Reflecting on Denise Uyehara’s Performances

Alyse Blachly

                Wednesday, February 13, I got the chance to experience some of the work by performance artist, Denise Uyehara at Pitzer College in Claremont. Like many others, I hadn’t really seen performance art before, so it was both a surprise and treat to get to experience it for the first time through such a talented artist like Denise. I appreciate her ability to take us through a range of emotions throughout her performances and videos in which we could relate to our own experiences of memory, body, and family, but also to her own and others’ experiences.

From what I interpreted, she thinks performance art has two purposes—1) to give meaning and recognition that an event/experience happened. It can be extremely therapeutic for the individual or community who participates in the art. Experiences of trauma, loss, place, family, and body are often difficult to talk about, and yet they significantly impact all aspects of life and identity, whether we like it or not. By creating some representation or response to it, it gives the artist and audience an agency of recognition. For example in the interactive piece where participants interacted with bones and shells it represented two very different losses that two specific groups of people went through. It played on the Okinawa tradition of honoring the dead, but also let individuals come together and recognize a common trauma by experiencing different emotions together. Next, 2) her vision of art and its value isn’t solely based in the intent of the artist so much as it is in the different perspectives and emotions the art itself can elicit in others. Her example of children viewing the negative space in her grandmother piece is exemplary of this. Denise expressed her own feelings and story of her grandmother’s suicide, but through the art itself others were able to see the story through different perspectives. The children’s visions of the grandmother’s love and family life were not explicitly stated, but it opened up a dialogue to talk about difficult issues of death, loss, and something as incomprehensible as suicide.

                The first performance piece took me quite by surprise. It instilled a fear and uncomfortable feeling that I was able to relate to the other pieces and to the people represented in them. As a masked police officer walked throughout the audience with a flashlight, a loud but distorted voice echoed throughout the auditorium. “Papers Please” or “License and Registration” were some of the phrases the officer kept repeating. The way it was set up, the officer appeared very threatening and intimidating. My first thought wasn’t of deportation or immigration issues, but of all the recent news stories involving cops unjustly harassing or shooting people. The recent Christopher Dorner case, for example was fresh in my mind— both Dorner’s own victims and the police officers who fired at two women and a man who they thought was the suspect, in addition to the riots in Anaheim last summer after police shot and killed two men. This got me thinking a lot about why it’s so scary when police officers are accused of being unjust. The uniform they wear is a representation of authority and power that lets people know they must respect them. Police officers aren’t the villain, but a representation of how power and authority can be favored and allow injustice.  The idea that there are certain people in society that are given power over others and the fact that they can abuse that power easily puts vulnerable people in a very helpless situation. The scene itself needed a police officer because of the specific issue of the Arizona laws being so unjust allowing police to pull over anyone who looks a certain way or fits a certain image that is “illegal immigrant.” But it also brought up so perfectly this larger issue of power being related to body and appearance. The police uniform= power and respect, while the victim’s appearance=target, unimportant, menace.  While the scene wasn’t about killer cops at all, the emotions and thoughts that I connected with could relate to the theme of discrimination in Arizona and discrimination during the Japanese internment camps. By shining the scene of the interview of an experience one woman had with fear of deportation on different individuals’ bodies, it was very effective in connecting the entire experience. It was as if, although the interview was very personal, the act of discrimination and injustice could happen to anyone.  

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