Gallery Glance | Katy McCormick: Rooted Among the Ashes: Hibakujumoku/A-bombed Trees

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

An image is never simply one thing. It is itself, memory, history and everything that we bring to it. For more than ten years, photographer Katy McCormick has been documenting the survivor trees, or hibakujumoku, that have regenerated after the 1945 atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These sacred trees stand on temple grounds, city squares and, most poignantly, on school properties.

“Working as an empathetic and historically implicated artist, my project aims to bring Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the present to compel critical reflection on our own histories and futures,” says McCormick, a Kansas City native who is now associate professor of photography and the interim chair of Image Arts at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University.

In her exhibit at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, McCormick has mounted the photos of these monumental trees on an unglazed scroll-like format, which allows the images to move with the ambient air in the museum’s moody lower-level galleries. The exhibition also includes grief-stricken accounts of survivors who searched among the destruction for their family members, and a video component with sounds of daily life, reminding us how ordinary life can change in a single, terrible moment.

Each photographed tree may be seen as a kind of poetic landscape in miniature, existing as a singular environment by the nature of its size, history and significance. Landscape imagery in the Western canon suggests beauty, commerce, spirituality, power, violence and more, all of which is coded within McCormick’s photographs.

The photographs are mostly unpeopled, calling out the trees’ singularity. Placards mark them, some need support, some are dead, and still others simply look like healthy trees. The wall labels identify the trees — Camphors, Prickly Ash, Eucalyptus — and their location, painfully so: “Weeping Willow, Children’s Museum, 450 meters from the hypocenter Hiroshima, 2018”; “Japanese Black Pine, Senda Elementary School, 1640 meters from the hypocenter, 2019”; and so on. Within these trees and photographs, sorrow and resilience coexist with remembrance and anxiety for the future.

The trees of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are living beings that survived utter devastation, and to encounter them may be to imagine embracing the very essence of those whose lives were obliterated in the bombings. Yet, unlike a granite tombstone or stone memorial, these impermanent monuments still take nutrients from the very burned earth upon which the departed fell.

The Shinto religion holds that spirits live in trees that reach 100 years. These trees may not be 100 years old, but they regrew from burned and charred stumps, growing new shoots from their roots. Surely they hold the spirit of those who fell at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Katy McCormick: Rooted Among the Ashes: Hibakujumoku/A-bombed Trees” continues at The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, 500 W. U.S. Highway 24, Independence, through Oct. 1. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit trumanlibrary.gov.

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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