If foundations are impermanent, then what does that leave us? If identity and history evaporate, then who and what are we?
For Boston-born artist Kimi Maeda, questions like these are more than internal. They’re embedded in her performance piece “BEND.”
“It’s been years and years with my interest in family history, and trying to work out poetic ways of telling historic events is something I started in grad school and continue to do so, and as an artist I revisit a lot of themes and ideas,” Maeda said.
The piece orbits history, both personal and large. It springs from her father’s childhood experience in Japanese-American Internment Camps during World War II and his later battle with dementia.
The artist blends together video components — archival pieces and her art historian father’s lectures — with narration and music. Add to it the sand drawings she undertakes as it plays and what results is transitory magic that can be found in part at kimimaeda.com.
Now based in Columbia, South Carolina, Maeda will perform the 50-minute “BEND” at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center (301 Conti St.) on Sunday, May 22, at 5 p.m. Entrance is $10. It’s the latest leg of a national tour that has folded old scenarios into contemporary ones.
When federal orders were issued in 1942, her father Robert’s family wasted no time driving from their El Centro, California, home to the Poston War Relocation Center just over the border in western Arizona. The desert site was so remote, authorities built no more than one perimeter fence.
“Their family of seven were pretty much the first ones there,” Maeda said. “They got there the first day it opened.”
Another early arrival was its most prominent voluntary internee. Legendary modernist sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi’s presence left an impression on Maeda’s 9-year-old father.
“He definitely remembered it and he wrote about how it was a formative experience for him. He remembered [Noguchi] working on sculptures in the camp. They were actually in the same barracks area,” Maeda said.
The artist recalled her childhood and Japanese-Americans who met at her house to plan a course for reparations. Their efforts resulted in a 1988 victory.
“It was definitely a presence and in retrospect I wish I had asked more questions but I’m not sure my dad was ready to talk a lot about what had happened in the camps,” Maeda said.
Her father became an Asian art historian at Brandeis, awash in academic life. Kimi followed suit, earning a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Williams College in Massachusetts, then crossing the Atlantic to earn a graduate degree from London’s Central Saint Martins and a later one from the University of South Carolina.
A pair of experiences shaped her artistic course. The first was the degree in scenography she earned in London.
“They like to describe it as time-based art. People in my class were choreographers, directors, architects, sculptors, scenic designers and interior designers. It was great experience to open your mind up to what theater could be,” Maeda said.
The other was her time spent in experimental theater back in the U.S. That included a stint with Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theatre.
“It was really important and shaped me, especially in terms of the power of creating your own story and having a balance between visuals and the power of the words that you’re using,” Maeda said.
Her father’s family history with dementia — his mother and three sisters also were victims — arose. His behavior altered.
“It was a gradual process but even five years ago we noticed. There were early indications but things really took a major downhill turn about two and a half years ago.” Maeda said.
She dove into the formative piece as a way to deal with her father’s condition. He knew her piece was about him but formed a delusion it was a Tony-winning Broadway musical.
“He also had this delusion there was a movie called ‘Bend’ about him. I had named my piece something else when I was doing grant writing for it but when he told me about his belief in the movie I decided it made more sense to call my piece ‘BEND,’” Maeda said.
She began staging the work in early 2014. Her father eventually died in January 2016.
“Right after he passed, the tour was an amazing experience because it felt like a memorial to him. It was great to be able to share his story with so many other people … especially considering the contemporary dialogue about immigration,” Maeda said.
The reaction always intrigues her. Some connect through the dementia, others through the Japanese-American angle.
“We did it in an Arizona border town where a lot of people were talking about immigration. We did it in Arkansas where one of the camps was, where George Takei was interned, and talked to white families who remembered their parents talking about the camps,” Maeda said.
Ultimately, it’s about the silica grains. Dropping through an hourglass, building temporary castles, it’s Maeda’s core medium and symbol.
“I really like the sand as appropriate for the story I was trying to tell, in terms of memory and not being able to hold on to any of the images and also referring to the desert where my dad was interned. Plus, it calls to mind Zen gardens,” Maeda said.