Performance Art and Collective Memory- Denise Uyehara

By Kaitlin Wright 


Denise Uyehara spoke at the opening of Claremont Colleges’ Activist/Artist-In-Residence program on February 13, 2013. Uyehara’s work deals with several topics relating to “borders of identity”.  She explores things such as race, gender, sexuality, social status, religion etc. When Uyehara spoke the other night at Pitzer college, she discussed her approach to some of her major works, showing clips and discussing her creative process. 

One piece that I found particularly intriguing was the performance titled “Big Head.” She showed excerpts from different sections including one titled “Hate Crime.” In this scene, a stop motion video shows a clay being moving as if it is cowering away from something or someone–it is in distress. The clay is manipulated and reformed several times over. While this video is going on, Uyehara moves in front of the projection screen, her shadow growing and shrinking in comparison to the clay being. Uyehara looked very much to me like she was dancing in the space. She contracted and expanded, often falling to the floor. I thought it was really interesting how well the two mediums (physical movement and claymation) complimented each other so well. Both figures displayed similar body attitudes which reflected abuse and turmoil. 

Uyehara describes this piece as one that “examines the parallels between US incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the treatment of those perceived as “the enemy” in a post 9/11 environment”. A prevailing theme of this piece is the presence of memory and how art can relay information and emotion about a particular time and event. Even though Uyehara was not interned in the camps during WWII, she is still able to tell the story and make a statement. Hugh Hart from the LA times said in an article from 2003 that “it dawned on Uyehara that she could become a conduit not just for her family history, but also for the new group of citizens who were suddenly being scrutinized with suspicion.” In this way, Uyehara’s role as activist takes a forefront position in her art. She is able to take the audience through a history, explaining the effects of the event and informing or shaping future ideas with the memory of the past. 

Performance art, like the kind Uyehara does, seems like it would fall into the theater category of art, but it is important to note that these performances are not theater. The stories that Uyehara act out are from her own life. The performances unfold the reality of her situations. This element makes the performance so personal and engaging that the message comes off very strong. I had not seen much performance art before listening to Uyehara speak, and I am impressed by the vulnerability that the performer has to give in to in order tell his her story. It is this raw emotion is what connects the viewer to the performer. 


Hugh Hart’s 2003 LA Time Article:

Denise Uyhara’s “Hate Crime” scene from Big Head:

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