-Net-Work are the real guts of the show. Each of these involved the participation of hundreds of people, and gained a huge emotional impact from that.
Belgiorno’s work consists of 75 senninbari belts – belts that were traditionally good luck tokens given to soldiers before they went to war. The beautiful belts in the exhibition were made in a series of sewing workshops where Japanese and Australian women ‘of all ages’ sewed together ‘while discussing reconciliation and Australian–Japanese history.
The centrepiece of Pedley’s work is a huge orange net that was made for another artwork some years ago by volunteers in a small fishing village in the Japanese Inland Sea. Repurposed here, and hung around the four great pillars of the Fuel Tank, enclosing chunks of rock, it creates a shrine-like space that has one thinking of traditional Japanese life, zen gardens, and the underwater net that was lethal to two of the six submariners. A wall of ghostlike rubbings from clothing from the fishing village and a military museum completes this very powerful work.
Unfortunately, the remaining work, Gary Warner’s Orange-Net-Work-Soundings, a soundscape that accompanied Sue Pedley’s work, was inaudible when I was there, drowned out by the soundtrack of the videos.
It’s a terrific exhibition. Photos don’t do any part of it justice, but here’s what I could come up with.