On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines entered the waters of Sydney Harbour and launched a surprise attack that resulted in the deaths of twenty-one Australian naval personnel and six Japanese submariners; leaving an indelible mark on Australia’s history.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of this event, Mosman Art Gallery has commissioned six Australian and Japanese artists – Michelle Belgiorno, Ken Done, Jennie Feyen, Sue Pedley, Miku Sato and Gary Warner – to interpret and respond to the maritime tragedy in a contemporary context. The result, ‘Tokkōtai: Contemporary Australian and Japanese Artists on war and the Battle of Sydney Harbour’, a compelling and culturally sensitive series of site-specific artworks and immersive experiences that deal with universal themes of war and conflict, destruction, honour and self-sacrifice.
Michelle Belgiorno’s A Thousand Stitches of Hope (2017) is a collaborative arts project that involved hundreds of Australian and Japanese women stitching relevant motifs onto 75 contemporary, commemorative senninbari belts. A senninbari (千人針) translates to ‘one-thousand stitch’. Generally made of whote cotton, these belts were decorated with 1000 stitches sewn by women as an act of devotion and and a symbol of protection in battle.
“One such senninbari belt, belonging to Lieutenant Keiu Matsuo, was found amongst the remains of the midget submarine which was destroyed in 1942 in Taylors Bay Mosman, near my art studio. After the war, the Australian Government returned Matsuo’s senninbari belt to his mother as an act of reconciliation. As a poet, she responded with several Tanka poems expressing her sadness at the sacrifice and loss of lives on both sides.
In researching my work for the exhibition I was touched by this story; how a simple cotton relic could help build bridges between individuals and nations.” – Michelle Belgiorno
In a series of sewing workshops held in both countries, women of all ages added their stitches and war stories whilst discussing reconciliation and Australian-Japanese history.
Jennie Feyen, working with Japanese‐Australian contemporary dancer Kei Ikeda, has produced a film that uses movement and music to explore the emotions and distress felt by the submariners during the attack. It’s title, Sakura and Steel (2017), is inspired by direct quotes and actions that took place during the event.
“It explores the dichotomy of the event; the darkness endured by the submariners and the weight of their attack, and the beauty of Australia honouring the submariners’ courage and sacrifice by giving them a military funeral… Although the Sydney Harbour attack had tragic consequences for both Japan and Australia, Sakura and Steel ultimately celebrates the fact that two former enemies have become trusted allies, and continue to strengthen their relationship.” – Jennie Feyen
Attack: Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour is a series of fifteen large-scale paintings by Ken Done that follow the story of the Japanese submariners, from their plan to attack, to the Battle of Sydney Harbour, and finally to their funeral service in Australia with full military honours; “I didn’t want to glorify war however the courage and valour of these young Japanese submariners is to be respected and admired”, says the artist.
Sue Pedley’s site-specific installation, Orange–Net–Work (2017), brings together an oversized orange net made in 2010 in collaboration with a fishing community on the island of Teshima in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea; a sound work created with artist Gary Warner; hundreds of stones; and a series of frottages that overlay naval and civilian clothing onto sounding maps of the Seto Inland Sea and Sydney Harbour.
“By relocating the orange net and the naval and civilian clothes, placing them within a former military oil tank and enlivening them with sound, the work touches on deep intergenerational hurts and divisions created by war. It also aims to suggest an enduring capacity to recover and heal from these traumas.” – Sue Pedley
Miku Sato depicted boys in her video work to reflect the young submariners in the original submarine attack. The Australian boy is at the beach where the submarine attack occurred in Sydney, and the Japanese boy is at the beach where the ashes of the tokkotai had been returned home, in Yokohama (which is also the artist’s hometown in Japan). The film’s title Not the Yellow Submarines (2015-17), also refers to a parallel event in 1966, in which a group of Australian university students painted the original submarine bright yellow in response to The Beatle’s song ‘Yellow Submarine’ when the submarine was displayed outside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The first bi-national exhibition dedicated to exploring the WWII event, ‘Tokkōtai’ offers an opportunity to engage communities and discussions on Japanese Australian joint histories and examine the impact of war on contemporary societies.
Featuring large-scale installations, soundscapes, film and digital works, paintings and printmaking, ‘Tokkōtai’ will be on display until 12 June 2017 in the T5 Camouflage Fuel Tank, an industrial scale former naval oil tank, built and camouflaged against Japanese attack during WWII.
Melanie Eastburn, Senior Curator Asian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales will conduct the official opening address on Saturday 20 May, 11am at T5 Camouflage Fuel Tank, Headland Park, Georges Heights, Mosman; to be followed by artist talks at 12.30pm.
Additional artists talks will be held on site on Saturday 27 May, Saturday 3 June and Saturday 10 June, at 2pm.